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#WDR2018 Reality Check #15: Technical and vocational education and training – realising the potential to transform the lives of millions, by Pat Forward

The most striking features of the World Development Report 2018’s chapter on technical and vocational training (TVET) are that it is a superficial examination of the role and impact of TVET around the world, and that it persists in perpetuating a very narrow framing of the role that the sector plays.

The tone is set very early on. The chapter opens with a deficit dichotomy – referring to only two paths out of school - “drop-outs” or “graduates”[1]. It then goes on to assert the importance of linking vocational education with employer (rather than student) needs. It refers frequently to the importance of workplace training, arguing that it deepens workers’ skills, but according to the authors, more critically – raises firms’ productivity. It refers throughout to the very narrow construction of “jobs” rather than careers or vocations, despite displaying an understanding of the difference between preparation for careers as a preferred outcome of TVET, not short term jobs and narrowly conceived, employer-determined skills for “just-in-time” work. Employers are requesting workers who have been prepared for the jobs of yesterday not the jobs of tomorrow and certainly not the jobs of the future.  Recent work by EI – Global Trends in TVET: A framework for social justice describes the dangers of this narrow emphasis on “just-in-time” skills for work,  which results in narrow and instrumental vocational education focussing on specific skills for particular occupations. Instead, it is argued, students should be equipped “with broad ranging knowledge and skills they need to engage in fulfilling careers, and contribute to their occupations, families and communities.”[2]

The WDR authors do not mention the manifestly obvious public good embodied in TVET, its role in developing people’s lives, the importance of a broadly conceived reference point for skills and the critical need to move from a conception which underpins the sector of maximising returns on human capital rather than nurturing people living lives they have reason to value – on nurturing flourishing productive citizens. Again, EI’s Global Trends in TVET, in discussing the contrast between narrow conceptions of human capital skills development, and the much broader idea of a capabilities approach, elaborates further on the importance of putting citizens at the centre of vocational education policy. The capabilities approach places human flourishing, and the importance of ensuring women and others experiencing disadvantage and poverty are at the forefront of vocational education.[3] More importantly, the capabilities approach emphasises giving students access to the knowledge and understanding they need to develop a broader, adaptive capacity in the rapidly changing world of work. This is a much deeper engagement with these issues than that which is presented in the World Development Report.

Critically, the chapter makes no mention at all of governments’ obligations to fund and resource a vocational education sector which can support what must be a key objective for all countries at this important moment in history – the nurturing of flourishing, productive citizens. Throughout the world, TVET continues to languish as the poor cousin of schools and universities because governments fail to prioritise its role in the development of flourishing productive citizens, choosing instead to limit its purpose to the development of narrowly conceived skills for employer determined jobs.

The Australian vocational education system is a study in the destruction of a highly regarded, well-functioning vocational education system, with public TAFE (technical and further education) institutions at its core, and sophisticated networks and relationships between employers, unions and governments underpinning it. For the last two decades, successive governments in Australia have attempted to privatise the sector, offering government funding to for-profit private providers, imposing a narrowly conceived Competency Based Training regime on the sector, withdrawing funds from the public system, replacing funding for institutions with student loans, and continuing to argue throughout that the most important feature of vocational education should be that it is employer-controlled.

As the Australian government’s determination to impose market reforms of the Australian vocational education sector peaked in the last five years, funding for the sector collapsed, the growth of profits in the private sector peaked – with all the “profits” derived from the rorting of public funding, close to 4 billion dollars was lost to the system as a result of a failed student loan scheme – and critically, enrolments and participation in vocational education have collapsed.

The Australian governments obsession with market organisation and design, its rigid adherence to Competency Based Training and the proliferation and commercialisation of literally thousands of Training Packages, the undermining and under-resourcing of teachers, including a failure to resource or develop teaching qualifications, and support teachers preparation and development – all these things are a direct result of a failure to support a sophisticated public vocational education and training sector.

Australia has ruined its vocational education system, undermining the public educational institutions which were at its centre, sacking thousands of teachers, and consigning hundreds of thousands of students to a future of debt, for qualifications and training which were, in many cases, never delivered.

Buchanan, Wheelahan and Yu pose two important questions about how to approach vocational education policy in recent research into the underpinning of the Australian vocational education sector:

What objectives should we be pursuing, and what is the reference point for skills?

The answer to these questions is relevant to the development of TVET systems around the world.

Should the object of TVET systems be maximising returns on human capital (with a priority on infinitely flexible labour) or nurturing people to live lives they have reason to value (with a priority on nurturing flourishing, productive citizens)?

And what is the reference point for skills? Should it just be competencies derived from current jobs? Or should it be capabilities to adapt to an uncertain future, one increasingly impacted by new technology and unpinned by people’s ability to move quickly within and between job clusters or vocational streams? This broader approach to TVET referred to in the EI study demonstrates that  people need to have the knowledge, skills and attributes required to navigate, negotiate and engage in these aspects of life; the capacity to be skilful at work emerges from broader knowledge, skills and attributes. WDR spotlight 5 deals specifically with the impact of technology on the world of work, and on learning, and makes the salient point that adapting to new technologies is imperative to preparation for participation in the rapidly changing world of work. However, EI’s study  also acknowledges that these new technological skills must be built on the foundations of a literacy and numeracy – an approach inherent in a broader approach to TVET, and sadly lacking in the WDR analysis.

The World Bank would do well to approach the TVET sector in a more considered and sophisticated way. As a critical education sector for individuals and for society, it can play a key role in transforming peoples’ lives, as well as establishing key relationships with industry and unions in transforming the economy and the future of work. The TVET sector cannot create jobs, but it can transform the way in which the economy works.

#WDR2018 Reality Check is a blog series organized by Education International.  The series brings together the voices of education experts and activists – researchers, teachers, unionists and civil society actors - from across the world in response to the 2018 World Development Report,Learning to Realize Education’s Promise. The series will form the basis of a publication in advance of the WB Spring Meetings 2018. If you would like to contribute to the series, please get in touch with Jennifer at jennifer.ulrick@ei-ie.org. All views expressed are those of the authors alone and do not represent the views of Education International.

Check out the previous post in the series by Jeremy Rappleye & Hikaru Komatsu: #WDR2018 Reality Check #14: Where is the World in the WDR 2018? An Appeal to Rename it the ‘American Development Report’


[1]World Bank. 2018. World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education’s Promise. Washington, DC: World Bank. doi:10.1596/978-1-4648-1096-1. License: Creative Commons Attribution CC BY 3.0 IGO p154

[2]Wheelahan, Leesa and Moodie, Gavin (2016) Global Trends in TVET: A framework for social justice, Brussels: Education International p 9-10

[3]Ibid.


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Pat Forward

Pat Forward is the Deputy Federal Secretary and Federal TAFE Secretary of the Australian Education Union. She has taught in TAFE Colleges, at university and in schools. She is an advocate of the public TAFE system in Australia, and a critic of the damaging effects of competition and marketisation. She is committed to maintaining and extending the status of the profession of TAFE teaching, for all TAFE teachers.

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