Friday March 7 2014

Refocus our technical and vocational training

By Matsiko Kahunga

Reading through the centenary history of Kings College Budo reveals that Ugandan parents were against their children taking practical subjects right from the early days of the school, including agriculture, whose practical field was the school farm at Namutamba. The feeling was and still is that agriculture is a peasant’s work, so someone educated is above it.

Another instructive experience is that of a professor emeritus, one of my mentors. He describes himself as a natural farmer, so he has loved farming since his childhood. And farming here means physical gardening. As a young university lecturer, gardening was his major activity during vacations in his home village. Working from dawn to dusk, with breakfast and lunch breaks, he was soon confronted by his neighbours, accusing him of being a very bad, jealous man! His crime? He was demotivating their children. How can someone who teaches all the wise people in Makerere spend the whole day digging, worse than a manual labourer? In their reasoning, their children would see no reason to emulate him and seek to study further, since even with his degrees, he could labour morethan the village people!

For the ‘good’ of the community, the don stopped it all, and therein lies the challenge. We turn around and point fingers at a ‘colonial’ education system but taking the don’s example into consideration, who is guilty? Is it the colonialists? Compare this: thanks to the Church’s ‘colonial’ initiative, in Rwanda, ordinary citizens live in tiled houses in the villages. The Catholic Church, through her technical schools and related projects, taught ordinary people the simple technology of Roman tiles - moulding, baking and roofing. Very simple technology, but with great impact.

This is where Uganda’s Business, Technical, Vocational Education and Training (BTVET) comes in. From the BTVET Act to the gurus at Directorate of Industrial Training (going by their statements on radio), our understanding of BTVET is not different from the Budo parents’ and the don’s dilemma above.
We must, therefore, return to the basics. What exactly is ‘vocational’ education? What is the etymological meaning of the word? From the Latin verb vocare which means to call, a vocation is a calling, a divine ordination, embodying an advanced, high sense of duty and obligation, whose fulfillment is above ordinary material motivation. And this cuts across all our lives. Vocation is, therefore, not synonymous with skill, talent, trade, job, occupation, profession, career, or hobby, though it can be fulfilled through any or a combination of these. What meaning did the framers of BTVET assign ‘vocation’ here in the BTVET Act?

My view is that BTVET can only make sense if implemented as an integral component of the entire education system. A definite stage in the educational ladder, in form of practical engagement after elementary school, along the lines of German’s Abitur. This cycle will be followed by two years of practical apprenticeship, personal development, career and talent identification, besides ethics, sports and other leisure activities. This is the BTVET stage.

After this level, students are allocated to institutions of their talent or according to the manpower needs situation. This must apply to all. The current mentality of planning for some anonymous ‘wretched soul out there’ explains the failure of our policies. UPE would be a success if the planners had their own children in the system. BTVET may fall victim to the same, unless refocused.

The key determinant is the economy and our development philosophy. A few ordinary examples:
Visit any modern-day ‘skyscraper’ in Kampala. Besides concrete and water, what else is Ugandan about the materials in that building? How much can be import-substituted? Home-builders now only employ Ugandan technicians to get measurements for windows, doors and related fittings, rushing to import all from China. Polytechnic does not mean ‘carpentry’ or ‘mechanics’. China has entire universities specialising in such fields as textiles…the world is advancing fast. With every local investor going into tree growing, we will be content with exporting raw logs and importing furniture at 300 times the cost?
And for such public funds as NSSF, is it ‘intelligent’ towers that we need, or planned, affordable decent estates for Ugandans, the owners of the trillions of Shillings? A visit to Kigali’s Batsinda Estate may have a lesson or two for our planners.

Making burgers is not food science and technology, as Makerere University was doing during the recent trade show. What magic did Nestlé apply to dominate the world focusing on ‘ordinary’ food and nutrition?
This type of data is what we expect from the Ministry of Economic Monitoring. BTVET will only make sense if we focus on our own needs, and how appropriately to meet them, not ‘market trends’. The state must spearhead this planned, focused investment, both in legislation and implementation. Indian Technicos make sense because they are oriented towards a national development philosophy and strategy.