Technical and Vocational Education and Training – a promising path to empowerment and poverty alleviation

Most people associated with development issues are aware that roughly 1 billion people across the world live on less than US$1 a day. What is perhaps less well known is that there are also about 1 billion people who are illiterate. Undoubtedly, large parts of both groups are made up of the same people. And girls and women form a majority of those who are unable to read and write.
Education For AllIn 1990 the international education community met in Jomtien, Thailand to address the issue of the need for Education For All (EFA). Ten years later, in April 2000, a broader group of stakeholders met in Dakar, Senegal to monitor the progress made in EFA and to set new goals. Governments, international organizations and civil society committed themselves to achieving six goals over the following 15 years. These goals address among others, the issues of literacy, gender inclusiveness in education, access to quality education and the acquisition of lifeskills. The emphasis was on making people capable of functioning independently in an increasingly technological world. EFA Goal 3 set in Dakar stressed the importance of lifeskills as the key to independent functioning for both young people and adults – from engaging in a livelihood to protecting oneself from HIV/AIDS.
To date, the EFA process has focused attention chiefly on the need to expand basic education opportunities. This has meant, in the first instance, increasing access to primary education, particularly for girls. In the wake of Millenium Development Goal 2, which stresses the need to « Achieve universal primary education », strenuous efforts have been made to prepare the needed teaching staff, build classrooms and implement policies and programmes that can boost the delivery of primary-level education. In some countries, one of the most effective policy changes has been the abolition of school fees for primary education.
Although enrolment figures have not yet reached targeted levels in all the geographical regions, it is acknowledged that there has been meaningful expansion of access to primary school in most Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Unprecedented numbers of children are making their way through the final years of their first-level of education. This implies that a generation of learners will soon begin to exit the system, leading policy-makers to ponder their next course of action – providing opportunities for both general secondary-level education and vocational skills training as a preparation for entering the world of work.
Where should the graduates of primary education go ? A well thought-out, effective strategy must be developed to ensure that investments in primary schooling yield returns for individuals, their communities and countries. Furthermore, the consequences of raised expectations among these young people that cannot be fulfilled pose serious social questions. Yet, the existing facilities for formal secondary education are limited and many LDCs will be unable to afford the additional funds needed for increasing them. Moreover, relevance and education quality are likely to be compromised as scaling up takes place while increases in the numbers of qualified teachers and classrooms lag far behind. Considering alternative types of learning mechanisms is therefore an imperative if the EFA goals are to be attained.
The main concern of decision-makers is to put in place education programmes that equip learners for full participation in society as productive and engaged citizens. One essential element of this is adequate preparation for the world of work. For youngsters completing primary education this may involve livelihood skills development leading to technical and vocational education and training (TVET) within the ambit of secondary education.
The value of TVET is increasingly being recognized by governments. While countries such as Germany have over the past half-century built successful industries supported by effective TVET programmes and others like the Republic of Korea have done the same more recently, many developing countries are beginning to prioritize TVET in an effort to prepare their youth for productive employment. At a recent UNESCO international meeting of high-level education policy-makers in Bonn, Germany, participants concluded that :
« since education is considered the key to effective development strategies, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) must be the master key that can alleviate poverty, promote peace, conserve the environment, improve the quality of life for all and help achieve sustainable development ».
If we are to understand sustainable development as a form of development that enhances the economic well-being of all individuals in a community in a way that contributes to social cohesion and democratic values, while protecting rather than jeopardizing the resilience of the natural environment, it is clear that TVET is a crucial tool for attaining it. TVET is a branch of education that can give its young graduates the skills to do productive work using levels of technology that suit their communities. In this way they can generate incomes for themselves, add to the prosperity in their communities and even safeguard the environment.
Policy-makers in many LDCs, particularly in Africa, are now convinced that equipping young people with TVET skills linked with entrepreneurship training is a promising path to empowering them to escape the trap of poverty. In the absence of wage employment, young people with vocational skills must set up their own small businesses that provide services that their communities need. This is also expected to have the beneficial effect of cranking up the local economy from within instead of creating a culture of dependence on external assistance. In rural communities, TVET graduates have the ability to add value to agricultural products and traditional arts and crafts. In this way they can contribute to preserving the culture and traditions of those communities and reduce migration to urban centres. In countries emerging from conflict, former militia members can be mobilized in national reconstruction activities that impart ’on the job’ TVET.
