African insights: competency-based training - limits and opportunities in informal labour markets

Stephanie Allais, 2023


This article is based on a 2021 BILT-commissioned Scoping Study of TVET trends in Africa1, which included a review of policies and research, a continent-wide survey covering 34 African countries, and interviews with key stakeholders and experts. Competency-based training and competency-based qualifications emerged in the study as a key policy initiative in reforming TVET systems, specifically in the aspiration for labour market responsiveness, but with few measurable results to date. This article discusses some problems which emerged through the research, as well as an interesting potential opportunity for TVET actors.

Originating in the United Kingdom, with extensive use soon after in Australia, many policy-makers around the world have attempted to reform their TVET systems to align with employer defined competencies

Introduction: what is competency-based training and why is it seen as attractive for Sub-Saharan African TVET provision?

The notion of competence is central to education that is focused on preparation for work, including vocational and professional education. However, competency-based training (CBT) as an approach to reforming vocational education is something more specific.

It starts with an attempt to isolate and define the competencies required in different work occupations and sectors. According to proponents of CBT, this requires employers analyzing the component tasks of different occupations, and the competencies required to perform those tasks. The idea is that the descriptions of competency in competency-statements or occupational standards can be used as the basis to develop curricula and assess learner performance. By delivering educational provision in line with what employers define as the competencies required for an occupation, and assessing against competence standards, the assumption is that learners can display their applied knowledge: what they can do, not just what they know.

Defined competence-standards or occupational standards are also seen as a vehicle for quality assurance and funding, as in some VET systems training providers are paid according to their course delivery and their learners’ achievement of either individual competencies, or for qualifications that are comprised of competencies. Originating in the United Kingdom, with extensive use soon after in Australia, many policy-makers around the world have attempted to reform their TVET systems to align with employer defined competencies in the hope that it will improve responsiveness of TVET curricula, as well as ensure appropriate standards of assessment, and to fund more demand-driven provision (Wolf, 1995; Guthrie, 2009).

This has appeal in African countries where, as is the case in many countries, TVET systems are criticized for not producing the occupational skills in demand by employers.

Additionally, because the competency-statements are supposed to provide clear benchmarks for assessment, another aspiration for competency-based training is that the competency statements can be utilized to certify the work-readiness of people in an occupation in which they may have been informally trained or have already been working in. This has appeal in African countries where informal training and informal apprenticeships have been widespread, and in many cases, people working in an occupation do not have the required formal certification to show their competency to perform the requirements of that occupation. The hope is that competency-based learning provides an opportunity to have skills assessed and certified after already working in the labour market in a skilled trade or occupation.

The multiple appeals of competency-based training lies in the belief that if employers say what it is that they want a worker to be able to do, providers and policy-makers can design education programmes that enable them to do it and/or can design certification methods which assess that competency (however attained). A focus on competency-based training is therefore expected to have multiple impacts:

  1. New entrants to a training programme are trained using curricula which focus on their competency as defined by employer skills needs captured in occupational standards.
  2. Governments and employers can fund training programmes leading to competencies that are identified as important, making provision responsive.
  3. Informally trained people can have their existing competence assessed without participating in a formal training programme.

In practice, however, competency-based training has proven complex to implement well. There is little clear evidence of success, and many studies show difficulties with implementation in different contexts. A recent evaluation in Africa found that while there is enthusiastic adoption, there is, as yet, limited progress in implementation, and even less evidence of desired impacts (UNESCO, IIEP and IFEF, 2020).

There is also a large body of educational research arguing that it is conceptually flawed. Researchers argue that competency-based curricula undermine the complexity of curriculum development, and the ways in which knowledge and skills should be acquired to prepare people for work (Wolf, 1995; Young, 2008; Wheelahan, 2010; Allais, 2014; Winch, 2021). A curriculum which looks like lists of competency-based tasks appears fragmented and loses the overall knowledge required to perform in the world of work. Employers think about the tasks and processes of work, and the skills needed for these, but not about knowledge building: the knowledge which underpins those skills. The work that people do every day in any workplace (i.e. practice) requires situated (often tacit) knowledge, which is accumulated through the reflexive process generated through practice (Schön, 1983). Knowledge and practice are mutually reinforcing (Winch, 2010). One of the main goals in preparing people for work is to give them the formal and practical education that will socialize them into making decisions, professing opinions and judgments, overseeing their own work in ways that could be justified by reference to a chain of reasoning that goes beyond a specific context.

The BILT Africa Scoping Survey provides some insight into specific challenges in the African context in introducing CBT. While the study was not specifically focused on competency-based training, other than asking participants about the use of occupational standards in the survey component of the study, researchers did not ask about it directly. It was striking, however, how much it emerged in interviews with actors in TVET systems. The extent to which it was raised in interviews, and the points made, provide some insights into the challenges of implementing this reform in African TVET systems, as well as what it is being introduced to achieve. A surprising finding was that competency-based standards and occupational standards were also seen as the main mechanism for skills anticipation.

The use of CBT in skills anticipation in African TVET systems

As would be expected, the study found that occupational standards and competency-based qualifications are seen by many TVET actors as key to curriculum design. The study confirmed a strong emphasis on creating cooperation mechanisms between TVET providers and employers in defining the competencies within qualifications, which policy-makers saw as necessary to ensure that they reflected current employer demands. They also indicated such cooperation mechanisms as being key to anticipating future skills needs. Employer engagement in qualification design was discussed by interviewees as both part of the process of integrating required skills into qualifications and curricula and to address skills gaps. Respondents reflected that this would make TVET curricula more relevant. For example, an interviewee from a government institution in Kenya argued that the shift from ‘knowledge based’ to ‘competency based’ curricula would address skill mismatches, and attributed such mismatches to a lack of practical knowledge:

That is the reason why we eventually felt that there was a need to move from what we originally called the knowledge-based programmes to competency-based programmes. …. And most of these curricula, we do them in collaboration with the industry players, and we therefore hope that the issues of skills mismatch will eventually be overcome.

