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Fashion or passion? Policy matters in skills development

©UNESCO

©UNESCO/M.Manuson

©UNESCO/M.Manuson

©UNESCO/M.Manuson

20.04.2012

UNESCO Programme Specialist Mr Youngsup Choi challenges our perceptions on TVET.

Q: Firstly, how do you define “TVET”?

A: This is a complicated and much debated issue. As you know, TVET stands for Technical and Vocational Education and Training. But the demarcation between TVET and general education is a bit arbitrary and in my opinion, changing. I suppose a distinction could be expressed as follows: general education implicitly presupposes that continued education will follow, whilst vocational education supposes that, upon completion of the course, the student will enter the labour market. 

But another layer of complexity is added – what is the difference between technical and vocational education? In my opinion, technical education requires a broad range of skills, whilst vocational education requires a narrower range of knowledge and skills. It’s more specific. Consider a spectrum, with liberal arts education at one end and vocational education at the other; technical education would be in the middle. Vocational education targets a very concrete profession and is very specific. Liberal Arts, on the other hand, entertains no clear consideration of specific vocations. Technical education is in the middle of these two extremes.


Q: What key trends have occurred within TVET in recent years?

A: There are several trends, but two are particularly noteworthy: 1) the decreased demarcation between TVET and general education and 2) the incredible internationalisation of TVET.

We see a trend both towards the “vocationalisation” of general education and towards the “generalisation” of vocational education. Indeed, the dividing line between general education and vocational education is becoming increasingly blurred. And why is this? In this knowledge-based economy, vocational students need a general all-round grounding to accompany their specific vocational education. Generic skills in fact seem increasingly important, given the ever-changing skills requirements that modern society demands.  

On the other hand, general education is becoming increasingly vocationalised. Take, for example, the Republic of Korea: as much as eighty per cent of students now enter universities and colleges, where they need to learn practical knowledge and skills for their future life in the labour market. Higher education courses need to include vocationalised components, for example, literature programmes might include practical courses for journalists. The perceptions of higher education are changing and vocational training is now increasingly considered a prerequisite for employment. 

A second key trend is the internationalisation of TVET and skills development. It is not enough for countries to build education programmes in isolation; they must also consider how others are developing their TVET programmes. This is a globalised society. It's time we thought more broadly about TVET and skills development.

Q: Given these trends, do you have any advice for countries developing their TVET policies?  


"In this knowledge-based economy, vocational students need a general all-round grounding to accompany their specific vocational education."

A: Each country tries to learn from other countries’ experiences: we call this phenomenon bench-marking. But it is in no way easy: benchmarking necessitates a deep understanding of the social institutions surrounding certain systems or policies, in both the target country and the country being compared. Take the example of the German dual training system. Many countries have wanted to benchmark this system, but in most cases this has not been successful. Why? Because the supportive social infrastructure so crucial to the functioning of the dual system is unique to Germany. In Germany, there are company-level work councils composed of representatives from trade unions and employers. These institutions are necessary for apprenticeships to function well; without them apprentices may simply be exploited as cheap labour and not have the opportunity to acquire practical skills. Thus, the benchmarking of certain systems or policies should involve a thorough understanding of the broader context under which the system or policy is working. Without such an undertaking, we might  find ourselves with quite unexpected results! 

Also, when we think about “skills development” what do we mean? Is it simply the development of technical skills? I would argue that governments must consider that skills development is not solely a technical issue, but also an issue of social policy. “Soft skills”, our ability to work well with others, our ethical standards, our problem-solving skills, to name a few, cannot be developed in isolation. We cannot, for instance, expect a sufficient level of problem-solving skills from a worker who does not feel loyal towards their organisation. Workers will simply not put any effort into problem-solving, if they are not motivated. Therefore, it should be emphasised that the development of soft skills is context-dependent. We have to see “skills development” as going beyond the purely technical – it is much more than this. 

