The Luban Workshop is a project of China’s Tianjin government designed to provide state-of-the-art technical and vocational training, promote modern vocational education reforms and enhance collaboration among vocational schools around the world. It got its name from LU ban, the father of Chinese architecture from around the 4th Century B.C.
While Luban Workshop is a Chinese initiative that partly promotes and cements its cultural, diplomatic and economic relations abroad, including the Belt and Road Initiative, there are so many lessons that Kenya can draw from it as it seeks to build its manufacturing sector, grow its internal technical manpower and create jobs for its growing youth population.
Luban Workshop has in fact set up offices in more than ten African countries, including two workshops at the Machakos University and Taita Taveta University. The workshops, established with the support of the Tianjin City Vocational College, provides Kenyan students the opportunity to partake in world-class and innovative cloud computing courses while also giving Kenyan technocrats the opportunity to study China’s secrets of economic success.
The government of Kenya should take advantage of the workshops to train, not just students but also civil servants, particularly those in departments concerned with infrastructure and research. It should similarly follow up on student exchange programmes between Kenya and China as well as on mutual recognition of academic qualifications between the two countries.
The question many people around the world often ask is how did China grow so fast, becoming the world’s top investment destination in less than a generation?
China introduced free market reforms in 1979, opening up to foreign trade and investment and putting it firmly at the top of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Its annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaged 9.5% till 2018. But this is only half the story. The truth is that by the time China was implementing free market reforms, it was ready to absorb it and compete head to head with the rest of the world.
Part of the story is the Luban Workshop, which was there in all but name. China created a generation of people with strong work ethic and armed with technical skills obtained from its vocational colleges.
There is a long standing problem in Kenya that is both historical and cultural. Every year, thousands of young people fall by the wayside after failing to transition to the next level of schooling based purely on a single exam. No follow up is made on these young people, majority of whom opt to eke out living in their own communities as peasants. In the process, we lose the opportunity to develop and sharpen talents and skills that could have instigated change in their communities.
The latest efforts by the Ministry of Education to ensure a 100% transition from primary to secondary school is well intentioned but weak in funding and strategy. But even so, many children still don’t transition because they lack resources or because they don’t have a secondary school nearby. Then there is obsession with university education with little consideration to the quality of programmes offered by those universities and their relevance to market.
One of the things Kenya can learn from the Luban Workshop is the need to set up vocational colleges to capture the primary school and secondary school children and train them in industry relevant 21st century courses such as artificial intelligence (AI) without forgetting traditional courses such as machine operations, value addition, plumbing, electrical connections, among others.
The second thing Kenya can learn is the need to continuously facilitate education-industry collaboration at all levels but particularly at the tertiary level of education. Every Kenyan student needs high-end technical skills training to help them meet the requirements of the emerging global market.
Researchers and industry practitioners should create a culture of innovation and enterprise instead of merely surviving.
In this regard, university and higher level education need total reorientation to become centres of research and development for nurturing 21st century skills without forgetting indigenous knowledge and practices. No student should progress to university merely because they completed high school. They should be very clear in their minds what they are going to study in the university and how the skills acquired will be relevant to the economy.
Third, but not the last, lesson that Kenya can draw from Luban is that learning must never end when a person graduates from school. Institutions such as Luban Workshop should be capacity-building centres for researchers and industry practitioners to create a culture of innovation and enterprise instead of merely surviving, doing the bare minimum while waiting for retirement.
The establishment of two Luban Workshops in Kenya’s two institutions of higher learning is deeply symbolic and timely. Let us rise to the occasion and focus on what is necessary to become the next China in this part of the world.