China-Africa Vocational Education to Create Employment in East Africa

Published on 30th July 2019

East Africa’s current population stands at over 150 million. Of this, about 45% are young people and 28% of them are aged between 15 and 24 years. An approximate 80% of these young people are unemployed. Each of the East African countries is striving to achieve certain development milestones as encapsulated in respective national development policies and a significant part of that lies in the manufacturing industry, in which an appropriately skilled labour force is crucial for success.

Traditionally, education in these countries has been geared towards academic advancement from primary level to university level education and thereafter formal employment. Unfortunately, formal employment opportunities are limited and are not adequate to absorb the large population of youth that graduate every year from local tertiary institutions. The alternative therefore, has been to enrol in institutions that offer Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) in order to promote self-reliance, self-employment and indirectly increase employment opportunities.

TVET in East Africa has traditionally been government-led and has suffered challenges such as inappropriate skills training compared to labour market realities; theory-based curriculum instead of combining theory and practice; delivery by poorly-skilled teachers in underequipped institutions using obsolete technology; no minimum quality standards; and absence of guaranteed placement for graduates. As noted at the 2nd Africa China World Bank Education Partnership Forum TVET Workshop in September 2018, while developing countries are striving to make technology-based development advances, they have been largely constrained by a shortage of an adequately skilled workforce.

At the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing, an Action Plan was adopted that included   China committing to provide basic vocational training for the African workforce in order to help Africa translate its population dividends into development strength.  Further, China committed to set up Ten Luban Workshops in Africa to provide vocational training for young Africans. This is in recognition of the nexus between successful technical and vocational education and training and enhanced development.

Indeed, in July 2019, Kampala hosted the China-Africa Vocational Education Academic Exchange Seminar 2019 which was attended principally by China, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and hosts, Uganda. This was a platform for experts to discuss the opportunity in vocational training and education for Africa’s development. The event that was dubbed, China-Africa Vocational Education Academic Exchange Seminar 2019, was opened by Uganda's minister of state for higher education, John Chrysestom Muyingo.

The seminar provided an opportunity to showcase China’s strength in vocational education, promote China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and implement the China-Africa cooperation strategies flowing from FOCAC Beijing 2018. Further, the Kampala Initiative was adopted advocating the establishment of the China-Africa Vocational Education Community. As urged by Yang Xiaochun, the Deputy Director-General of China Center for People to People Exchanges, in the Ministry of Education, there’s utility in setting up a mechanism to explore the model of vocational education cooperation between China and East African countries.

China’s TVET model is exemplary for East Africa’s TVET approach, based on its continued translation of a large unemployed population into a knowledge based, skill oriented and innovative workforce. There are successes in the China TVET model that could and should be replicated in the East African countries to facilitate increased industrialization. For example, while China’s TVET program is government led, it is however done in collaboration with the private sector to ensure responsiveness to the market’s evolving competence needs and qualification requirements from its workforce. There is a continuous review of programs offered in order to cull off those that are less relevant and with lower employment rates. At the same time, industries and government have collaborated to design training programs that match the local industries’ skills needs.

Second, industries collaborate with TVET institutions to design curricula and set standards that facilitate the production of quality TVET graduates, relevant to the industries’ needs. Rather than demarcate academic education from vocational training, there is an integration between them so that graduands have both foundational academic skills and technical and practical skills.

Third, the Chinese government provides incentives to local companies to cooperate with TVET institutions in the design, delivery and graduation of competent TVET trainees. The companies too are invested in producing the relevant type of labor force they require to enhance their production capacity. This guarantees employment post completion of TVET training.

Fourth, TVET teachers are receiving government incentives to acquire both academic and technical skills, and a time-bound practical experience at a local company serves to demonstrate and provide practical skills. Company experts also serve as part time teaching staff on practical courses in TVET programs. The institutions’ ICT-enabled, student-centred pedagogy also fosters student ownership. Fifth, China has heavily and intentionally invested in its TVET institutions which have translated in highly competitive and quality TVET programs.

On the back of the enhanced cooperation agreements between China and each of the East African countries as part of BRI, there’s an opportunity to import the above China TVET model and its successes in revamping the TVET programs in East Africa. This policy shift from an academic-centred workforce to a technically and practically skilled workforce will catalyze the ongoing industrialization efforts. As agreed at the Kampala meet, in order to grow vocational education and consequently youth talent in China and Africa, cooperation between colleges and universities including via international exchanges is imperative. In much the same manner as Ghana's Narh-Bita College’s recent introduction of Chinese language as a credit course that should enhance employability in China projects within and outside Ghana. Truly, for East Africa’s youth, there’s an opportunity to “build a community of shared future for mankind and build a bright future for China-Africa vocational education.”

By George Nyongesa,

Senior Associate at Africa Policy Institute, Nairobi, Kenya.

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