Dr Kipkirui Langat

The technical university also referred to as technological university, institute of technology, university of technology, technological educational institute, technical college, polytechnic university or just polytechnic is an institution of tertiary education that specialises in engineering, technology, applied sciences and natural science. Some of these institutions have been in existence since at least the 18th century but became more popular after World War II with the expansion of engineering and applied science education associated with the new needs created by industrialisation.

In many countries, although being generally considered similar institutions of higher learning, the institutions used to have a quite different Statute. In many cases, polytechnics were elite technological universities concentrating on applied science and engineering.

In some situations, former polytechnics or other non-university institutions have emerged solely through an administrative change of Statutes. The emergence of so many upgraded polytechnics or former TVET schools converted into more university-like institutions has caused concern with some lacking specialised intermediate technical professionals to link to industrial resulting in a shortage of skills in some fields. This has led to the increased unemployment rate of graduates.

This trend has made several countries reposition the place of technical universities as the apex of both academic and TVET offering a diverse range of academic programmes, vocational, career-focused, professional and courses. They also provide opportunities for a variety of entry and exit points; develop strong vertical and horizontal articulation pathways; development of a suite of educational programmes and research appropriate to local, regional and national needs and strengthening relationships with community, government, business, and industry partners.

In the UK, the British polytechnics were granted university status in 1992 creating new universities like the University of Central England (Birmingham), University of Westminster, the University of West of England (Bristol), and London Metropolitan University which continued to offer strongly vocational/career-oriented and professional programmes with some offering more traditional general degrees.

Research is concentrated in applied areas, however, in some quarters these institutions are considered to have suffered mission drift in moving from a primary focus on teaching, to competing in pure research with the older universities. London Metropolitan University which prides itself as one of Britain’s largest universities focuses on the provision of vocational and business programmes which are offered at levels ranging from pre-degree study and foundation degrees comprising two-year programmes combining technical skills, academic knowledge and transferable skills to taught and research postgraduate programmes in several academic departments.

Germany has one of the oldest university systems in Europe, and the system has been dominated since the eighteenth century by the ideal of the research university. However, after the Second World War, there have been considerable pressures to open up and diversify the system, producing a landscape of universities, technical universities, colleges of art and music, specialist institutions, universities of applied sciences among others.

The technical universities originally restricted their teaching to technical and engineering disciplines but have developed a wider suite of programmes that now include the arts and humanities. Their primary focus, however, continues to be on engineering and applied sciences, and in every other respect, they operate as universities, offering qualifications up to doctoral level, whereas at the university of applied science, the highest qualification is the master’s degree.

Currently Germany pride itself on some of the prestigious technical universities which include RWTH Aachen, Technical University of Berlin, Technical University of Braunschweig and Technical University of Chemnitz. Others are the Technical University of Clausthal, Brandenburg Technical University and the Technical University of Darmstadt.

For many years, the Finnish Government has seen a strong link between higher education, research and technology as drivers of regional development. From the 1960s onwards, the government created some new universities in different parts of the country with a strong emphasis on engineering and technology. In the early 1990s, in response to a major economic slump, the government embarked on a wide-ranging strategy to transform Finland into a ‘knowledge society. Critical to the success of this strategy was the role played by the universities, particularly Helsinki University of Technology, Tampere University of Technology and the University of Oulu.

There was also a perceived need to support the high end of research with higher levels of education and skills spread more generally throughout Finnish society. A further strategy, therefore, was to increase higher education enrolments dramatically, particularly in technological fields. As a result, the polytechnic institutions were created as an institutional type quite distinct from the universities, with a strong orientation towards practical education for working life.

At present, over 30 polytechnics are spread throughout the country with a particular mission to support regional development and regional innovation systems. Polytechnic enrolments account for over 60% of higher education enrolments in Finland and the sector is highly regarded. Through a combination of theoretical and practical education, they offer courses in the fields of natural resources, technology and communications, business and administration, tourism, catering and institutional management, health care and social services, culture and humanities, and teaching. Practice and project work are pursued in close co-operation with business and industry. Entry requirements are generally lower than for universities, but students wishing to enrol for degree programmes are required to write an entrance examination. Between 25% and 30% of students are enrolled for degree programmes in the polytechnics, and postgraduate studies are only offered in a few select areas.

