TVET, capabilities and social justice, by Leesa Wheelahan

What is technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and what does it do? This can be a hard question to answer because there isn’t a lot of agreement about what it does, what it should do, who should pay for it, how it should be offered, and whether it is offered in schools or in post-school TVET institutions (it does both, depending on the country). In contrast, even though it would be contested, most people could broadly agree on what schools and universities do.

Education International insists  that TVET plays a crucial role in supporting social justice and sustainable and inclusive economic and social development. EI commissioned us to undertake a study to explore what TVET would look like and could do if it supported the concept of human growth, rather than narrow notions of human capital.  So far, we have undertaken in-depth case studies on Australia, England and Taiwan in the first stage of this project, and we will be reporting on these case studies at EI’s  Further and Higher Education and Research conference in Taiwan this  November.

We are using the capabilities approach to think about the role of TVET and what it should do. The capabilities approach was first developed by the Nobel Laureate and economist Amartya Sen and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum. The capabilities approach is widely used to evaluate the extent to which social policies support disadvantaged groups in society to access the kinds of opportunities (and the resources they need to do so) that will enable them to make choices about how they will live, who and how they will love, and to live lives that they have reason to value. The capabilities approach underpins the United Nation’s Human Development Index.

We are using the capabilities approach as a contrast to government policies that focus on the role of TVET as supplying skilled labour to meet the immediate needs of the labour market. These policies are based on human capital theory which posits a direct line between investment in skills and good labour market outcomes. Except that it doesn’t work. Narrow human capital approaches have not been able to solve unemployment and skills mismatches and the lack of good jobs for large numbers of people, particularly in low and middle-income countries.

Public TVET institutions and TVET teachers in particular are often blamed for these outcomes for not teaching the ‘right’ kind of skills that are needed by employers . However, teachers and teacher unions are often not consulted or directly excluded from policy making processes about TVET and its curriculum, while at the same time, narrow instrumental curricula have been imposed on them, their institutions have been subject to funding cuts, and their sector subjected to marketisation and privatisation.

TVET’s links to the labour market make it particularly vulnerable to policies of privatisation and it is the most privatised and marketised sector of education. It is the only sector of education where a reduction in the costs of teaching individual students is regarded as an efficiency, and not as a threat to the quality of provision as would be the case in the schools and higher education sectors.

TVET teachers have more holistic understandings of what TVET should do. In responding to a survey in this project, teachers from England, Australia and Taiwan listed the two most important goals of TVET as developingstudents as active citizens who participate in their community and society and preparing students for their roles as workers.

In our research, we explored the role that TVET institutions can play as ‘anchor’ institutions of their communities in supporting socially inclusive and sustainable regional economic and social development. Rather than limit their work to responding to existing requirements for skills, TVET institutions need to be adequately funded to consider the knowledge and skills that will be needed for work in the future, and to develop, codify and institutionalise this knowledge. They need to be sufficiently funded to engage with their communities and industries and to develop programmes that suit local needs.

Students who attend TVET should have the same opportunities to fulfil their aspirations as do students who go to universities. That means they need to have choices in the sorts of programs that they do, and the kinds of jobs they want rather than being limited to programmes linked to low-skilled ‘in demand’ jobs. This requires local TVET institutions that have deep connections with their communities and industries to help create these opportunities; institutions that are trusted to know what is best for their local communities and to work with social partners to create high quality vocational education that will create opportunities for students, rather than limit their opportunities through narrow training.

TVET institutions are institutions and not providers. There is a big difference between the two. The notion of a provider implies one among many, and it doesn’t much matter if it is this or that provider which is providing the ‘service’. Providers come and go, and wax and wane in response to market demand. In this vision, the invisible hand of the market results in the provision of training for skills when and where as needed, with no need to invest in institutions, institutional capacity or teacher development. Governments only need to invest in markets, not institutions. Competition is seen to be a self-evident good, with profit as the incentive. The problem is that in a for profit market the point is to make profits, and, as the Australian and English case studies have shown, monstrous profits have been made by driving down quality and bringing the system to breaking point.

Building strong public TVET institutions requires investing in TVET teachers and providing them with opportunities to become and continue developing as expert teachers as well as industry experts. Strong institutions require well prepared, qualified and recognised staff. Expert TVET teachers need to be able to undertake research on how work is changing and develop appropriate curriculum in response. They need to understand and be able to implement inclusive teaching and learning strategies to work with the most disadvantaged students, and to be able to build strong partnerships with their local communities and industries. Only strong public TVET systems that are built on trust in public institutions and TVET teachers can achieve these outcomes.


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Leesa Wheelahan

Professor Leesa Wheelahan leads the Pathways to Education and Work research group within the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Her co-researchers are Professor Gavin Moodie, Professor Ruth Childs, Dr Eric Lavigne, and PhD students Leping Mou, Fatima Samji, Lindsay Coppens, Ashley Rostamian.

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