Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom in Africa

Paul Terna Gbahabo is a research consultant and a PhD graduate in Development Finance at Stellenbosch Business School.

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom in Africa
Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom in Africa

In 1956 Mao Zedong, in a speech encouraging Chinese society to embrace diverse points of view, said, ‘‘Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.”

This analogy is particularly useful for African policymakers in the education sector, who could benefit from reconsidering their overreliance on a single education model to the detriment of the other despite their obvious complementarity.

Economies, much like gardens, exhibit a rich tapestry of diverse patterns. These patterns or structures denote the dynamic sectors of the economy, each gaining prominence at various stages and requiring different resources and skill sets.

The global economy is in constant flux, with national economies moving up the ranks from low to middle and high income and, in some instances, spiraling down the ranks, as was the case of Argentina, which transitioned from one of the wealthiest countries in the world in the 1920s to facing an intractable debt crisis by the 1980s.

These analogies highlight the dynamic and interconnected nature of economic patterns with the different skill sets on offer, much like the delicate balance in our floral ecosystem. A strategic reform of Africa’s education system, emphasising the complementarity of apprenticeships and technical and vocational education with the general education system, can ensure its adaptability to the economy’s changing needs and perhaps stem the tide of economic stagnation.

The vocational education system holds potential not only for Africa’s current economic development but also for boosting the low industrial base, improving the school-to-work transition, and reducing the high unemployment rate on the continent. Moreover, it could be a significant step towards addressing the massive brain drain that has long plagued the continent and creating an inclusive labour market that caters to the marginalised youth and female populations. In short, the vocational education curriculum offers an educational system that is truly fit for purpose.

This dynamic economy is attributed to a phenomenon known as structural economic change—the reallocation of economic activities across three broad sectors: agriculture, manufacturing, and services, which often accompany economic development.

The varying skill demands at the various stages of the economy are a fundamental attribute of structural change. For instance, at the lower and middle-income levels of the economy, where the mainstay of the economy is characterised by dominant capital-intensive sectors comprising agriculture, mining, and low and medium manufacturing industries, the industrial skill needs at this stage of the economy naturally lends itself to the sort of practical craft and artisanal skills that is usually on offer in apprenticeships, vocational education and specialised training programmes, and other industry engagement initiatives.

This work-based learning system provides practical and technical skill acquisition for specific technical trades, crafts, and industries. However, there is a persistent shortage of technical and vocational skills at the lower stages of economic development, where many African economies belong. This shortage is clearly due to the mismatch in the needed technical skills. Most developing economies do not sufficiently emphasise the technical and vocational education and training model of education, almost to the detriment of their economic development.

The beauty of vocational education lies in its adaptability to different settings. It can be integrated within the school system as vocational education and specialised training colleges, as technical and vocational programmes in a general education school system, or an out-of-school system such as vocational skill acquisition training centres.

This flexibility caters to a wide segment of the population, including the unemployed job seekers, the already employed population seeking upskilling opportunities in technical areas, and general secondary school graduates seeking to gain complementary practical skills. This adaptability is a key strength of vocational education, making it a viable solution for Africa’s diverse educational needs.

Furthermore, vocational education often requires fewer years of training than general education, averaging one to three years of training, which is aptly suited to the skill intensity requirements of a large swathe of the economy, from agriculture to manufacturing, mining and construction.

These sectors, although capital-intensive, are low-skilled, requiring no more than upper secondary level education to perform optimally. Here, the curriculum emphasis on hands-on experiential work-based learning, mentorship and apprenticeship learning, and industry-specific skill acquisition makes the practicality of vocational education come in handy and trump those of the general secondary education curriculum, which emphasises learning theoretical concepts across a broad range of subjects but do not prepare students for employment in specific occupational areas.

Conversely, at later stages of economic development, predominated by skill-intensive, high-value-added activities in the global value chain such as R&D, product design, and modern services comprising information technology, financial services, and other professional services, national economies may, in principle, emphasise the general education curriculum, which offers critical thinking skills and many more years of training averaging four to six years.

However, it is the case that countries with the highest percentage of youth participation in vocational education are often the most advanced economies. For instance, recent data obtained from the UNESCO’s International Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training indicate average youth participation in technical and vocational education at 18 per cent across the OECD member countries- where Germany at 20% youth participation is often viewed as the poster child of the successes of integrating vocational education curriculum alongside the general education system.

Compare this feat against the meagre average performance of 3% for African economies. The top three performing African economies are Seychelles, Egypt, and South Africa, at 13.3, 11.4, and 5.3%, respectively.

It might be useful to elaborate on how technical and vocational education and training complement the general education system towards sustainable economic development. There is now sufficient empirical evidence suggesting that vocational education and training provide better school-to-work transitions. Specifically, it has been suggested that vocational education offers immediate employability because of its high demand and higher part-time employment prospects than graduates from the general education system, leading to better youth and female employment opportunities for trainees, especially for low- to mid-level jobs. However, some of the drawbacks of this system include limited career progression, career inflexibility and limited transferable skills. Vocational education and apprenticeship graduates seldom rise to management roles and may not easily adapt to other non-technical job settings compared to general education graduates with advanced degrees.

Also, there is empirical evidence indicating that the industrial output potential of vocational education and apprenticeship, especially in practical fields such as mechanised agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and construction, complements the general education system’s industrial design and R&D capabilities in product and service design, especially in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). For instance, statistical analysis using data obtained from the World Bank indicates that secondary vocational education outperforms general education in increasing output in the high employment elastic manufacturing industries, including chemicals, electronics, machinery and transport equipment.

Consider now some practical policy recommendations for improving youth participation in technical and vocational education in Africa.

First, policymakers are called upon to enact national policies and design incentives to strategically improve student enrolment in apprenticeships, technical and vocational education, and specialised training colleges. Such a policy would help prepare the emerging workforce better to serve the African economies in the industrial sector and reduce the high-level unemployment in many African economies.

Technical and vocational education quality can be strengthened by improving learning facilities in vocational training colleges and introducing new modules in the curriculum targeting highly sought-after industry-specific skills in vocational or occupational programmes for which general education skills are not appropriate. Furthermore, vocational education teacher training programmes should be improved to equip instructors with contemporary skills needed in vocational or occupational subjects.

Finally, policymakers must consider expanding vocational skill acquisition beyond formal schooling. Implementing a national policy for the proliferation of community skill acquisition centres across individual countries would be a tremendous boost.

There are different models of this initiative across the world where often government subsidise vocational training for certain targeted population segments, including providing training for unemployed youth and females, providing practical training and vocational skills to general education graduates,  preparing fresh graduates with relevant practical skills to improve their labour market prospects, providing upskilling and reskilling training opportunities to the already employed population interested in enhancing their existing skill sets or acquiring new skill sets to adapt to a changing job demands.