Traditionally, it was thought that TVET did not create employment. Globalization is rapidly changing this perception, as China and India, the most obvious examples, have demonstrated in recent years. If a country has a skilled workforce, it can attract business as industries based on older technologies relocate to countries where labour is cheaper. African policy-makers would like to see their countries positioned to take advantage of these opportunities as well. The challenge is to transform young people completing primary and lower secondary education into workers with the knowledge, skills and attitudes to be adaptable, flexible and competitive. But such a workforce could not be developed through the classic TVET models that focused on specialized workshop skills. Rather, generic ’soft’ skills like working in teams, problem solving ability and entrepreneurship are more important for today’s industries where specialized skills can be acquired on the job. In fact, prospective employers prefer employees who possess these ’soft’ skills so that they can be trained according to the specific requirements of their industry. In Germany, as many as 65% of all young people receive some form of TVET. These programmes impart not only the traditional skills but also the skills that underlie technological innovation because developed countries need to generate new products and services as the older industries relocate in developing countries.
The benefits from TVET do not stop there. Since the working methods of the vast numbers of people in industry and agriculture must assuredly have an impact on the natural environment, TVET graduates can be a valuable human resource of sound environmental practice. Indeed, more and better quality TVET is a means of lessening environmental impact on several levels. First, many TVET programmes are centred on the transmission of restoring and repairing skills. This leads to a longer lifespan of materials, and thus less waste. Second, the concern of TVET with innovation and more efficient work practices entails the development of techniques that have less or even a positive impact on the environment. Finally, community autonomy implies a reduced need for transport of goods, reducing energy usage and thus pollution.
What is UNESCO’s role in this ? As the United Nations agency concerned with education, science, culture and communication, UNESCO is ideally placed to operate at the crossroads of efforts to improve human capacity for poverty reduction and sustainable development. In its role as an international standard-setter, the Organization has overseen the adoption of two normative instruments : the Revised Recommendation concerning Technical and Vocational Education 2001 and the Convention on Technical and vocational Education (1989). These documents set out the internationally accepted standards and practices in TVET and serve as guidelines for the Member States. As an observatory of ideas, UNESCO convened in 1999 in Seoul, Republic of Korea, the Second International Congress on Technical and Vocational Education which brought together Ministers of Education and specialists in TVET. The Seoul Congress, as it came to be known, provided a forum for the international community to meet to decide how TVET should adjust to the changing economic and social circumstances of the twenty-first century. Indeed, many TVET programmes and pathways were conceived in developed countries at a time when heavy industry was experiencing labour shortages. Today, in a world where globalization has altered business practice and workers may expect to change careers several times during their lifetime, the potential beneficiaries of TVET are to be found within all segments of the population and its content and methods must respond to this new challenge.
The set of recommendations that emerged from the Seoul Congress acknowledged the essential role played by TVET in alleviating poverty and set the stage for a new approach to the TVET classroom. Rather than maintaining a focus on highly-sophisticated workshops, the recommendations urged the promotion of a problem-solving pedagogical approach, familiarity with information and communication technology, environmental awareness and entrepreneurship skills, among others. In addition to equipping learners with competencies appropriate to the new forms of work, it was felt that these initiatives would assist TVET in shaking off its image as a ’second choice’ appropriate primarily for students with lower academic attainments, by bringing TVET closer to the world of work and making learners and their families aware of the advantages of pursuing TVET.
Since the Seoul Congress, UNESCO has worked actively to raise awareness of the normative instruments in TVET and to encourage its Member States to inscribe them in their practices and education and training legislation. It has done so by advocacy among education decision-makers to implement the standards and practices set out in the normative instruments, providing opportunities for TVET institutions to liaise continuously on best practices through the information exchange operations of the UNESCO-UNEVOC International Centre, and by producing policy documents on specific topics of interest to policy-makers.
As the divide between the developed countries and the LDCs seems to widen, the international community is attempting to mobilize the resources to launch poor countries on the path to sustainable human-centred development. With the multi-faceted benefits that TVET offers, it promises to be a bridge to a more prosperous and secure future for both rich and poor countries.
Elspeth McOmish and Mohan Perera Section for Technical and Vocational Education, UNESCO