Straight Talk

Blending Vocational with Traditional Education

Abdul Mannan

16 February, 2019 12:00 AM printer

Blending Vocational with Traditional Education

Abdul Mannan

GCSEs and A-Levels should be scrapped and replaced by a mix of academic and vocational subjects,” says Robert Halfon, Chairman of the UK Education Select Committee. Halfon is currently a Minister of State for Higher Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Careers in the Department of Education. He also said GCSEs for 16-year-olds had become “pointless.” (BBC, 11 February 2019)

A-Level exams are very popular in most of the Commonwealth countries, including Bangladesh, and are equivalent to our Higher Secondary Certificate Examination. Yet, Halfon, in a recent lecture given in London, said he wanted to end what he sees as an excessively narrow pathway in secondary schools and advised that, instead of taking academic subjects at GCSE and A-Level, young people should have a broader curriculum, with vocational training alongside traditional subjects. He proposed a baccalaureate system to replace A-Levels, with a mix of arts, sciences and vocational subjects and exams only at the age of 18.

No doubt Halfon’s opinions are radical and will not get much appreciation as of now but there is a growing consensus that stands with him. He is also speaking about the existing and coming reality. He said “England has been trapped in a false division between academic and vocational study - and this is failing to prepare young people for technological changes in the workplace. The march of robots and acceleration of artificial intelligence could remove a quarter of jobs.” According to PricewaterouseCoopers (PwC), by the end of this century, 300 million people will have lost jobs using present day skills, of whom 100 million will be in China alone.

In a recent alarming incident, 4,600 engineers and MBAs applied for 14 sweepers’ jobs in the Tamil Nadu Assembly of India. The only qualification needed was that aspiring candidates should be able-bodied. The minimum age was 18 years. A similar incident happened in the district of Nadia when the local government hospital advertised to recruit a couple of mortuary attendants (dom). There were applicants who had one or two PhDs.

In Bangladesh the scenario is no different. The current State Minister for Labour and Employment, while answering a question in the National Parliament, said currently approximately 2.7 million people were unemployed. A Bangladeshi think tank, Centre for Policy Dialogue, disclosed that 2.1 million young people are entering the job market annually and the economy has the capacity of providing jobs to only 1.3 million, resulting in eight hundred thousand new entrants remaining jobless.

Graduates and their parents in this region erroneously think that a certificate or high grades in exams is a gate pass to a good job. They could not be more wrong in such an assumption. A certificate or a good grade may be a prerequisite to applying for a job but it will not guarantee one. Along with this, one will need to have the required skills, merit and the knowhow that come with that job.

Researchers have agreed that the Finland education system is the best in the world. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in conjunction with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) routinely release data about the quality of education in OECD countries. OECD is an intergovernmental economic organisation with 36 member countries, founded in 1961, to stimulate economic progress and world trade. It is a forum of countries describing themselves as committed to democracy and market economy, providing a platform to compare policy experiences, seeking answers to common problems, identifying good practices and coordinating the domestic and international policies of its members.

Most OECD member countries are high-income economies with a very high Human Development Index (HDI) and are regarded as developed. While doing a study on the quality of education amongst its member countries, it identified Finland as having the best education system of all. About the country it said it is “a country rich in intellectual and educational reform has initiated over the years a number of novel and simple changes that have completely revolutionised their educational system”.

The study identified ten reasons why other member countries of OECD are trailing behind Finland in delivery of quality and useful education. Among other things Finland does not have any standardised testing. The country concluded students, if put through standard testing, will only focus on passing their examinations and the teachers will also put their effort into preparing them to take and pass tests. Learning will be thrown out the window.

In Finland getting a teaching job is the toughest. All teachers, regardless of which level (at school) they are teaching, must have a Master’s degree before entering the profession. If a teacher is not performing well, it is the responsibility of the individual principal to do something about it. Students regularly have psychological counselling and individual guidance. Every school child in Finland must take vocational training so once he finishes his eighth grade (when he takes his first formal examination), he will have had training in some skills that may vary from furniture design to fixing truck engines.

