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Vocational-professional continuum: Antidote to the vocational-academic divide?

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The red and white barber poles in old barber shops in Europe and USA is a relic from the time when barbers also functioned as surgeons. The pole is apparently symbolic of the bloodied towels that were used. 

Such are the humble origins of professions when ‘can-do’ counted more than formal learning. Book learning and credentialing improved the professions, but with time, academic credentials began to carry more weight than the can-do aspects. In fact, in USA during the Blue Sky Science era in 1960s-80s, the study of engineering, for example, concerned more with engineering science than hands-on engineering (Vest, 1995)66

The pendulum has swung back to the point when employers or society is asking not for generic academic credentials, but more demonstrable evidence of specific competencies. Academics in ivory towers may argue against vocationalisation of higher education, but as entrepreneur Engineer Tilak Dassanayake argues, if we are to get out of the lower-middle-income trap in Sri Lanka, we need large numbers of individuals who can take the established ‘know-why’ of science and the ‘know-how’ of technology to engineer new products that can be sold in the world market. I would go further and argue that we need individuals who can take existing knowledge and know-how in arts, humanities and social sciences as well to engineer new ways of governing ourselves, entertaining ourselves, etc. 

In established professions such as medicine, law, accounting, marketing, hospitality and so on, professional associations have developed levels of competence and recognition for those. A fellow of the Royal College of Physicians (FRCP) or a Charted Accountant (CA) as a fellow of an accounting professional body demonstrates the highest levels of competency in the practice of their respective professions. In emerging fields like data science, for example, badges, medals, MOOCs certifications and other new forms of credentialing are emerging. In whatever profession, nowadays experience is acquired as one studies or studying is accomplished while one is working, in what we might call work-study mode.

Unfortunately, professional education in Sri Lanka seems to be reverting to the easy way out. Set a curriculum, set the exams. Require an academic credential as a starting point, charge fees and make money. The Institution of Engineers of Sri Lanka (IESL) in Sri Lanka has opened a new pathway for engineering through their College of Engineering, but their curriculum points to a production line of engineering scientists who will at best be equipped for service functions, not engineers who design and produce new products and services. 

How can we produce the leaders who create jobs? How can we divert our youth and their anxious parents away from exams to what the UNESCO calls the four pillars of learning - learning to know, learning to do, learning to be and learning to be together? In this column I argue that we can do so by developing attractive vocational to professional credentialing pathway as alternatives to the favoured academic pathways.


Familiar academic path

In the academic path, typically, three to four years of study are devoted to acquiring a Bachelor’s degree. In the Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technical Education or SLIATE, a misbegotten institution created as an alternative higher education path, they charge no fees, but take four years of a youth’s life in return for a Higher National Diploma (HND). Recent violent protests by HND in Accounting students is a case in point. According to a UK survey of youth (Jon Wakeford, HEPI, 2015), this mode of education is attractive to youth who find the campus life a welcome intermission between childhood and adulthood. Who should pay is the question.

In USA, the business model is largely a future-earnings based model. The Federal government makes low interest loans to students to be paid during a 20-30 working life of a graduate. This model is beginning to crumble as the debt load of graduates is accumulating. In most developing countries, the model is more of a free to spend your own money model. In China, for example, large numbers of rural youth and their parents spend their dime to get bachelor degrees only to join millions of unemployed or underemployed graduates. Since the families are spending their own money, a market correction is bound to take place. 

In Sri Lanka, we have what I would call a ‘free education theatre’. We develop examinations designed to fail all but those who can master the ‘give what they want’ skills of examination success. Then we make a song and dance of a z-score calculation to select 25,000 or so of 350,000 youth cohort and give them over to teachers in our State university system who have unfettered freedom to make clones of their state-dependent selves. The State-run technical and vocational education system churns out another 30,000 or so trainees, but very little is known about their employability, except for the German Tech trainees. 

Private education opportunities have provided relief to parents, but these degree programs are essentially finishing schools that largely add on IT, business and some engineering skills sufficient for these youths to sell their services to local businesses aimed at the local market or work at outposts of foreign consulting services, IGOs or other international organisations.

