YOUTH POLYTECHNICS UPGRADED WITH CHINESE SUPPORT By Margaretta wa Gacheru. Published in Daily Nation’s Springboard March 11, 2013 One of President Kibaki’s greatest achievements during his days in Kenya’s highest office has been his consistent focus on education. His early decision to make primary education free for all Kenyans was one of his first markers of success. And now, during the latter days of his administration, he again has highlighted his deep love of learning as well as his commitment to seeing Kenyans one day rank among the most highly educated in Africa. That must be the motive behind the current expansion of university education which is unprecedented in Kenyan history. For instance, university enrollment rose from 75,000 in 2002 to 251.554 in 2012. Government-sponsored student admissions to public universities rose from 23 percent in 2003 to 42 percent. And in the process, young women’s enrollment rose from 23 percent in 2002 to 42.9 percent in 2012. The President also launched 15 new public universities in the last few months, all with a view to achieving the goal set in Vision 2030. In February alone, he inaugurated six new universities —two at the Coast, others in Eldoret, Narok, Nyeri and Kajiado. Yet the fact that all 15 came into being as a result of upgrading colleges and polytechnics has generated mixed feelings among a number of educationists and education-loving Kenyans. Some have questioned the wisdom of such a rapid shift at the institutional level. They have wondered whether there will be sufficient faculty to teach these new burgeoning student bodies. But numbers are not the only issue being raised: Will the teachers be qualified to cope with classrooms and lecture halls that are bound to be brimming over. Will the quality of education be diluted now that the current focus seems to be more on quantity than quality? The other question being asked relates not so much to quality but to kind of learning experience. Do Kenyans need more theoretical learning, which is what universities normally offer; or does the country need more technically qualified youth equipped with practical skills, the sort that were previously being taught at the polytechnics and colleges which are now part of the university system? Some critics will say that question is a ‘no-brainer’ since universities tend to turn out prospective ‘white collar’ workers, yet what Kenya needs is a technically-skilled workforce equipped to start up their own small businesses. Fortunately, the Ministry of Higher Education hasn’t forgotten about vocational training of Kenyans despite the media’s obsession with expansion of the university system. What hasn’t gotten much coverage is the fact that a whole slew of new vocational training institutes are being established through an agreement signed by the governments of Kenya and China to upgrade rural youth polytechnics to the rank of technical training institutes. From Bungoma, Kakamega and Kisii to Meru, Machakos, Muranga and the Rift Valley, the Kenya-China Technical Vocational Education Training program (TVET) has been equipping rural polytechnics with machines and trainers contracted through the Chinese firm, Avic International, (the same engineering company that is currently constructing the new Terminal 4 at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and supplying firefighting equipment to the National Youth Service. “So far, we’ve been helping the Ministry to establish ten new technical training centers all across Kenya,” said Qi Lin, the Project Manager who has just completed the first phase of training Kenyan instructors in operating sophisticated machinery brought in from China. The instructor/’trainees’ came from all ten technical training institutes (nine of which were recently upgraded from youth polytechnics), including Bushangala TTI and Shamberere TTI in Kakamega County, Kisiwa TTI and Matili TTI in Bungoma County, Wote TTI in Machakos, Kirua TTI in Meru, Keroka TTI in Kisii, Murang’a TTI and Rift Valley Institute of Science and Technology in Nakuru. “Once we have installed all the machines and trained the Kenyan instructors, we’ll move on to Phase Two of the project where we will repeat the same installation and training process at 40 more new vocational training institutes,” added Lin who’s been in Kenya since 2010, overseeing this US$20 million project. Having hit the ground running, Lin has clocked in thousands of kilometers by road since he arrived two and a half years ago. He has been doing everything from vetting local polytechnics to select the ten best ones (out of the 20 suggested by the Ministry of Higher Education) to vetting poly instructors to select the 24 best qualified in the fields of mechanical and electrical engineering to train–both in China and Kenya on how to operate the brand new machines. It’s a major technology transfer project in which the 28 year old aeronautical engineer has overseen the importation and installation of 153 container-loads of three different types of machines meant not only for the training of qualified Kenyan technicians, but also to upgrade Kenya’s manufacturing sector in the process. A portion of the machines have already filled electrical and electronic labs, others are still being installed in mechanical engineering departments with support from Avic’s Chinese installation team, and the remainder, called ‘advanced rapid prototyping’ machines, will allow Kenyan technicians to reproduce everything from spare parts and soda bottles to jaw bones and original works of art! The one university where all three sets of machines have been installed is the former Kenya Polytechnic. Renamed early this year when President Kibaki officially launched Phase One of the TVET project, the Poly’s new name is the Technical University of Kenya or the Kenya-China Friendship Technology Training Centre. The former Kenya Polytechnic is also where the 24 Kenyan instructors that Lin hand-picked just completed their one-month ‘refresher’ course in operating the machines. Having spent four months in China in 2011 at two of the best technical training colleges in the country, these 24 will in future be responsible for teaching young Kenyans how to operate the same machines. In China, experienced Kenyan teachers like Emmanuel Okech, who’s taught Mechanical engineering for 16 years at Bushangala Youth Polytechnic, studied rapid prototyping at Xi’an Jiaotong University’s National Engineering Research Center of Rapid Manufacturing with Dr. ‘Jim’ Chi Jinchun. Dr. Chi is one of the 19 Chinese instructors who taught qualified Kenyan engineers like Okech, David Maru and Mary Naban’gala and then followed them back to Kenya to continue their training to ensure they could master the machines on their own home turf. “We also brought 40 Chinese mechanics to assemble and install the machines once they got through Customs,” noted Lin. “A portion of them will remain in Kenya to maintain the machines for the duration of their two year warranty,” he added. Other Kenyan instructors like Kennedy Natoka, who teaches at the Kisiwa Technical Training Institute, studied at the Inner Mongolia Technical College of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, an award-winning school which, according to Lin, is one of the best vocational training centers in China. “We selected eight Kenyan instructors in each of the three engineering fields to train in China,” said Lin who feels strongly that the success of the TVET project will be measured by how well Kenyans themselves are able to operate the machines in the future. “That is why we place so much emphasis on practical training. We have seen other countries bring machinery to Kenya, but it rarely gets put to good use because the donor countries simply sell Kenya the machines but don’t bother to train Kenyans in their usage,” added Lin who introduced me to one team of Chinese trainers who didn’t speak either English or Kiswahili. “But they know the ‘universal language of Science’ and they work closely with me,” said Li Man Liang in perfect English. A qualified electrical engineer herself, Li acted as an interpreter/translator throughout the Kenyans’ training, liaising between them and the Chinese instructors to ensure the teaching was clear. “Because the training is more practical and ‘hands-on’ than theoretical,” added Qi Lin, “most of the teaching has involved our trainers showing the Kenyans how the machines work.” Acknowledging that the machinery is a major investment, Lin says he hopes the Kenyans who learn to operate the machines will link up with the private sector to expand Kenyan manufacturing in all kinds of fields. Noting that the machines can manufacture everything from conveyer belts and traffic lights to spare parts of all types, Lin says the possibilities are limitless. “People wonder how the Chinese economy has grown so fast. Well, it’s largely because we focusing on training skilled workers in various fields of manufacturing. That is how we became the manufacturing capital of the world. Kenya will now have a similar capacity to do the same for all of Africa if they utilize these machines well and link up local technicians with private sector manufacturers. I’d love to see that happen and I’m happy to assist,” Lin said.