When Finance and Economic Planning Minister, John Rwangombwa, presented the landmark Rwf1.1 trillion budget to the Bicameral Parliament, last Wednesday, one MP suggested that each of the country’s 416 sectors be given a technical/vocational school to cater for the graduates of the Nine-Year Basic Education programme, who don’t succeed in advancing to advance to high school. The honourable member’s advice was excellent. Indeed, if I were the government I would work towards that.
However, beneath her counsel was a costly negative connotation about technical and vocational education, an area the government has lately been working hard to transform, with the introduction of the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) policy.
The MP’s insinuation that such schools would bail out students who fail to further their classic education only strengthens the long standing stereotype which associates TVET schools with either the most disadvantaged children or ‘academic failures’.
Her comments reminded me of another MP who, in 2009, shared his ‘domestic frustration’, during a private conversation with a friend, about his son’s decision to pursue a career in hospitality, as a professional chef. For his case, there was more to the disapproval of his son’s choice than just the belief that working as a chef diminished one’s social status. For him, hospitality is essentially a women profession, which is far inferior to such occupations as law, medicine, engineering and politics.
The two legislators are simply representative of the majority of us. Indeed, we were born and raised in a society that attached little value to vocational and technical education.
We have even branded such training programmes with degrading descriptions. We call them Imyuga Iciriritse (modest professions). It’s a shame that there are leaders who still use the same language in reference to TVET programmes. Indeed, such schools, largely due to the sorry state they operated in, have churned out half-baked youths over the years.
And, partially thanks to an environment that hardly encouraged innovation and entrepreneurship, a handful of the graduates of these hands-on courses, went on to succeed in the world of work. The majority of them struggled throughout their lives to make ends meet. They depended on uncertain part-time jobs in a largely informal private sector.
Yet three years after the Government took an audacious step to transform the TVET sector, many public officials are yet to change their attitude. They have failed to guide the populace in shaking off the widespread negative perception of TVET. When a senior official suggests that such schools be increased to particularly serve the disadvantaged or academically weak children, they are virtually perpetuating a retrogressive belief, even though the policy and practice may suggest otherwise. It is both politically wrong and technically counter-productive no matter how much you invest in such a programme.
Most importantly, the experience of both the emerging economies and developed nations has proved that TVET is more than just the ‘modest professions’ we have associated it with. One example that baffles me is Singapore whose GDP per capita in the 1950s was just under US$500 only to astonishingly soar to a staggering $37,000 half a century later, thanks to an ambitious TVET policy.
Such are the economies whose heart-warming story has inspired our own development agenda. It is an economic revolution hinged on human capital than anything else. And for that to happen we must get it right on TVET. Yet for TVET to succeed, we must be prepared to go out of our way and embrace a whole new mindset. We must break away the language that undermines the very vehicle we seek to travel in to realise our dream as a nation.
And leaders must show the way. Because, after all, we assume they know better. Instead of regretting their children’s decision to join TVET, they should instead encourage them to learn the very skills such schools offer.
In any case, TVET skills are increasingly more sought after, than the academic degrees bestowed by the largely irrelevant classic education system, in this increasingly competitive corporate world. Little wonder hat about 67 percent of local employers are satisfied with the quality of our TVET graduates, according to a recent survey.
Technically, the national TVET policy is open ended and comprehensive enough. Contrary to the previous dead-end system, the new structure offers a window of opportunity to everyone, from a villager who has never been to school to an urban graduate, to learn a hands-on practical skill or two from a vocational, technical or polytechnic institution – all of which are continously upgraded and streamlined to meet the demands of the labour market.
If this policy is to deliver its intended objectives, leaders must stop selling it as a matter of formality and a last option for children in desperate situations. They must genuinely take steps to rectify the past wrongs. They need to make it clear that TVET is a profitable education system, is for all. For brilliant students, slow learners and the uneducated.
Above all, our leaders must learn to walk the talk as the torchbearers of the nation. They will have done justice to the government’s impressive plans to increase the number of TVET centres of excellence, also known as Integrated Polytechnic Regional Centres (IPRCs), from three to five nationwide, during the 2011/12 fiscal year.