Falling through a crack of massive proportions is the rest of the 200,000 or more of a cohort of youth from any one age group. Incidentally, most of our internationally competitive cricket team comes out of this group.  Those who do not make it to the cricket team, do this and that, and eventually settle for some precarious work bringing down the overall unemployment rate to 4-6%. This is no way to get out of the lower middle income trap. 

The present Prime Minister understands the situation and the needs of youth like no other politician. The institutions he set up beginning as a young minister in late 1970s and after are still relevant today. The Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (TVEC), National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority (NAITA) and the Youth Services Council (YSC) are three examples. It is particularly gratifying to see the YSC been revitalised from it dark days of takeover by a certain Blue Brigade.

Youth Services can be a holding place for these youth, but they eventually need to be directed to one of four things – to work, to work while studying, to study while working or to study full time. For the first three more productive paths we need entrepreneur engineers who develop new products and services for the world market and a process to ready our youth as a ‘can-do’ workforce for these entrepreneurs.


Vocational-professional path

Doing a job of work requires the appropriate competency or the combination of knowledge skills and attitudes. There are two levels of competency – vocational and professional. At the vocational level your competency is more specific, say, about a specific kind of a machine or about taking care of older men of a certain disability and so on. To prepare you may have covered about one year or more worth of courses learning about Ohm’s law, Kirchoff’s law and what have you to help you understand your ‘machine’ better. In the case of eldercare, some knowledge of physiology and nutrition is needed to serve your ‘client’ better. However, if you want to move up to be a supervisor and then manager to the professional level you need more breadth and depth in your competencies.


An extreme vocational-professional path

In 2008-2010 period, through a generous grant from IDRC, we at LIRNE Asia developed a blue print for a vocational-professional path. It was admittedly an ‘outpost’ activity that I disdained earlier, but we managed to bargain and design a program that suited our local objectives.  We picked waste management as our sector for focus because that was the only growth sector during the economic downturn at that time. 

Working with TVEC and the Balangoda Urban Council, we developed and applied a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) Level-1 certificate for sanitation workers in municipalities. These are workers who come daily to your door to pick up the garbage. Waste management has evolved to be a highly technical profession. If we are to truly manage our waste, these waste collectors have to be the technical experts who educate the waste producers. The profession has its professional associations with chartered professional credentials at the apex. Our goal was to test a pathway from NVQ level-1 to chartered professional in waste management. The parallel designations would be from solid waste operations assistant, operator, supervisor to manager. 

The project is over but the concept lives on. The Solid Waste Management Training Centre at the Balangoda Urban Council has trained and continue to train thousands of solid waste workers at NVQ Levels 1 and 2 fora network of trained workers manning pockets of excellence in waste management in the country. The aim of a group of well-wishers behind this effort is to produce a few Chartered solid waste management professionals for Sri Lanka and have at least one individual move form levels 1 or 2 to a chartered professional status.


Professions and professional associations in Sri Lanka

In 2014, LIRNE Asia carried out survey of job opportunities in Sri Lanka in partnership with Wijeya Newspapers. Using job ads posted online and print we uncovered 36 or more professions under four broad categories of (1) Commerce (2) Computer science and IT (3) Engineering or technology (4) Health, (5) Science and Math and (6) Other. The more interesting one is the ‘Other’ category to which we included Architecture, Aviation, Dance, Design, Hospitality, Law, Logistics, Marine Services, Media, Psychology, Sports, Teaching, Travel & Tourism. The design field included the sub-fields of the Design of Fashion, Graphics, Interiors, Jewellery and Landscapes. A multitude of other sub professions or combination professions are possible.

The Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA) already hosts many professional associations but more work needs to be done to establish the utility of professional credential to employers and the ‘respectability’ of the credentials to status-conscious parents and families of those pursuing vocational-professional paths. 


Role of academic institutions

As trainees move from vocational occupations to become associate professionals to professionals in their selected sectors, they need to pick up the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of their vocations. For example, a young man taking care of an older adult needs acquire increasing levels of know-why and know-how in geriatrics and other subjects to become a professional in the field. Academic institutions should increasingly see themselves as partners in the vocational-professional pathways to credentialing.

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