What are the main challenges facing African countries in terms of education?
Valérie Tehio: Like all countries in the world, African countries fall within SDG 4 which aims to ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality education and to lifelong learning paths. The particularity of sub-Saharan African countries lies in the fact that education and training systems are still in the expansion, maturing and stabilization phase. These countries therefore need to structure the quality of their provision while developing it to meet various challenges: demographic pressure (the young population will have doubled by 2050), the strong social aspirations and the significant failure rate at all levels of education. The challenges are huge.
Alexia Levesque: The main challenge remains promoting integration on a labor market largely dominated by informal circuits, which account for about 90% of employment. The task is even more difficult as the majority of young people do not complete secondary school and must develop their income-generating activities or self-employment.
Do these challenges threaten the principles of universality and inclusivity of education systems?
V.T.: The universality of the fundamental base (primary and secondary) is still far from being ensured in sub-Saharan Africa. It remains primarily a challenge that needs to be addressed, if only because of the vulnerability of populations, particularly remote rural communities which education systems have not yet found the means to reach or retain for 9 to 10 years of education. Furthermore, a number of young people who arrive at the end of secondary school have an insufficient level of skills to go to the general high school. Even if they had the required level, the general high school and university would not have the physical capacity to receive such cohorts.
A.L.: These challenges must especially lead us to reflect on the relevance of the training policies conducted in these countries. Today there is a rapid massification despite the demographic pressure. This massification causes tensions right from secondary school, which drives countries to build differentiated post-secondary or post-primary paths towards technical education (TE) or vocational training (VT). Yet it is not possible to professionalize based on a rationale of the massification of flows.
Why do you consider this model of differentiated paths a dead end?
A.L.: The differentiation of paths is not a dead end but thinking that you are going to massively integrate young people on the labor market by pushing large numbers of them towards these technical and vocational pathways is a misconception. The purpose of differentiated paths is not to meet a social demand but an economic demand. A number of studies point to the dead ends of this training-employment logic for manpower requirements, which is nonetheless followed in most countries worldwide, in particular in African countries. Developing the fundamental and cross-disciplinary skills base for all depends on basic education: the responsibility of countries is to ensure that all students succeed at this level.
V.T.: Basic education has a major responsibility. The implementation of this model is, moreover, complex. Developing a TE-VT system requires substantial financial, technical and human resources and a specific engineering including a close link with the economic fabric allowing sandwich courses, apprenticeship and the professionalization of education. We are far from this in sub-Saharan Africa. In countries where this model of massified flows towards TE-VT is followed, economic actors are little involved or cannot respond to the flows. Yet their response is a key issue for the professionalization of young people. TE-VT must meet targeted needs, consistent with economic demand, otherwise it fuels the frustrations of young people and families and their mistrust towards education policies.
Do certain African countries need to change their education strategy to go less systematically towards technical and vocational paths?
A.L.: We need to move beyond the logic of flow management and strengthen the fundamental skills base, which is still very fragile. But we also need to integrate the base of cross-disciplinary skills into it, such as working in a team, communicating, anticipating… These are valued by employers and give young people the ability to integrate economically, socially and professionally and develop their autonomy.
V.T.: The massification of education implies considering training for young people in terms of paths, by offering diversified training methods, short or long-term diploma-based training, continuous training, a second chance. Today, this is totally overlooked by education policies. It is also overlooked in Europe, even if it does not resonate in the same way with regard to the social and economic realities of Africa. There is a growing need for continuous training on the continent, even in informal sectors: all companies need to move upmarket and integrate competitive value chains, which are sources of productivity, sustainable growth and employment for countries.
Are there concrete examples of countries that have managed to go beyond the TE-VT model to focus provision on basic and transferable skills?
A.L.: English-speaking African countries are more inclined to integrate cross-disciplinary skills into their basic training provision. They tend to consider school as the best way to access employment. In French-speaking countries, school integrates cross-disciplinary skills less and focuses more on the correlation between training and employment. It is a risky gamble when the job market is constantly changing, including in Africa, and activities need to regularly reinvent themselves.
How to drive this change in education model?
A.L.: By promoting this reflection in discussions with donors and Ministries of Education in the countries concerned, even if they may offend and disrupt habits. We need to move beyond the comfort of systems and work on overall skills development strategies, strategies based on training paths to support individuals and help them develop throughout their lives. Experience shows that the earlier basic and cross-disciplinary skills are acquired, the easier it is to bounce back on the job market. Such strategies require involving public authorities, teachers, families, but also companies. Employers also need to move beyond the logic of manpower requirements to unlock the labor market. At a time when there is a bottleneck awaiting the model of differentiated secondary paths, we now need to ask the right questions in order to come up with appropriate responses to the expectations of African youth.
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