My third piece of advice concerns assumptions regarding the planning of human resource development. Sometimes governments say that there should be certain number of graduates for specific trades or occupations, due to an anticipated shortage of supply of ‘skilled’ workers. For me, this kind of approach treats the education system as mechanical i.e. a product is destined to go to a certain predefined area. But is this really a proper assumption? What happens when jobs do not fulfil expectations of students? Students, as living individuals, will simply chose to follow a different career path or not to enter the labour market. Thus, the education system is not a mechanical process but a social process. This means that governments should consider the ‘real’ situation in the labour market, and therefore they need to ensure that a particular field is sufficiently attractive for graduate students, if they really want to prepare for an anticipated change in labour demand. Therefore, policy makers should have a far broader perspective which not only includes an analysis of education sector but also of the labour market and social dimensions.

Q: What is the public perception of TVET? Is there an image issue? If so, how can this be addressed? 


"I would argue that governments must consider that skills development is not solely a technical issue, but also an issue of social policy."

A: There are several causes for a potentially negative perception of TVET. TVET is often associated with vocational education within secondary schools which enables students to go on to become “blue collar” workers such as plumbers, electricians, etc. This type of education is often the target of criticism because it appears to close doors and to artificially place students in one particular subsector of the labour force. In truth, TVET encompasses so much more and higher end TVET programmes such as dentistry are highly esteemed. Unfortunately, however, it is the lower end programmes that get the attention and are responsible for TVET’s dubious reputation.

And, in the Asia-Pacific region, there is a tradition of recruiting new employees based on their education level, not using vocational qualifications. That is, employers recruit new employees based on their general competencies and train them to be generalists who are capable of doing several kinds of tasks, instead of getting them to be specialists who can work on specific tasks. Actually this approach provides more flexibility when responding to rapidly changing business environments. Employers do not value specific vocational qualifications, which demonstrate that a candidate has dexterity in a specific vocation or occupation, so much. This situation implies that vocational education focusing on very specific qualifications does not guarantee better employment opportunities than general education. Such unique practices in the labour market can be regarded as one of the reasons for the unpopularity of vocational education in Asian countries.


"TVET is often associated with vocational education within secondary schools which enables students to go on to become “blue collar” workers such as plumbers, electricians, etc."

Also, educators often promote TVET as a route to a better job and a better lifestyle in the poorest communities. Yet, in many cases, the labour market is not ready to support higher paid and more interesting work. The labour market needs to be reformed before we can entice people on to TVET courses with the promise of higher wages and better working conditions; otherwise we are, quite bluntly, lying to our students about the benefits that TVET can bring.

What can we do to change this? Firstly, we need to understand the fundamental causes behind the unpopularity. Does it stem from limited information? Bad working conditions for those who follow courses? Or basic differences in the labour market? Without understanding the reasons behind the mistrust of TVET, attempts to redress the issue will fail.

Q: You are soon to return to the Republic of Korea to continue your work with the Korean Research Institution for Vocational Education and Training (KRIVET). What parting advice could you offer UNESCO regarding its future work in TVET?


"The labour market needs to be reformed before we can entice people on to TVET courses with the promise of higher wages and better working conditions; otherwise we are, quite bluntly, lying to our students about the benefits that TVET can bring." 

I view one of UNESCO’s principal roles to be the provision of upstream policy advice to member states. One of UNESCO’s principle tasks, therefore, must be to strengthen and expand its knowledge base. Of course, UNESCO should not work alone, but in conjunction with national agencies and institutes and experts. This is fundamental to generating the knowledge and evidence needed to make substantive improvements in policy decision-making. To collect knowledge efficiently, it is also necessary to clarify key policy issues and ascertain which issues are important in this region at this time. 

On a personal note, my experience at UNESCO reinforces for me the great importance that international players can make to improve the lives of individuals through improving opportunities afforded through education. I’m returning to Seoul, but I’ll continue to support UNESCO in its role, providing policy advice and helping our member states to formulate their key policy agendas.