African insights: the gap between policy and implementation in TVET systems

Stephanie Allais, 2023


This article is based on a 2021 BILT-commissioned Scoping Study of TVET trends in Africa1. The study aimed to understand how African TVET systems are positioned to plan for and develop new qualifications and competencies for the changing world of work. The research revealed useful findings unrelated to the intended research objectives, which is the focus of this article: there seems to be a large gulf between policy intention and policy design on the one hand, and implementation and meaningful outcomes on the other. This phenomenon was quite consistent across a review of policies and research, a continent-wide survey covering 34 African countries, interviews with key role-players and experts and interviews with different actors in TVET systems.

The main focus in terms of digitalization was on digital delivery of TVET, and the need to train TVET teachers.

An expectation gap between TVET policy goals and outcomes?

Across the different types of policies, systems and structures that we explored with respondents and interviewees, there appeared to be a gap between policy aspirations and actual outcomes. Experts and policy-makers interviewed spoke at length about policy intention, the goals of new systems, the direction of change – but much less about how, and whether, things were working, and even less, about outcomes and impact. At a systemic level, we found little meaningful engagement with either the digitalization of the workplace and its implications for the training cycle or the transition to green and sustainable economy in African TVET systems.

Some examples include:

  • In the qualitative interviews, many participants emphasized entrepreneurship. But many, like this example from Zambia, used language like: ‘TVET institutions are gearing themselves to provide commercial training (entrepreneurship) so that graduates can start their own business. In other words, this initiative was described as something about to happen, rather than something that has happened or been happening.
  • The main focus in terms of digitalization was on digital delivery of TVET, and the need to train TVET teachers. In this regard, there was little discussion about whether online TVET was effective nor reference to any pre-defined objectives.
  • Labour market information systems were sometimes discussed as being out of date, and sometimes, as being recently set up with the intention to improve e.g. the capacity to ‘be able to forecast the requirements [of employers] in terms of the quality and quantity of labour (an interviewee from the Seychelles. Another survey respondent suggested that ‘countries are setting up labour market information systems and SADC (Southern Africa Development Community) is also planning a regional labour market information system’. There was less clarity about the channels to make such systems effective.
  • The modularization and unitization of courses arose with many interviewees. A Zimbabwean interviewee commented: ‘We are just starting to break these big courses into smaller manageable units.’ A Ghanaian interviewee similarly suggested that there are ‘smaller units which are not recognized by TVET, and this is something that started in the informal sector’. The interviewee also suggested that these smaller units would be integrated: ‘very soon all the terms will be harmonized. So, that we can all sing with one voice, because when we develop the curriculum, you can pick some units and then train learners out of that’. An interviewee from Cameroon said that they do not have smaller units of learning, but that the intention is to introduce them through the national qualifications framework:
    And that’s why the Cameroon national qualification framework that we are trying to put in place is to come out with such training in such a way that when you are doing something you can have small units of competency that can globalize and give you a complete qualification.

Overall, while much was said about intended changes, few references were made as to how these changes would specifically make TVET more attractive or of better quality in the contexts.

An evidence gap between TVET policy expectation and outcomes: designing employer-led skills systems

Much of the work in TVET promoted and supported in countries in Africa has been to design and implement systems that are more responsive to labour market (understood as employers’) skills demands. Underpinning this emphasis has been a wish to improve institutions and to modernize TVET curricula, delivery and courses to give learners the knowledge, skills and attitudes which employers state they value. To achieve these aims, interventions have included:

  1. Creation of joint sector skills councils as places where employers’ skills demands within a sector can be expressed, formalized and communicated to TVET providers;
  2. Attempting to create standards that define employer demands in a clear way, describing what a learner should be able to ‘do’ once they have completed a training course: i.e., the competence and capability required; and
  3. Developing qualifications frameworks that classify different vocational qualifications into comparable levels across occupations and to be coherent with higher education qualification levels (in some, but not all countries) nationally or regionally.

The study points to the inconsistency between legislation and policy on the one hand, and actual implementation on the other. Few stakeholders referred to what had been done and/or what had or had not worked in the many planned for changes.

Each of these reforms are discussed in turn below.