Does this lower Finland’s unemployment rate? The answer is no, as Finland does not have any heavy industry, but its young school graduates are ready for the service sector, the driving engine of Finland’s economy and those who still need jobs have all of Europe to look for them. One must not forget all European countries are ageing and need the services of young people from different countries to keep their economies going.  

Many things in this Indian sub-continent have changed since the British left in 1947 but others have not as those who are supposed to work for change refuse to do so. They erroneously think that change may make their positions vulnerable and expose their incompetence. Among many other colonial legacies, two are most important. The first one is bureaucracy and the second the education system.

The British created the Indian bureaucracy (countries of the sub-continent) to serve themselves. It was used for the sole purpose of exploiting the resources of the Indian sub-continent while its people were treated like pawns. This happened throughout the British Empire. In Africa, the British and other European colonial powers did not even need any bureaucracy. Instead, they used force to exploit countries and their people.

Yet, the legacy of British bureaucracy still continues in all the countries of the sub-continent. Of course there are pro-people, pro-active and competent bureaucrats but these are few in number and those who go by the old colonial book are the majority and their level of competence is far from what is needed.

The other British legacy our country is burdened with is the education system. It has gone through some changes but has failed to meet modern expectations. Immediately after Bangladesh became independent the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman rightly felt that without bringing about a revolutionary change in the education system, an impoverished and resource-poor country could not make much headway in its economic development. Bangabandhu’s government was in power just for three and a half years before he was assassinated on August 15, 1975. During this period he made many revolutionary changes and enacted many important laws for the country, including framing our Constitution. Even before the election of 1970, in a radio broadcast he emphasised the importance of education and said in clear terms it must serve the needs of the times. After the independence he formed the Dr. Qudrat-e-Khuda Education Commission in 1972, which recommended revolutionary reforms, putting extra emphasis on technical and vocational education. He established quite a few engineering, agriculture and one textile college. He was a man with vision and knew what to prioritise. Bangabandhu also prescribed that access to education for girls must be ensured as they formed nearly 40 per cent (at that time) of the total population.

Unfortunately, after his death the Commission report was put in cold storage and education has always got lacklustre attention from successive governments. Though education was always considered the most important sector, its policy makers hardly had any idea what education was all about. The system that subsequently developed was more concentrated on exams, rather than knowledge and skill focused. When an ‘engineering graduate’ says on television that he has studied welding but never had the opportunity of doing it, that does not sound right (someone from a private university). I know of industries that use welding where they recruit welders from outside Bangladesh.

Most mid-level executives in our readymade garments sector are recruited from abroad too, as those available in Bangladesh lack the skills and attitudes to become mid-level executives. Our graduates have a pre-conceived idea that jobs mean a cosy air conditioned office and simple paper work. Most are reluctant to work in the field. Once I arranged a job for a pharmacy graduate in a leading pharmaceutical company located on the outskirts of Dhaka. He refused to take up his position because he wanted to stay in a Dhaka office.

A job in the modern world needs some soft skills like computer literacy, a working knowledge of English, the ability to communicate and to adapt to new technologies. Our traditional work culture is limited to nine to five office hours. Such a culture has outlived itself. Today there is no such thing as nine to five office hours in many cases. One can perform many of one’s office activities while stuck in a traffic jam, using a touch screen mobile phone night or day.

Bangladesh will be celebrating fifty years of independence in two years time and is expected to become the 41st largest economy by then. To achieve such a feat, mere promises and wild ideas like establishing an ‘industrial university’ or a ‘railway university’, will not be enough. To begin with, our young generation must be rescued from the examination and golden grade trap, and social elites must stop trying to make their children brown skin ‘sahibs’. Those in charge of running the education show must put their heads together and visualise the bright future that potentially awaits Bangladesh. The country has a huge pool of young people (48 per cent of the total population of 160 million is between the ages of 10-24) and they are our real resources. We must take good care of them by providing them with the right type of education that has a mix of knowledge and skills and, of course, instils in them the idea that learning is a continuous process and should never be confined within the four walls of classrooms. Scrapping SSC or HSC right away may be difficult but blending vocational training and skill development with existing curriculum is doable. There are opportunities of employment but those looking for jobs must be employable. For this the education system needs a radical change.


The writer is an analyst and a commentator.