Breaking the misconceptions about Vocational Education | Sunday Observer

Breaking the misconceptions about Vocational Education

5 March, 2023

The University of Vocational Training (UoVT) held its annual convocation on February 24 at the BMICH where 700 students of the Class of 2021 graduated along with 1,000 diploma student’s from its six university colleges.

In his keynote speech, the Vice Chancellor of UoVT, Senior Prof. Ranjith Premalal De Silva congratulated the new graduates and reminded them of their civic obligations. “It is indeed important to remember the public investment made for your education and it is our responsibility to ensure the returns to the investments made on our behalf to the public. In this historically unprecedented, economic downturn, our contribution is imperative in achieving a positive growth rate resulting in a healthy economy in the country”.

The importance of vocational training, for the most part, has been eclipsed by other modes of higher education. We should understand that higher education is not limited to our State universities and other popular private institutions. Despite the misconception, vocational training colleges are not ‘night schools’ where you go to learn a trade; they are accredited centres of higher learning that are equipped to provide holistic education on various important disciplines.

Switzerland is the undisputed leader of vocational education. A widely cited key driver and critical component to Switzerland’s economic success is its world-leading vocational education and training system. Firmly engrained in the Swiss culture and economic engine, this combined theory and practice-based model is the most popular form of upper secondary education in Switzerland. It’s the kind of place where an apprentice can one day become a President of the Swiss Confederation, a CEO of the largest Swiss banking institution in the world or a director of one of the country’s biggest open-air music festivals.

We visited UoVT at Ratmalana to talk to Senior Professor De Silva to find out more about vocational education.

“The history of vocational education in Sri Lanka dates back several decades and predates the established higher education system. However, the levels we have in curricula were defined quite recently,” he said, adding that vocational training had been in the country for more than a century but had not been streamlined into academics until recent decades.

We asked if vocational training had gained attraction for which he said enrolment has been limited owning to social attitudes. “When students pass their A/Ls they look forward to get into university and so do their parents. We see a lot of people dropping out of higher education and then opt for vocational training. I think the system of university intake should be transformed to encourage fairness.”

There are two kinds of students who enrol in vocational schools, Prof De Silva says, “Those who finished their A/Ls and have sound theoretical knowledge and those who are from the industries looking to improve their skills and earn a qualification. He said that the vocational school should not be a last resort but considered a serious mode of education which should be integrated with the higher education system.

“If you look at developed countries, there is no difference between vocational studies and conventional higher education in terms of job opportunities and prospects; everyone is treated equally over there.”

We asked how he challenges negative attitudes. He says vocational colleges are not the first choice because they are general seen as safety schools. “We need to educate society that vocational education is important and is a requirement for a developing economy”.

We shifted our question to the Indian dilemma. Currently, the Indian economy cannot provide enough jobs to the number of graduates their universities churn out every year. We asked Prof De Silva if Sri Lanka would share a similar fate if education is to be commoditised at that rate. “Educational institutions mushroomed in India during the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. People there were looking to get paper qualifications, but this was not to gain the required skills. There is a reason for that. You find Indians all over the world, they want to go abroad and study and a degree was the best way to do that”. The lesson here, he says is not to give unrestricted access for non-State actors to higher education.

A simple observation of Sri Lanka’s job market reveals a demand for trained individuals required to drive its developing economy. A lot of private institutions offering courses and degrees easier pathways to careers abroad and jobs with bigger pay checks, but the reality are quite different. There are, however, highly specialised jobs that are in demand.

However, Sri Lankan society sees these jobs as menial or that they don’t pay enough. We asked Prof. De Silva how he challenges these notions. “It depends on the job and skills. You will be fine if you can market yourself correctly. The real problem is when you have more people with the same skills when jobs are limited. It’s the simple economics of supply and demand. When demand is less, you cannot negotiate a better salary,” he said.

Prof. De Silva also demonstrated the difference between specialisation and job requirements. “Let’s consider a small to medium scale enterprise that needs IT support. It’s impossible for this business to hire a graduate specialised in one discipline when in fact it needs a ‘Jack of all trades’ who can do a little bit of each. With regard to advancing technologies, Prof. De Silva said that base concepts will remain the same while also agreeing that growth have been exponential and new technologies are constantly replacing old ones. What would change is the way we apply ourselves, he says: “The graduate that we produce today should keep gathering knowledge to prepare for the future. That’s where success lies. Continuous education should be the priority”.

Prof. De Silva said that he is looking forward to collaborate with established universities. Vocational education should not be isolated nor separated; it should be in the mainstream, he said. “Students should be able take any path and crossover when they need to. We have linked up with a number of higher education institutes to offer degree programs since we don’t have direct endowment from the Treasury. There are currently 10 such associations. We try to utilise resources in established universities and use our education and pedagogical experiences to offer a strong education program.

As a society we should treat all forms of education with the same respect and this will build mutual respect towards all jobs. An economy is the sum of its parts and the onus is to build the best for the future, today; a generation of eager professionals who will take up the most difficult task in their generation.