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THE IMPORTANCE OF VOCATIONAL EDUCATION

A text of the speech delivered by Prof. Wiswa Warnapala-Minister of Higher Education at the National Conference on TVET Policy Framework at the BMICH on 30th November, 2007.
Any kind of use of the contents should be duly acknowledged.

I am pleased to have been asked to address you this morning in my capacity as the Minister of Higher Education, and I, therefore, would like to make use of the occasion to raise some relevant issues relating to vocational education in Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka, when formulating an educational policy, emphasis was laid on the production of personnel for clerical, administrative and professional positions. The Colombo Journal, a newspaper published in 1832 - probably the first newspaper published in Sri Lanka, once stated that a body of men, respectable from superior education and property is absolutely necessary as a means of good government'. I think that this philosophy dominated the thinking in the colonial period, and even the University of Ceylon, which was established in 1942, was conceived as an elite institution catering to a small number of students who came from the leading public schools. What I am trying to emphasize is that tertiary education in Sri Lanka came to be confined to University education and the University remained the apex of the educational pyramid, because of which both technical and vocational education did not receive the recognition which it deserved. With the expansion of the Universities sector, the situation has undergone a change as the country is looking for skilled personnel to accelerate the process of development. Though a Technical College came to be established in 1893, no much attention was paid to technical education till the appointment of the Technical Education Commission in 1963; it was this Commission which recommended the provision of training facilities at three levels - technological level at Universities and Colleges, technician's level at Polytechnics and craftsman at junior technical college level. Though certain steps were taken on the basis of the recommendations of this Commission on Technical Education, there was no much progress in the field of vocational education which, by this time, had been included in the school curriculum. Yet the education system remained attuned to scholastic education, and both students and parents, in terms of preference, always thought in terms of scholastic attainments, because of which it became difficult to motivate students to follow vocational studies till the establishment of the Technical Colleges specializing in the subject, and those who joined such colleges came from the category of drop-outs at the GCE/OL and GCE/AL examinations. The perception of vocational education and preferences for it began to change with the employment opportunities abroad, primarily in the Middle East and the expansion of such industries as the Construction Industry too had an impact on the preferences of the student community. Yet another factor, which influenced the change, was the recognition of skills and the concept of dignity of labour came to be accepted by the employers. Technical Colleges began to conduct courses comprising theoretical and practical training in a wide range of vocational subjects; several trades and skills were identified, and this depended on the nature of the expansion of industries in the country. Certain industries needed specific types of skills and training'; in other words, what was needed was lower level technicians, and the entrance requirements varied. In a country where the secondary school system is widespread, there was no difficulty in attracting young men with secondary school qualifications to follow these courses tied to skills training. In my view, the deficiency was the absence of a link between the school system and these colleges, which later became the training ground for low level skilled personnel.

The major policy initiatives, relating to Technical and Vocational Education, were taken in the post - 1971 period as an important means of improving employability of youth in the country. With the liberalization of the economy in the post-1977 period, the government took measures to improve the opportunities for Technical and Vocational education with a view to providing training opportunities for the unemployed youths in the country. The number employed in the age group of 15 to 19 and 20 to 24 stood at 26 percent and 21 percent, respectively. In Sri Lanka, this kind of training is provided by both the public sector and the private sector; there are number of training centres associated with different Ministries. The public sector institutions are handled by a number of organizations, and all of them, in my view, should come under a single organization, and the relevant policy needs to be framed on the basis of the country's requirements.

The Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (TVEC) is the apex body, engaged in vocational education and training. Under this piece of legislation, all institutions providing technical and vocational training are required to register with the TVEC; there are several hundreds of institutions associated with NGOs, functioning in the country without obtaining this registration, resulting in the lack of proper coordination in the training programmes. It is in relation to this that new policy initiatives are necessary to improve:

(1)quality of training
(2)high drop -out rates
(3)linkages with Universities and industry
(4)inadequacy of resources.

Today the major deficiency within the system is the annual rate of drop-outs, and this is related to the occupational aspirations of young men who still prefer to get into white-collar jobs. Nearly 20 percent of those students who enter the system came within the category of drop-outs, and it could be attributed to the internal inefficiencies within the system. Yet another glaring defect is that most of the institutions are functioning in the Western Province, and the rural aspirants do not get even the required information, information relating to the availability of access. Educational Exhibitions, focusing on the availability of higher educaitonal opportunities are held here in Colombo, and this is yet another added drawback in our system.

The aim of vocational training is to produce higher level technicians, and they require a specific training. The higher level technician is a highly skilled worker; in other words, such a person gets an intermediate level education between engineer and specialized worker, and this kind of training can be given only by a vocational institution. In my view, the existing system needs to be diversified so as to attract more and more students to this sector; short-term courses could be immediately established depending on the requirements in the labour market. In other words, vocational training institutions need to establish a close relationship with the corporate world. Most important thing is the level of economic development in the given country. Education, specially in this sphere, could be treated as a 'ticket for the work place', and the educational systems in the developing countries is such higher the level of training easier the access to job market. It is my view, that vocational training should form an important component of our tertiary education, and in the formulation of educational policy, all these sectors, I mean the Universities, Technical Colleges and Vocational Institutions, need to be treated as a totality, and it is only on this basis that proper human and social capacity could be built within the Sri Lankan State.

Today most of the developing countries are of the view that the traditional model of the University is not suited to meet the multiple demands of economic and social development. The philosophy behind this strategy is to bring about diversification of tertiary institutions, primarily with a view to meeting the growing social demand for higher education. In other words, the system needs to be made more responsive to the changing labour market needs. In addition to the established Universities, the system needs to be diversified with the introduction of more and more non-University tertiary institutions, and it is through the creation of such institutions that the access could be expanded. This is a vital requirement for a higher education system which is entirely public University based as in Sri Lanka. The advantages of non-University institutions are lower programme costs, short courses, lower drop-outs rates and lower per student's annual expenditure. In Sri Lanka, the annual expenditure per student varies from Rs. 33,910/- to Rs. 4, 83,863/-. Yet another fact is that non-University institutions are more likely than traditional University programmes to produce the type of skilled labour demanded in a market economy. It is on the basis of such perceptions that the Ministry of Higher Education proposes to formulate a new development-oriented higher education policy for Sri Lanka.