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Friday, 30 September 2011

Vertically Linked Education Budget Reform (Guest Blog)

The Zambian Education sector consumes 18.6% of the 2011 national budget, or 3,828.8 billion kwacha. Though the sector has improved the delivery of education services over the last decade, it still falls woefully short of what Zambian youth ought to expect to be available to them in order to compete in a globalised 21st century marketplace. With so many other important items on the government agenda it seems unlikely that the nation can afford to spend a larger share on education. Therefore if more is to be done then we must find ways to serve multiple educational goals with the same money. Vertical integration of programmes is one route to achieve this type of productivity increase.

The first step is to look at desirable end products with existing or potential market demand and which make use of locally producible raw materials in whole or large part. For example, in rural areas with significant sustainably harvestable timber resources, production of finished lumber is generally both desirable and in demand. Sustainable forestry industry requires a sustainable source of skilled and semi-skilled workers in many categories, thereby generating demand for reliable training programmes. Healthy forests require highly skilled biologists and related specialists to monitor and maintain sustainable harvests, and unhealthy ones need them even more to recover. Schools nationwide have shortages of all kinds, one of which is desks and other classroom furnishings, which require trained carpenters/cabinetmakers and finished lumber to make.

To integrate these programmes we start with a portion of the education budget which we allocate to a programme to renovate/expand/reopen a suitable sawmill in a region with sustainably harvestable forest resources. The TEVET system can either administer the functioning of all or part (in the case of an educational "wing" in an existing sawmill) of the timber milling directly, or via a suitably selected contractor. Commercial forestry is dangerous, so both the harvesting and milling should be done by suitable adult trainees with certified supervision throughout all phases of operation. Even with a strong culture of safe practice in the workplace, accidents in heavy industry are inevitable, so reasonable access to emergency medical facilities should be paramount in any site plan. It is doubtful that such a programme could be entirely self-funding through sale of the finished lumber produced if it were sold on the open market, however in the integrated model that lumber would feed directly into the carpentry and cabinetry school next door, with the portion of that budget required for raw materials now offsetting part of the costs of running the training sawmill. Further portions of the remaining tuition costs can be supplied by industry directly to trainees through fair value, limited term apprenticeship contracts for entry level jobs after graduation (however this makes it important not to produce too many trainees for the industry to absorb sustainably, thereby devaluing the skill-set in the job market).

The carpentry school now has a source of lumber that can be independent of the rest of its operating budget, and can further offset its costs by orienting the training procedure towards producing classroom furniture (which is already an existing education budget item), utility sheds or other outbuildings, and planting boxes for tree seedlings to be grown at local primary and secondary schools. The seedlings of course can then be sent to the forestry operation thereby offsetting a small portion of the costs of procuring furniture and other carpentry services. Tending to seedlings and/or the occasional "field trip" to learn about healthy forest ecosystems and foster environmentalism can easily include tree re-planting without infringing on reasonable child labour practices, and hopefully provide some additional small savings offset in the process.

Higher education has a big role to play too: By training biology students in part through performing valuable and otherwise more expensive sampling and laboratory work required by the sustainable forestry industry. By engaging architecture and engineering students in design projects both for academic grade and for evaluation by the appropriate trade schools for potential of practical application towards improvement of their own operations, hopefully of sufficient quality to somewhat ameliorate the need to tender contracts for such purposes. And not least by engaging economics, statistics, and accounting students in real world projection and oversight of trainee operations to determine actual economic outputs and costs throughout the integrated system.

All such operations will require to some degree the services of skilled mechanics, teamsters, surveyors, and other general support industries; all of which require training and certification of skill-sets; the cost of which can be to some degree offset by inclusion of service provision to other trade schools. Shortage of uniforms in underprivileged schools? Deploy those university departments in a series of student projects designed to find a good place to sustainably grow more cotton. Use TEVET to license or create a agricultural extension service/training centre with test fields whose outputs are allocated for an associated textile industry trade school, which in turn uses looms and sewing machines to produce uniforms as designed by an associated fashion school.

Not all student activities will produce economic outputs, and not all input needs of a given school can be filled though the training activities of other schools. Learning for most people requires the making of many mistakes, and thus waste of potentially productive resources. However the more linkages one can create between the needs and products of hands-on student activities, and the longer those linkages exist to fill genuine needs within the system, the greater the theoretical cost savings as well as practicability of the skills on offer to persons with limited means looking to augment their education and job prospects. With proper alignment of incentives, the more productive the students are in applying their skills to the practical tasks at hand, the lower their theoretical tuition can go, even into the negative (i.e. getting paid to learn). Thus the inherent socialism of universal education systems and the practical lessons of a capitalist world can be blended harmoniously for the benefit of current and future generations.


The above post was written by our resident contributor - Yakima.

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