Developing competency-based qualifications is seen as the basis for both identifying current and emerging skills needs and integrating them into qualifications. Of those surveyed (n=223), most respondents indicated that the primary use of occupational standards is for curriculum development whereas the second most popular answer was ‘to understand what graduates must be able to do in the workplace’.

More than 90% of respondents used occupational and competence standards in one way or another. One interviewee argued that insight into industry needs is:

… obtained through consultation with the stakeholders, as well as the planning needs analysis that they have to do as the qualification developers, and they have to align it also overall to the country’s human resource development plan and the skills area or gaps identified therein.

Another explained:

Yes, when we have a new area to look at before we develop the curriculum, we have got some Sectorial Committees that have to deal with the subject and we do the job profiling first, and then look at the standards, then from the standards we will go to the curriculum development. So various people will be involved at various levels in the industry mainly to begin with experts from the industry then the lecturers also there to guide and the officers to guide on the format.

But there were also concerns expressed about:

  • The capacity and capability to design effective employer-TVET system cooperation mechanisms.
  • A long time-lag in the process of defining occupational standards and integrating them into curricula and assessment systems such that the aim for ‘responsiveness’ was undermined.
  • The practical reality in Africa where occupational standards are expected to inform the VET system but they are not informing other employer practices such as hiring, promotion, and wage levels.

These issues are discussed below.

How willing are employers to cooperate with TVET institutions and what is the right mechanism for them to do so?

One of the desired benefits of competence-based training is to align with employers’ skills demands, but the study found few examples of sustained or comprehensive employer involvement. A recent evaluation of competence-based training in seven African countries found widespread support for the approach, although difficulties with implementation (UNESCO, IIEP and IFEF, 2020). The evaluation found, in common with other research in this area, that private sector engagement was limited in implementing competency-based training. This is not unusual internationally, and the BILT Africa Scoping Study found similar difficulties in getting employers to meaningfully engage with sufficient regularity. An interviewee from Cameroon explained:

‘I think most companies that are really involved are the government companies.’ He went on to say, ‘sometimes when you get to companies like that, they think, maybe they think that you are coming to, I don’t know, to steal their knowledge, or something like that. Maybe you are coming to take it and give it to the other company’.

Are occupational standards and competency-standards a viable mechanism for skills anticipation? A contradiction of time horizons

Creating robust mechanisms for employer engagement in defining occupational standards which have longevity can lead to a time-lag between integrating current and emerging economic demand for skills and anticipating those for medium to longer term skills needs. This problem came out clearly in an interview with a policy maker who emphasized consultation with industry approximately every five years, through ‘Industry Skills Committees’; yet, the result of this consultation, which would draw on employers’ needs at the time, directly shaped longer-term qualifications and curricula.

Developing qualifications and curriculum will never be responsive to the immediate needs of workplaces because employers must elucidate their skills needs and educators need to integrate them into qualifications and curricula. All of this takes time to define, let alone be offered to students. Aside from short courses, formal TVET leading to an occupation is by its nature aimed at medium- to long-term economic and labour market needs, but the mechanism for determining these needs is specified by employers as needed right now in workplaces. In other words, the labour market analysis and the education planning are operating to different time frames.

The reality of African labour markets

The Bilt Africa Scoping Survey uncovered an additional challenge in the African context: occupational standards are not used in workplaces. They do not derive from work or occupational regulation. They are not used in workplaces for hiring, promotion, or other workplace processes. Instead, they are seen as primarily educational tools. As such, they have limited value as a tool to link education and work.

Further to the extent that employers are involved in task specification as part of the process of developing occupational standards and competency-based qualifications, they are focused on formal work. But formal sector employment is low in most African countries. This means that there is little engagement with the reality of informal work in the design of TVET qualifications, other than an emphasis on entrepreneurship as an add on in curriculum design. The challenge, then, is to think about building occupational competence for the informal sector and for work that is not regulated.

Thinking about occupations and occupational standards for informal work: an opportunity in Africa

Research on occupations, work, labour process and expertise, focuses on the ways in which the organization and regulation of occupations, divisions of labour between and within occupations, work organization and labour process, and expertise and skills are interwoven (Abbott, 1988; Freidson, 2001; Standing, 2009; Allais and Shalem, 2018). This body of research is crucial in informing analysis of curricula that aim to prepare people for work but is very underdeveloped in relation to work outside of formal labour markets, the reality for most African people.

This issue - a major challenge for African TVET - is also an opportunity, because in many low- and middle-income countries, most work is informal. African TVET leaders, policy-makers, and researchers could, then, be doing cutting-edge work to make real strides in thinking about occupations and occupational work in the informal sector. For example, there could be greater focus on occupational fields that seem to dominate in the informal sector, in terms of job families and areas of work. Educational preparation for informal work must also be based on some notion of a set of tasks which together form an occupation but may also derive from the informality. But attempting to define occupations must take into account the economic, labour market and social conditions in which they take place. Something worthy of further examination and exploration in the African context.

The purpose of the Atlas is to shed light on the trends experienced across TVET systems in Africa, Asia and the Pacific and Europe while pinpointing examples of how some of the challenges discussed above are addressed.

  1. Carried out by the Centre for Researching Education and Labour at the University of Witwatersrand, lead author Stephanie Allais.


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