In 1996 South Africa proposed the establishment of a comprehensive institution through the merger of a technical institute and a university. The idea was informed by the fact that an institutional type that integrates university and technical type programmes would be well placed to contribute to addressing a range of goals, which are central to the government’s human resource development strategy, in particular, access to higher education in addition to enhancing articulation between the career-focused and general academic programmes. The strategy was meant to promote student mobility; strengthening applied research; and enhanced responsiveness to regional and national human resources, skills and knowledge needs. This was also to provide access to students who do not meet the requirements for a university degree in addition to offering shorter, work-related qualifications with possibilities for further advancement.

All the comprehensive universities offer programmes with varying entry requirements including articulation and progression pathways for students from TVET into degree programmes. Also in a reverse movement, they offer students who have entered into and completed degree studies the opportunity to cap their studies with a work-related, technical or vocational qualification. The universities offer diverse kinds of learning programmes, from vocational to professional and general formative, under one roof. Currently, there are six comprehensive universities in South Africa which include the University of Zululand, Walter Sisulu University, University of Venda, University of South Africa, Nelson Mandala Metropolitan University and the University of Johannesburg.

In Ghana, Technical Universities were established by the Technical Universities Act of 2016 to provide higher education in engineering, science and technology-based disciplines, technical and vocational education and training, applied arts and related disciplines for the development of the industrial and technological base of the economy. This is executed through the impartation of relevant knowledge and skills to people and academic staff to enable them to acquire the requisite competencies that enhance value-adding decision-making processes, and as well develop the requisite capacity to effectively handle challenges enshrined in their new positions and ultimately improve their job performance.

Further, the institutions were required to build a competent workforce in the area of administration, teaching and research to suit their new status. Capacity building programmes at the universities have been adjudged to be critical factors culminating in their positions as major determinants of the professional advancement of academic staff. Apart from gaining pedagogical and content knowledge, participation of academic staff in these programmes would enhance capacity building effectiveness in the universities. It would transform the abilities and skills of academic staff in such a way and manner that they meet and fit adequately in the challenges of their jobs. To date, Ghana has ten technical universities which include Tamale, Kumasi, Accra, Cape Coast, Takoradi and Wa Polytechnic among others.

Kenya has not been left behind in the quest of reforming education and training to make it a knowledge economy. In 2012 through a sessional paper on policy framework for reforming education and training in Kenya, a raft of reforms was initiated to enhance access, equality, quality and relevance in TVET among others. This was to target skills development in priority sectors in line with Kenya vision 2030.

To achieve this, the government proposed to expand TVET institutions which included technical and vocational colleges, national polytechnics and technical universities. Subsequent government directive designated six institutions to be established as technical universities as per the universities act 2012. The institutions which have so far been converted to universities are the Technical University of Kenya, Technical University of Mombasa, and the Dedan Kimathi University of Technology.

Others are Meru University of Science and Technology, Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology and the Co-operative University of Kenya. Many more other universities especially those which were initially TVET institutions have tended to structure their programmes in the line of technical universities by retaining some TVET programmes.

However, to a large extend, these universities are less operating like conventional universities in all aspects as there is no framework to have them operate in the true sense of a technical university. For example, there is no direct working relationship between the universities and TVET institutions especially in the areas of programme development and delivery or designated upward mobility for TVET graduates. Also, all TVET students in these universities are self-sponsored hence limiting the opportunities for those who want to progress their careers.

For Kenya to operationalise technical universities as envisaged earlier, there is a need to relook at the current policy and legal frameworks to ensure that they are in line with standards defining technical universities and where possible provide for restructuring. The restructuring to focus on governance, programme development and implementation and students’ placement among others.

The universities should be able to enrol at least 30% TVET students under government sponsorship, 40% TVET undergraduate students, another 20% students enrolled in traditional professional programmes complementing TVET programmes and 10% postgraduate programmes. The framework should also provide for working arrangements between technical universities and national polytechnics in offering some of the undergraduate TVET programmes by national polytechnics.

As we develop these specialist institutions to deliver on their mandate, there is a need for building the capacity and competencies of academic staff to befit their new status. To bring desired change in the universities, enhancing the capacities of academic staff will be a major step in improving the quality of teaching and research output among academic staff.

The author is the Director-General TVETA and Faculty Member Technical University of Kenya

E-mail: langat.langat@tveta.go.ke