Dr Daniel Yakubu Kutchin, a Germany-based computer specialist, argues that the time has come for Nigeria to prioritise vocational education in the face of acute skills shortage in manufacturing and the trades at a time of high unemployment among young people.
By Dr Daniel Yakubu Kutchin
The Nigerian Education system still follows somewhat loosely the Commonwealth Education system. It is yearning for reform. The philosophy which post-independent Nigeria inherited was that students should follow separate educational tracks according to ability.
The ability tracking was purposed such that the university-bound would take traditional academic courses and received no vocational training. Those students not headed for university would take basic academic courses along with vocational training.
Ability tracking did not sit well with educators or parents, who believed students were assigned to tracks not by aptitude but by socio-economic status. The result being that, the vocational training, which was once a perfectly respectable, even mainstream educational path came to be viewed as a remedial track for poor students.
The backlash against tracking, however, did not bring vocational education back to the academic core. Instead, the focus shifted to preparing all students for university, which is now the centre of the Nigerian secondary school curriculum.
So what’s the harm in preparing kids for university? Won’t all students benefit from a high-level academic degree program? As it turns out, not really. For one thing, people have a huge and diverse range of skills and learning styles. Not everyone is good at math, biology, history and other traditional subjects that characterise university-level work. Some students are mechanical; others are artistic. Some focus best in a lecture hall or classroom; still others learn best by doing, and would thrive in the studio, workshop or shop floor.
And not everyone goes to university. The latest figures from the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS) show that about 68% of secondary school students attend university. That means over 30% graduate with neither academic nor job skills.
But even the 68% aren’t doing so well. Almost 40% of students who begin university programs don’t complete them, which translates into a whole lot of wasted time and wasted money. Of those who do finish university, one-third or more will end up in jobs they could have had without a degree. The NBS found that 37% of currently employed college grads are doing work for which only a secondary school certificate is required.
The current employment figures from the NBS also report that the number of unemployed Nigerians stands at 11.19 million or 14.2 per cent. It revealed that the unemployment rate is highest for young people between the ages of 15-24 and 25-34. For those within the ages of 15-24 it is 25.2 per cent. For the 25-34 age group, the unemployment rate, according to the NBS, is next highest at 15.4 per cent.
It is true that studies of earnings show that university graduates earn more over a lifetime than secondary school leavers. However, these studies have some weaknesses. For example, over 53% of recent graduates are unemployed or under-employed. And income for university graduates varies widely – philosophy graduates don’t nearly earn what business studies graduates do. Moreover earnings’ studies compare university graduates to all secondary school graduates. But when one looks at the subgroup of secondary school students who graduate with vocational training and go into well-paying, skilled jobs the picture for non-university graduates looks much rosier.
Yet despite the growing evidence that university programs serve fewer and fewer of our students, governments continue to ignore vocational programs. The justification, of course, often is budgetary; these programs are expensive to operate.
In a situation where 70% of high school students do not go to university, nearly half of those who do fail to graduate, and over half of the graduates are unemployed or underemployed, is vocational education really expendable? Or is it the smartest investment we could make for the future of our children and our country’s economy?
The Nigerian economy is changing. The manufacturing sector is growing and modernizing, creating a wealth of challenging, well-paying, highly-skilled jobs for those with the skills to do them. The demise of vocational education at the secondary school level has bred a skills shortage in manufacturing today, and with it a wealth of career opportunities for both under-employed college grads and high school students looking for direct pathways to interesting, lucrative careers. Many of the jobs in manufacturing are attainable through apprenticeships, on-the-job training, and vocational programs offered at community colleges. They don’t require expensive, four-year degrees for which many students are not suited.
And contrary to what many parents believe, students who get job specific skills in secondary school and choose vocational careers often go on to get additional education. The modern workplace favours those with solid, transferable skills who are open to continued learning. Most young people today will have many jobs over the course of their lifetime, and a good number will have multiple careers that require new and more sophisticated skills.
Just a few decades ago, at independence, our public education system lost the opportunity to provide ample opportunities for young people to learn about careers in manufacturing and other vocational trades.
Yet, today, secondary-school leavers hear barely a whisper about the many doors that the vocational education path can open. The “University-for-everyone” mentality has pushed awareness of other possible career paths to the margins. The cost to the individuals and the economy as a whole is high. If we want everyone’s kid to succeed, we need to bring vocational education back to the core of secondary school learning.
Dr Daniel Kutchin is the founder and director of Hillstone Foundation – The Diaspora from Central Nigeria