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.