On the final evening of the 2015 eLearning Africa conference, four education experts came together to debate a motion, which co-Chairperson Mor Seck, President of the Association of African Distance Learning Centres (AADLC), described as “one of the hottest topics in African education”: ‘This House believes that Africa needs vocational training more than academic education’.
By Annika Burgess
Renowned for sparking controversial opinions, the annual eLearning Africa plenary debate was opened by education entrepreneur Donald Clark from Plan B Learning, UK, speaking for the motion. Clark, who has 30 years’ experience designing, delivering and advising on online learning for many global organisations, made clear from the start: “I am not arguing for the abolition of universities or academic education. What I am going to argue for is the reversal of most of the policies in most African countries which aim to rush towards endless numbers of people obtaining degrees and the building of universities.”
Much of Clark’s argument was based on the current system’s flaws. He said that higher education pedagogy throughout the world does not take into account the psychology of learning: students are subjected to one-hour “boring” lectures and taught irrelevant content. “Why would Africa want to mimic a system that has proven to be dysfunctional in Europe and other parts of the world?”
He cited many statistics, arguing that not only is the system flawed but it is also expensive. “Student debt has gone through the roof in the developed world. Student debt in the US has now outstripped credit card debt […] It’s up to 1.2 trillion dollars now. That’s greater than the GDP of Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa together! Just in student loans. That’s 24 times the GDP of Ethiopia.”
His comments were soon interrupted by Prof Damtew Teferra from the opposing side, a professor of higher education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. “The US system is a unique system,” he said. “I don’t think this is relevant for us.”
Prof Teferra again interjected when Clark’s comments turned to the economic benefits of higher education. Clark referenced the World Bank when claiming that there is no link between higher education and economic growth. “It won’t make a country richer,” he said.
“This is a point from 25 years ago. The World Bank, OECD, the UN, African Union and other organisations admit that the era of placing more focus on primary education over higher education is gone,” Prof Teferra rebutted.
Prof Teferra’s teammate, Thierry Zomahoun, President and CEO of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) Global Secretariat, South Africa, added: “If you want Africa to be where it has to be, if you want Africa to be on the global stage with South Korea, emphasising vocational education more than tertiary education won’t get Africa there.”
These remarks only provoked Clark further. “South Korea, Singapore and China; these countries did not create their economies on the back of higher education,” he said, before giving further examples of countries that have prioritised higher education – namely Spain and Italy – only to be left with scores of unemployed graduates.
“How flawed does this model have to get before you wake up and smell the coffee,” Clark exclaimed. “Africa absolutely needs vocational education and training. Your problems are not going to be solved by people who have endless amounts of degrees.”
Prof Teferra’s opening remarks for the opposing side began with claims of hypocrisy, as both Clark and his partner Gabriel Konayuma from the Ministry of Education, Science, Vocational Training and Early Education in Zambia, went to university.
He then asked the audience: “Where do you really want your children to go? A vocational training institute or a top university?”
He warned of repeating Africa’s “shameful history”, when technical and vocational training was used to “train negroes to become the productive, docile, permanent underclass.”
He said, “Vocational training was particularly designed to ensure that the African subject worked with his hands and not in his head. This is the way it was in old history. It’s a well-grounded fact that academic education liberates the mind, expands horizons and advances opportunities.”
The opposing side further built up their argument by saying that “we’ve heard it all before”. Africa should stop “dancing around the vocational over academic fad” just because policies in the West are changing. “No one single skill is enough for you to move forward in life,” Prof Teferra said.
Konayuma accused the opposing side of ignoring a major point in the debate: employability. He also emphasised the impact of vocational education in society. “The flight attendants on your planes here were trained through vocational education. You sleep in a bed made by someone from technical and vocational education, and the plumbing in the room is also installed by someone with vocational training. Every day it’s all around us.”
Although these comments prompted a round of applause from the audience, Prof Zomahoun was not impressed: “This is what saddens me in this debate. The example that my friend just gave is deeply and appallingly misleading. The flight attendants and pilots did not find the plane there by miracle. Did the plane fall down by the magic of the Holy Spirit? It took a brain. Because there was someone like Einstein, because there was quantum mechanics, we have the plane.”
He then won a round of applause with the comment: “Saying use your fingers, use your hands, more than your brain is condescending. Look at Africa and its needs. Do you think the vaccine for Ebola is coming out of the vocational education system?”
When the debate was opened to the floor, a series of questions and comments from the audience revealed that many were swaying their opinions towards the motion. “Why do I need to go to school for four years and then have to sell clothes for 6 months in order to survive?” one audience member asked.
Another stated: “I think the issue is skills, skills, skills and expertise. No matter what you are learning in school, the issue is whether there is value in it. With the skills that you have, will you be employable?”
Despite final remarks from the opposing side emphasising that “the idea of going through technical and vocational education and then getting a job is too simplistic,” the outcome was clear.
With all but a few hands raised in favour of the motion, co-chair Dr Harold Elletson proclaimed: “The motion is carried.” The result was greeted with resounding applause.
The debate has now established itself as a firm favourite at the annual eLearning Africa conference. This year’s was as lively and provocative as ever. Perhaps the reason for the debate’s continuing popularity is the opportunity it provides for free and open discussion about some of the most important issues facing African education. The subject of this year’s debate is a matter of supreme importance for the future of Africa and so it was hard fought by both sides.
Let us hope that next year’s debate will be no less relevant and no less hotly contested.