  1. Sector Skills Bodies

One key intervention is to create structures for engagement between stakeholders at a sector level (usually called sector skills councils and/or industry sector boards), which are employer-led bodies. They have become a focus of policy attention in many countries because it is believed that they can ensure regular and institutionalized industry involvement in TVET systems and policies, to ensure greater responsiveness and relevance to employers’ needs. The idea is to bring the world of work and the world of education and training together. In some instances, they are seen as structures that advise government and education and training providers; in others they are seen as structures to oversee the development of qualifications and occupational standards; and sometimes they play a quality assurance role. Sectoral skills bodies are usually created as autonomous bodies overseen by a government structure of ministry, and with an official remit created through legislation or regulation (ILO, 2021). Such councils may be newly formed by bringing together major employers within a sector or may comprise traditional employer and/or unions organizations (e.g., a professional association/Trades Unions and Chambers of Commerce/Industry).

An ILO report (2021) showcases examples for countries in Africa that have such structures or are in the process of establishing them, including Ethiopia, the Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania. They are often set up in parallel with a skills levy that is used to fund the sector council and its training activities (usually charged as a proportion of the total wage bill of an enterprise over a pre-defined size). They usually have tripartite or bipartite governance structures that consist of representatives from employer and worker organizations as well as government. Some (Gambia, Ghana and South Africa) have representation from additional constituencies as well, such as from community bodies.

According to the ILO, some African countries within the study have started with smaller numbers of bodies in targeted sectors and are recent creations (or are in the process of being created and/or piloted). For example, in the Gambia, pilot Sector Skills Councils have been established in the ICT, agro-processing and construction sectors, following the adoption of a 2019 Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Roadmap for 2020-2024. The intention is for them to provide a platform for employers to feed their training needs into the education and training system, and to support training initiatives to address these needs. According to the ILO (2021), they have a remit to develop occupational or competency standards, and have worked with the quality assurance agency to formalize apprenticeships and encourage more structured work-based training in the sectors targeted. Most work has happened in the construction sector: construction standards are highly regulated as are many of the occupations within the sector.

There is little published research on how the sector-based skills structures operate in these countries and/or whether they achieve their intended outcomes, there are few commissioned evaluations or peer-reviewed research. South Africa is an outlier here, as there have been some critical evaluations of the Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs), as well as some progress with implementing them.

Other research paints a similar picture on sector skills bodies. For example, in Tanzania, six sector skills councils were formally created in 2019, but their roles need to be more clearly defined and delineated (Singizi, 2021, p. 20). The four areas which have been identified for development are:

  1. identifying skills needs and skills planning;
  2. training and curriculum review;
  3. sectoral coordination; and
  4. policy development, lobbying and advocacy.

In Ghana, the body in charge of TVET, the Commission for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (CTVET), has initiated the development of sector skills bodies in targeted sectors; initially, construction, agriculture and hospitality and tourism sectors (ILO, 2021).

2. Competency-based TVET: courses, curricula and qualifications

Another set of interventions which emerged as a key initiative in the scoping study is competency-based qualifications, competency-based curricula reform, and qualifications frameworks. Here again, the study describes many interventions that have recently taken place, or are about to take place, or are too new to evaluate. An evaluation of competence-based curriculum reforms (UNESCO, IIEP and IFEF, 2020) provides analysis only of how many occupational standards and competence-statements have been developed – it describes Ethiopia as the most successful country to-date, with 675 occupational standards. Rwanda is also described as successful at developing competence statements, although only starting in 2015, and focused to-date on investigating employment needs and developing occupational standards. The report describes competency-based curriculum reform in Senegal as having been experimented with for many years, officially adopted in 2015, but with actual implementation only starting very recently. Ghana, according to the evaluation, has established public-private partnerships to develop occupational standards, but so far only has involved a small number of TVET institutions and mainly lower-level qualifications. Benin has piloted a competence-based training approach in the craft sector, focused on informal or traditional apprenticeships. Challenges with competency-based reforms to TVET are discussed in the second article of this series.

3. The development of national and regional qualifications frameworks (within TVET and/or coherent across the whole education system)

A recent report commissioned by the AU (African Union, 2020) provides an overview of the development of qualifications frameworks: out of the 40 countries examined, 17 had approved national qualifications frameworks (NQFs); 10 were engaged in consultation and initial development of design and policies; 10 had started planning the development of qualifications frameworks; and three had started the first steps of reflection and analysis towards NQF. For example, in Eastern Africa, the Ethiopian qualifications framework has been in development since 2006 and was formally proclaimed in 2010. In Kenya, regulations for a qualifications framework have been developed and gazetted by the Kenya National Qualifications Authority. Rwanda adopted a qualifications framework for higher education in 2007 and is currently developing and implementing a single national qualifications framework. However, there is no published evidence on how this has proceeded to date.

