Sunday, March 16, 2014

Towards A New 'Framework' for Vocational Education

Vocational Education is the new-found panacea for development problems, we are often told, as one ambitious programme after another are rolled out by High Profile politicians. I have earnestly followed the fortunes of many of these programmes, often looking from inside as well as outside, here in Britain, in India, in Malaysia, and in Africa. I have written about these experiences on this blog, mainly noting that these programmes usually represent a colossal waste of public money, offer poor education and fail to build up confidence and professional expertise among the learners. While there may be successful experiments, society-wide as in Germany or in individual cases (I have also written about the historical Bailey Schools in China, which kept the economy alive during the Sino-Japanese war), these lessons are usually ignored in the now-prevalent model of mass scale vocational education, funded by the state, delivered to the unemployed by 'providers', usually commercial organisations doing it for a profit. While I continue to research the field, my initial ideas are that this model is not fit for purpose, and fail for several reasons: 

First, there is a problem of motivation of the learners: They sign up for these programmes not to gain the mastery of a certain kind of work, but often to keep their unemployment benefits. They have no interest in what's being taught and no motivation to make a living out of it. They often don't attend, and when they attend, their focus is mainly on getting over with the lessons. In summary, there is little education in vocational education.

Second, there is a problem of motivation of the providers: They are delivering targets, they don't care about learning either. They would happily report an absent learner for completion if the paperwork could be done. If they are paid for success, they would certify any number of learner as possible. If employability is used as a benchmark, they would create pseudo jobs by employing the learner themselves, using some of the money they get for training in paying a low wage to the hapless learner. They would train on skills which are financially profitable to teach but may not be needed in the marketplace, make it as theoretical as possible because practicals are often expensive. In summary, again, there is little educational motive here.

Third, there is a problem of motivation of the government: They are, as James Scott will say, seeing this problem like a state. It is not about education at all: This is about a diet of 'learning objectives' being fed to a set of people who need to be kept out of dole and out of the streets. This is hardly about creating happy or productive lives, but rather about getting political mileage with the taxpayers that it is making the unemployed work harder and getting political mileage with those trained by making them feel guilty for their own failure (rather than blaming the state). There is absolutely no education in the political equation of vocational education.

Finally, if one thought the employers would be the knights of the shining armour for vocational education, one is being plain delusional. Employers don't really employ anymore, and they are going to employ even less. And, for that, they often have enough people vying for those jobs: Even more so in a bad economy. And, further, in today's environment, employers have very little commitment to any particular local community (except in the cases, as in Africa and India, when they acquire land for mining and factories, and want to train displaced people so that they go away) and all they care for is their immediate requirements for people, which is about people with very specific skills and ready for immediate hire.

Yet, vocational education remains important. So important, in fact, that most education is going vocational: The most profitable departments of the university are usually their business and law schools, medical students don't have to be deferential to classics students as they had to be in Harvard merely a hundred years ago, and the mantra in all Education settings is practical skills. The young people are often clueless in the face of a rapidly changing economy, when all the careers and life formats they knew from their parents are rapidly disappearing. We have clear examples, IT education in India, of vocational education changing whole societies. And, when employment is shrinking, there is a new class of professional artisans replacing the company man, those who can do specific things, and those bear an identity based on their mastery of a vocation.

Looking at this contrast, it does not look like a mere failure of government policy. Rather, what seems to be happening is that what we call vocational education isn't vocational education at all. It is the equivalent of workhouses in the industrial revolution Britain, elaborate confinement facilities for people who we want to keep off the streets. It is a Foucaldian mechanism of making poor people feel guilty for their own failure, nothing else. The contraption, a mechanical, check-list driven, force fed menu of skills and abilities, looks more like a brainwashing device than an educational arrangement.

Yet, we are possibly at a breakpoint yet again. The post-90s optimism that we have arrived at the end of history is disappearing: The failure of self-governing markets, climatic limitations of consumer society, the slackness of demand that point to finiteness of Capitalist prosperity should point our policy makers to think more seriously about the professional artisan societies that we must be building. And, in this scheme of things, we need a new framework of vocational education.

Such a new framework should represent a departure from the current model in several important aspects:

First, this must acknowledge that skills are socially constructed. So, the publisher driven, one size fits all, model must give way to a way of creating skills education frameworks tailored for different communities. In doing so, one would hope, we would be able to listen to the learners. It will then be less about trying to make plumbers out of Hip-Hop artist wannabes, and make them into Sound Technicians instead.

Second, the checklist driven nature of vocational education is out of sync with new vocations. So it may no longer be an either-or between vocational education and higher skills: A vocationally trained person must also be able to think critically about the professions. The educational framework today is no longer about a static vocation, but about creating professional artisans, those who are skilled workers, entrepreneurs and masters of their own lives. This needs a different attitude both towards the learners and the learning: Stigmatizing vocational education, for those who can't go to college, is hardly the way to do so.

Third,  the impermanence of any education is to be understood and accepted. Any vocational education must develop the skills for lifelong learning in all seriousness, because that's what the learners will need to be successful. The vocations are disappearing, and 'Professional Artisan' is indeed the metaphor: We are into the zone of CPD in vocational education too.

Fourth, the distinction between Higher and Lower education needs to end too: Vocational Learning should be embedded in school education and Critical Thinking can't anymore be kept apart from practical education. We need to change vocational education, but the same goes for Higher Ed too.

Finally, the politicians should stop talking about it. Vocational Education is as boring a subject as getting people properly trained, rather than just another handout to people who can't. Politicians do a great disservice to the cause of good vocational education when they talk too much about it: They should now leave it to where it belongs, some serious policy making.

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