Want a sure job? Go to a polytechnic

26 Apr

You might call it the forgotten sector of education in Rwanda.  And you would be right. But not for much longer. It is now likely to be the cornerstone of Rwanda’s bid to build a middle income economy.

The crucial role technical and vocational education and training (TVET) plays in economic development has now been recognised. TVET is now getting more attention than it has ever had.

It started with the setting up of the Workforce Development Agency (WDA), a body charged with the initiating and implementing a skills development strategy. This was followed by the setting up of training centres with support from such countries as South Korea which has had a successful skills development programme.

The latest stage in Rwanda’s rediscovery of the need to develop technical skills was the inauguration of the Kicukiro Technical Training Centre (KTTC) by President Paul Kagame on April 21, 2011. KTTC is one of three training centres housed at the Integrated Polytechnic Regional Centre in Kicukiro, one of several regional polytechnics in the country. The others are Kicukiro College of Technology and an Information Technology Centre.

The choice of this type of polytechnic education as the core of skills development in Rwanda is no accident.  It follows the realisation that there are inadequacies in the present educational set up. For instance, we have been educating engineers, both locally and abroad, but these are ineffective without supporting technicians at lower and middle levels. We have the generals but no foot soldiers to carry out the campaign.

And the campaign, the government has said, is to build Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) as a development and poverty reduction strategy in the medium term. As the president said last Thursday, middle-level technicians trained in the polytechnics will be the ones to develop and service the SMEs.

Rwanda has other ambitious modernisation campaigns that require skilled people to carry them out. There is the improvement of agriculture through such measures as irrigation, professionalization, and crop intensification. This obviously will annoy people like Ms An Ansomms who (for reasons other than efficiency) seek to glorify traditional peasant agriculture and condemn attempts at improving productivity and the general well-being of rural folk. Better Ansomms’ ire than a country mired in poverty.

Then, of course, there is the distribution of electricity across the country, provision of clean water to all citizens and development of other infrastructure – all of which depend on technical skills.

The choice of partners in polytechnic education is also telling. The training equipment in the centre the president inaugurated last week was provided by the Republic of Korea. Indeed Korea is deeply involved in TVET in Rwanda. It is no secret that Rwanda has been looking to the Asian model for its own development.

Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and even China and India have followed a more or less similar development path that has seen their countries transformed in the relatively short period of a few decades.

It is not the intention of this article to examine the various strategies the Asian countries adopted that led to their phenomenal transformation. But one of them was education.

They all developed their education system and trained a technological and industrial cadre in three stages.

They invested heavily in technical and vocational education to produce a skilled workforce for their nascent industries. They did not train only operators and maintenance people but also technicians able to copy and fabricate various types of machinery.

At the same time, they built and developed their institutes of science and technology to world class status so that their graduates were able to design machinery needed in their factories to produce goods that could compete on the export market.

Thirdly, as they were doing these, they sent their brightest students to the best universities in Europe and America to acquire scientific and technological knowledge and skills that they used on their return to be innovative in various fields of technology.

Results of this approach to education and skills acquisition in Asia can be seen around the world. More significantly, they are evident in the GDP and per capita income of the different countries in the region.

It should come as no surprise therefore that Rwanda has chosen to learn from their experience and profit from their expertise in this area.

In the meantime, however, there is a serious obstacle – the attitude by many Rwandans to technical and vocational education. Many consider it inferior to traditional academic education. Employment agencies, government include, have contributed to this perception by their insistence on university degrees in their hiring practices.

Because of the premium placed on academic qualifications, some students in our universities value the certificate they will get more than the knowledge they will gain. Given the choice of getting a degree certificate without attending class, many would gladly opt for that.

There is one attraction going for TVET, though – jobs. At a time when university graduates in some disciplines are not sure whether they will get a job, TVET graduates are assured of one even before they leave school. They can even go one better – become their own employers and even hire others.

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