Craig Robertson: Capability to Succeed

AUTHOR: Craig Robertson, Chief Executive Officer, TAFE Directors Australia; WFCP Chair

Two important reports, among many, were released this past month that tell a story – from two different angles – of the challenge for professional and technical education and training around the globe.

Worsening economic and employment conditions are forecast for the world by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and South African researchers point to new theories of vocational education as the source of economic empowerment of students[1].

The contraction of the world economy worsened by 1.9 percentage points between the April and June economic outlooks taking the growth (contraction) to -4.9 per cent. Decline in economic activity across the globe deepened, self-evident from the news broadcasts of the devastating impacts of COVID-19 in our most populous nations.

The public health crisis is having a heavier impact in parts of society and the world. The hit is most pronounced for low-income workers, with women among low-income workers bearing the larger brunt of the impact.

The IMF includes International Labour Organisation estimates that the decline in working hours between the first quarters of 2019 and 2020 is equivalent to 130 million full-time jobs. And for the almost 2 billion people engaged in informal economic activity around the globe about 80 per cent have been significantly affected.

The IMF worries that this rapid economic deterioration across the world, a retreat to national self-sufficiency and increasing trade tensions could reverse gains made over the last 40 years that has brought the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty to less than 10 per cent (from 35 per cent in 1990).

Circumstances for these people conspire to bring this disadvantage. A new perspective on vocational education outlined in the June edition of the Journal of Vocational Education and Training explores theoretical developments over the past decade into the capabilities approach.

Capabilities may hold the clue to an inclusive recovery from COVID. The approach is founded on the principles developed by Amartya Sen, whose seminal work Development as Freedom (1999) underpins the Global Development Goals. Put simply, Sen argues that development is built more on giving freedoms to individuals to act, rather than traditional economic measures. Without freedoms, the advancement of individuals is constrained and masked by national economic measures of advancement.

Modern vocational education theory is mainly couched in a human capital perspective. It treats the person as an individual economic unit of value of utility for the labour market.

Neo-liberal economic philosophy spill over into education systems. Here in Australia, for example, ‘regulated’ vocational learning is framed in the context of work. As a result, vocational education is often reduced to the most efficient means for transitioning someone to a job. Efficient training for a job is appealing in policy terms, but it often forgets the poor wages and conditions in which graduates can be trapped.

We often relegate our thinking on development to emerging economies and the constraints poverty has on access to education, along with other unfreedoms such as cultural constraints on the role of women. Certainly, these are more pronounced in these countries and will now be deeper in a post-COVID world.

Capability seeks to broaden the mission of vocational education to build agency.

The article sites work in the occupied Palestinian territories where women face mobility restrictions and constraints from gender norms. The ‘majority of female VET graduates .. surveyed reported that VET had enabled them to achieve empowerment through enhancing their self-confidence; their ability to contribute to the surroundings and challenge gender-norms.’ A study in England found that ‘young women use education to gain freedom from negative circumstances such as abusive relationships, precarious low paid work and mental health problems, which are often experienced simultaneously.’

The IMF calls for the return of global trade and warns against national self-reliance as it is our connected world of production and trade which has opened doors for the poor in the world to paid work. The merits of trade are contested. There has been exploitation so the West can purchase cheap goods and services and communities in the West have complained that their jobs have been lost to other parts of the world.

Order in the world will take some time to restore and it is unlikely to settle the same way. This gives us time to pause and reconceptualise vocational education across developed and developing economies.

Framing success for students as jobs sells them short, as the jobs will not be around. The objective for students needs to be capability and agency, the confidence to unshackle from the constraints they face and to grasp freedom to pursue a destiny of economic independence.

WFCP seeks what is best in professional and technical education and training for its members and, in turn, their students. As each country seeks to emerge from COVID we must seek a just recovery. We in WFCP must support each other to bring the capability to the students we serve.

The leadership we in WFCP bring can be in thought and practice. In theory and action. Through policy and program. I trust you enjoy reading this month’s Dispatch.

[1] McGrath, S et al, New VET Theories for new times: the critical capabilities approach to vocational education and training and its potential for theorising a transformed and transformational VET, Journal of Vocational Education and Training.

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