By Tikum Mbah Azonga
This paper is an adaptation of an earlier one I delivered on the Cameroon National Radio Station on the 19th of August 2002, as candidates who sat for the GCE Ordinary and Advanced Levels awaited that year’s results. The paper was one of the daily political commentaries I delivered on the 6.30 a.m. prime time national and world news on Cameroon Radio Television (CRTV), Yaoundé, between 2002 and 2005.
It is hard to forget the moment one learns that one has passed an examination. For many English speaking young Cameroonians, the public examination that registers the largest number of candidates at the post primary level is, no doubt, the General Certificate of Education, more popularly known as the GCE. And this is precisely the period of the year when candidates who sat for the examination listen to the radio daily to find out if they have made it.
For them the career path to be taken has been traced already. It is GCE 'O' Levels to GCE 'A' Levels, and then university for a degree. However, problems begin at this level because once students earn a degree; they simply join an already crowded job market. At this stage, the obvious choice would have been to go into a professional school. But then entry into Cameroon's professional school is as tough as a camel going through the eye of a needle, to paraphrase that biblical saying. Firstly, professional institutions usually have only a limited number of places for which competition is always very keen. Furthermore, authorities tend to ‘sell’ places to the highest bidder, thus sometimes making it impossible for those who can not buy places to end up by not going in at all. As might be expected, in the process, some meritorious candidates who do well are removed from the list so that mediocre ones who paid for it can be accommodated. In the long run, the degree holder who is jobless, yet can not enter a professional school, becomes a liability at home, depending on parents for everything including the odd taxi fare and even Sunday penny.
This predicament can be pinned down, at least in part, to the kind of educational system Cameroon has. Ours is a system which offers general grammar education, to the detriment of professional and technical education. In a way, it is hard to fault anyone here, the reason being that when colonial authorities introduced and promoted general education, the country, like most other countries in Africa at the time, was still undergoing the transition from total colonialism to partial autonomy. At the time, institutions simply needed 'literate natives' to take up various positions of responsibility. In fact, back then, when the end of the year was approaching, institutional authorities used to go to existing secondary schools to recruit students just completing their GCE Ordinary Levels, or what at the time sanctioned secondary education. Today, parents have become so obsessed with general education that they are prepared to pay tuition fee of up to 300 000 FCFA, just to gain a place for a child in an educational institution. Clearly, our educational authorities must reorientate educational priorities.
The truth is that if general education and technical education are placed side by side, the latter is sure to tower over the former in terms of job creation and income generation. That is because technical education provides the child with immediate practical skills which are marketable. During a recent send off party for Class Seven children at Government Primary School, Abangoh in Bamenda, the electrical wiring of the room, microphone and musical equipment were done by none other than pupils who left that same class a year previously and who had just finished the first year at Government Technical College, Nkwen. Interestingly, during that one year, the two boys had acquired enough skills to be able to do a job for which a professional electrician would have been paid to do. And as might be expected, at the time they left the party, the Headmaster of the school gave them some pocket money, which whatever was the amount, was manna from heaven, inaccessible to their general education counterparts. This exploit on the part of the two boys is certainly not a case in isolation because technical students have been known to use their skills during holidays and sometimes at weekends to make some money. This has been known to happen in carpentry workshops for those doing woodwork and joinery, building sites for those doing building construction, restaurants and hotels for those doing catering and hotel management, and garages for those doing motor vehicle technology.
Towards the end of August, private colleges will be swarmed by a large number of graduates and GCE 'A' Level holders seeking jobs. Usually, the job seekers are at least four times the number jobs available. On the other hand, in colleges where technical education is offered, principals will, as usual have a hard time finding teachers to fill vacant posts, even if out of frustration, they lower the threshold to Advanced Level holders.
Although technical education is so valuable, its cost is low, compared with what parents pay in private colleges where only general education is offered. Technical colleges offer a wide range of disciplines which include dressmaking, electricity, accountancy, secretaryship, air-conditioning and refrigeration, to name those. Cameroon is in great need of such middle level professionals. Incidentally, the country's neighbour, Nigeria, not only understands the stakes but actually goes out of its way to create an enabling environment for those who choose the technical path. It would be relieving indeed if while parents are now preparing to enroll their children in college for the first time this year, they seriously consider technical education for what it is worth.