Other than Southern Africa, where qualifications were found to be implemented or operational to some degree, this policy mechanism is mainly described as under development, with some countries described as in the early stages of development, and some described as further along the road, but far from fully implemented or evaluated.

Even in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), there is an extensive number of policy interventions, all of which aim in different ways to support recognition of skills and qualifications in the region, most of which are described as under development in various ways, or yet to be implemented. In addition to the regional qualifications framework that has formally been in existence since 2011, and against which 2 countries have formally benchmarked their qualifications and 7 have in principle, there are many other interventions, including:

  • Guidelines providing commonly agreed elements to facilitate the implementation of recognition of prior learning (RPL), which includes a recognition and verification manual;
  • SADC-wide quality assurance guidelines have been developed, coupled with the creation of a list of ‘credible’ SADC institutions and their qualifications;
  • A SADC ‘Qualifications Portal’ has been established but is not yet functional; and
  • South Africa has started to implement a digital E-Credentialing system (SADC, 2021).

The most recent development is an African Credit and Qualifications Framework that is under development.

Why is there a widespread implementation gap? A challenge to policy-makers and researchers

The answer to this question requires examination to understand why this gap exists, why structures are not functioning as intended (as quickly as hoped) and whether the reforms are having the desired outcomes. It would be useful for policy-makers and researchers to engage more with each other. Many of the policies that are adopted by governments and supported by donors and development agencies are critiqued by researchers and there is little concrete evidence for their success, in particular in low- and middle-income countries dominated by informal labour markets and informal training systems.

The BILT Scoping Study suggests one reason for the potential implementation gap: an inadequate focus on strengthening TVET providers and provision itself. Formal TVET systems are often the smaller part of available training opportunities, with weak capacity to engage with employers and to continuously adjust to new qualifications and competencies required by an informal labour market. Governance structures are fragmented across different types of programmes and interventions. In other words – the implementation gap, which seems quite consistent across a range of policies and interventions as well as countries and regions, may be caused or aggravated by too little focus on strengthening the formal (and informal) TVET institutions and the people that provide skills training (i.e. a too high focus on formal employers’ skills demands neglects a need to strengthen TVET supply whilst also obscuring the skills demands of the larger informal labour market). Few survey respondents gave a pro-active view of supporting TVET providers and their staff. Yet, as argued by a recent UNESCO report on education and the future of work, education institutions:

… need professional labour conditions for educators; arrangements that give educational professionals the time, resources, support structures; and employment conditions to develop and perform as inspiring teaching professionals are also essential. Also necessary are conditions of employment for teaching professionals that support their work – stable job contracts with adequate remuneration and conditions of employment (Buchanan et al., 2020, p. 14).

The survey suggested that although TVET providers are supposed to be ‘partners’ in curriculum development, curriculum (and its modules) are often nationally prescribed and fixed with little opportunity for local adjustment. There needs to be some freedom for providers to change at least a part of curricula, working with locally relevant employers and to prepare trainees for what they face in the local informal labour markets and in their communities.

In short, the implementation gap in African TVET systems is cause for concern, and something that governments, researchers and development agencies should be attempting to solve. The reform trends highlighted in this article require the engagement of stakeholders. There are issues which require engagement in relation to formal, regulated labour markets and the formal training systems, but also consideration of how formal training relates to informal work which is where most employment happens in most African countries. Whether time is the reason for the implementation gap (as systems become more formalized, the policy aims will be realized) or whether different policies should be sought and piloted is worthy of more examination.

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


African Union 2020. Mapping Report: Towards the African Continental Qualifications Framework. Addis Ababa: The African Union and the Africa-EU partnership.

Buchanan, J. et al. 2020. The futures of work: what education can and can’t do. Paper prepared for UNESCO’s Futures of Education Initiative, Background Paper for Topic 4, Work and Economic Security: What role can education play in ensuring the human centredness of the future of work? Paris: UNESCO.

ILO 2021. A Resource Guide on Sector Skills Bodies. Geneva: International Labour Office, Skills and Employability Branch.

SADC 2021. Guidelines for Southern African Development Community Credit Accumulation and Transfer Systems. Gaberone: SADC.

Singizi 2021. Training Needs Assessment for Sector Skills Councils in Tanzania. Prepared for the Tanzania Private Sector Foundation By Singizi Consulting Africa 03 February 2021. Johannesburg: Singizi.

UNESCO, IIEP and IFEF 2020 Competency-based approach to technical and vocational education and training in Africa Study based on seven African countries: Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa. Synthesis report. Dakar: IIPE- UNESCO.

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