June 1, 2012, by Simon McGrath

The UNESCO World Vocational Education and Training (VET) Report and the purposes of VET

This post from Professor Simon McGrath first appeared on the Network for Policy Research, Review and Advice on Education and Training (NORRAG) blog about international education, training and development aid and policy. NORRAG is a focus and a forum for the analysis of international cooperation in the education and training field. Simon is one of the co-authors of the UNESCO World Report and Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Educational Development. However, he is not a UNESCO official and is not writing here in an official capacity.

One of the most important contributions of the UNESCO World Report on VET is its argument that the purposes and performance of VET should be viewed through three policy lenses. The economic lens is the most conventional one used to analyse VET, but the equity lens is also very well-established in some parts of the world. To these, the World Report offers a third lens: that of VET transformation. The Report argues that there is no correct mix of the three lenses. Rather, the importance given to each lens is a matter for national dialogues. What the Report does insist upon, however, is that they must be seen as interlocking and not as policy alternatives.

VET policy lenses

Source: UNESCO, 2012.

Traditional economic approaches to VET are correct to argue that it must be concerned with preparation for, and participation in, the world of work. We must ask questions regarding its efficiency and effectiveness in supporting favourable labour market outcomes for learners, and the extent to which it can meet labour market demands for skills.  This should lead us on to consider matters of responsiveness, accountability and attractiveness. How do VET institutions and systems respond quickly and appropriately to labour markets and employers; offer funders value for money; and become seen as credible choices for learners and parents? Without attention to such questions, VET cannot be successful.

In contrast, the equity lens is concerned with advancing VET quality through promoting access, equity and inclusion across learning and working contexts. It begins from the fundamental assumption that VET should promote access to skills for all, regardless of class, ethnicity, age, disability or other social characteristics. It reminds us that inequity in VET access is highly structured. We know that access to initial VET, whether public or private, is shaped by factors such as prior educational attainment levels and socio-economic status. Thus, it can serve to reward those who are already relatively advantaged. Equally, employees with higher existing levels of education and training typically get better access to further learning.  VET can only be good quality if it addresses these issues.

Equitable outcomes must also be focused upon as too often in the past access for “non-traditional learners” has been to low status programmes with poor labour market outcomes. Equally, we should recall that even where access to good quality initial VET becomes more equitable, discrimination in the labour market can still prevent VET graduates from realising the full social and economic potential of their learning. VET performance needs to be understood within a broader societal context.

A major message of the World Report is that VET urgently needs to be transformed as many present approaches are unlikely to meet the future needs of labour markets and new generations. VET is now increasingly recognised as initiating innovation in the workplace through introducing new technical and broader skills, and also by empowering people with the capacity to be agents of innovation within enterprises. This recognition needs to be strengthened and deepened.

VET must be related to the issue of sustainable development. Whilst “green skills” are part of this (and greener approaches to skills development), the real challenges of sustainability are far larger and more complex and have to do with national and international models of development, including issues of economic and social, as well as environmental, sustainability.  We need to find new ways of fully integrating VET into these pressing debates.

The Report reiterates UNESCO’s long-standing commitment to lifelong and lifewide learning.  As befits UNESCO’s mandate, it also places great stress on broad notions of human development, seeing the economic sphere as only part of a wider thrust towards improving well-being.  The Report thus locates itself in the long-standing liberal tradition of seeing VET as contributing to the wider vocation of becoming more fully human.

Together, the three lenses offer a valuable new way of thinking about complex and sometimes contradictory purposes for VET. Whereas the economic and equity lenses have important functions in terms of VET systems and reforms, and may be used to assess the extent to which VET policies and systems are achieving economic and equity objectives, the transformative lens brings a more holistic, forward-looking and innovative perspective to VET policy review and development.  Together, the lenses help begin a new conversation about VET performance that goes beyond the current narrow and tired set of indicators that tend to be considered internationally.

Simon McGrath (Director of Research and Professor of International Education and Development – School of Education)

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