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21 Jan 2021
Simon McGrath

It's Time for VET Africa 4.0

Abstract: This NORRAG Highlights is written by guest-author Simon McGrath, UNESCO Chair in International Education and Development at the University of Nottingham. Vocational Education & Training (VET) in Africa has been heavily criticized for its ineffective job production and lack of sustainability. The author proposes “VET 4.0”: a new system which considers multiple sectors, the climate crisis, and youth agency.

Vocational education and training in Africa since independence has gone through three phases, linked to post-independence industrialisation, basic needs and neoliberalism. It currently sits with no real, credible vision of where it is going. From the right, it is criticised as it does not produce jobs for the growing African youth population, whilst the left reminds us that VET cannot produce jobs but merely supports their creation if other factors are in place. Even where there has been economic growth in Africa this millennium, decent jobs have no followed in its wake. More seriously, there is an emerging environmental critique that argues that VET is inevitably implicated in carbon capitalism and is not set up to deliver skills for sustainable futures.

Is there any hope for VET in Africa then? With an increasing number of colleagues, I believe that there is, that we need a VET Africa 4.0. This requires a radically different theoretical approach and political imaginary that is grounded in both the lived experiences and material conditions of those learning vocationally, and genuine labour market and livelihood possibilities that reflect the desperate need for just transitions. It requires also a far greater sense of the agency of individuals and the possibilities of collective aspirations and actions, whilst remaining aware of structural injustices and power imbalances. It sees both vocational learning and work in broad terms, avoiding narrowing the relationship to a consideration of public VET for formal sector employment.

We suggest some ways forward. One of these is the well-established political economy of skills tradition, already well-represented in the literature on African VET. However, this has been too focused on the nation state as the unit of analysis. This leads to the need to build a multiscalar approach that acknowledges the importance of sectoral and place-based dynamics, which are often intersecting. To Africanise this account, it is also necessary to bring in more of the informal sector, and community and rural dimensions.

The environmental crisis means we need to become more focused on skills development for just transitions. Where the political economy tradition generally provides a broad-brushed critique of failures in both VET and industrialisation, a just transitions perspective is needed that can focus on what types of skills, work and industries need to develop if the climate crisis is to be overcome.

Equally, we draw on emergent African approaches to research in VET and community development; on the critical capabilities approach that focuses on youth and their aspirations; on relational skills; and the ways in which history has shaped negative attitudes towards vocational education. Such accounts stress the possibilities of a VET that has more of a sense of agency, solidarity and non-economic rationales. Across these accounts too there is an emphasis on what knowledges are afforded economic and social status, and which pedagogies best support effective, inclusive vocational learning.

What emerges from this set of accounts is an agreement that we need more critical understandings of how VET is supporting individuals, communities, firms and countries to find new ways of becoming more productive at the same time as delivering on decent work, sustainable livelihoods and just transitions. This requires better conceptualisations of economies and labour markets at different scales and in different settings, including rural and informal urban, as well as industrial. Together, these accounts point to the need to look more into how individuals and communities form aspirations about how productive work supports better lives and what place vocational learning can play in this. However, they also point towards the necessity of understanding how attitudes of learners, parents and employers are shaped both by economic signals and by their perceptions about the value of different forms of learning, knowledge and qualifications. Some of these accounts raise important questions about how both VET’s current status and potential to play a transformative role are dependent on issues of knowledge and learning and how these are structured by the effects of power.

About the author: Simon McGrath is the UNESCO Chair in International Education and Development at the University of Nottingham. He has worked on vocational education and training issues for nearly 30 years in research, evaluation and policy roles in Europe and Africa.

Acknowledgements: This blog derives from research funded by ESRC/GCRF – award number ES/S004246/1.

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