Soon after ringing in the new year, Kenya’s education ministry ordered vocational training institutions in Kenya to cease providing business education via a circular. The Daily Nation reported that Ezekiel Machogu, the Education Cabinet Secretary, was concerned that the government “has put in a lot of emphasis and resources towards the support of Stem courses in all Tvet institutions” and it was of “paramount importance” that the country “derives value for money” from its investment in TVET courses. STEM, of course, stands for Science Technology Engineering and Math.

TVET, or Technical Vocational Education and Training institutions, provide training more focused on market-ready job skills and the trades. Universities, in contrast, provide exposure to a range of disciplines, and sharpen critical thinking, research and writing abilities. As noted here, university education prepares a learner for a working life which may involve multiple careers, as opposed to vocational education which may get you a job faster after graduation, but trains you in one thing only.

It is truly odd that the government would expect “value for money” from students it proposes to teach nothing about how to make money. It would appear that the grand plan for TVET is to produce widget makers who punch in, give their eight hours and punch out with nary a thought for how profitable their enterprise is. Money, according to this train of thought is the domain of superior beings with degrees with TVET graduates only there to take orders with no thought of where their labour could ultimately lead them.

This stance disempowers the low-income Kenyans the government claims to target with its bottom-up plan because it eliminates an affordable source of business training. One way to rationalise business courses at TVET level could be  to create TVET institutions specialising in business, but that idea appears to have received short shrift.

The ministry expects, via the same circular, that enrollment in STEM courses should not decline. So TVET institutions are somehow, magically, supposed to ensure enrollment does not drop by convincing business students that they would really rather study science and math. This dismissive approach devalues the views of TVET students who obviously know which skills and talents they wish to develop.

This move has to be seen in the swerve towards the Competency Based Curriculum, which explicitly aims to direct learners towards separate career pathways (the classification is a discussion for another day), yet it seems not to recognise that certain kinds of knowledge are useful regardless of which career field you may enter; artists and musicians also sign legal contracts, for instance.

The country is in a perilous phase where knowledge is only valued if it can immediately be commercialised. So we devalue botany, zoology and philosophy, and refuse to fund language and literature in public universities. We downplay knowledge for its own sake and knowledge about ourselves. Inevitably foreigners rush in to capitalise, and we miss out on the massive treasure trove that is the arts. 

The involvement of a European country’s embassy also helps to put this in broader context. That continent is currently suffering a critical shortage of labour and Kenya has been a workable solution. Recently, 13 Kenyan nurses started work at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust.

In March 2020, just about the time when the Covid-19 pandemic took the world by storm, Germany passed a new Skilled Immigration Act. This law not only allows people with vocational qualifications to work using those occupations, but also allows people with recognised qualifications and a job offer to work across all professions for which they are qualified, not just those facing a shortage. It also –  get this – allows you to travel to Germany without a job and live there for six months while searching for work. However, you are responsible for supporting yourself as you look for work, and must have a prescribed level of German language ability.

Germany, which is supporting Kenya in its development of TVET training, has major labour shortages and has designated certain “bottleneck” jobs where the shortages are particularly severe. It’s worth noting that business is widely taught in German vocational institutions, in addition to STEM. Kenya, therefore, has no real reason not to do likewise. If indeed the intention is to prepare Kenyans to work abroad, surely any training should aim to make them as adaptable and dynamic as possible, and should they graduates wish to, smooth their path to entrepreneurship upon their return to Kenya. 

Kenyan TVET colleges have historically trained in Human Resource Management, Supply Chain Management, Sales and Marketing among other courses. The government did not say where people who used to get these skills at TVETs will find them, and while we can speculate they will head to private colleges, the ministry should be more forthcoming. With universities themselves increasingly focused on STEM to the detriment of the arts and the humanities, this move makes TVET students less versatile, less adaptable and ultimately less functional in both economy and society.

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