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Beyond the Impoverishment of Vocational Education and Training for Development

By Simon McGrath.

Given this year is seeing both a major rethink of Vocational Education and Training (VET) and of development, it is timely to put the two notions together. What then is the current model of VET for development? Well, it is largely an implicit account, based in narrow and increasingly outdated views of both notions. This leaves it impoverished in a number of ways.

First, the dominant approach tends to assume that VET is largely poor quality and primarily for the poor. It doesn’t really matter as “our kind of person” doesn’t make use of it and it largely continues to exist as something to do for/to those that are assumed to only be fit for that kind of learning. It also tends to focus on formal VET in public providers in ways that exclude most of vocational learning globally.

Second, it has an impoverished view of life and work. It is grounded in a view that all that matters in life is paid work and VET’s job is limited to developing employability and enhancing productivity. There is no space in this vision for caring or community building unless these are undertaken as paid employment. Inevitably, this is highly gendered in its effects on what counts as work, and what counts as vocational learning.

Third, this flows into an inadequate view of development as economic development only. Production is all that matters and all that needs measuring. It is a model that makes even the Washington Consensus look broad.

Finally, it has an implausible view of policy making.  Its practice is to apply a set of acritical and acontextualised policy approaches – the VET toolkit – that is largely drawn from a celebratory view of the English reforms of further education after 1992.  In this view, the VET needs for Romania, India or Afghanistan can be met by simply introducing new governance and funding systems, qualifications frameworks, quality assurance mechanisms and increased institutional autonomy for providers. It apparently doesn’t matter that the English debate suggests that the problems that these reforms were intended to solve are still with us.

However, we can find a richer alternative, based in well-established accounts, and the trick is to bring these together.

There is lots of evidence of high quality VET and of VET being an active choice of those who do have educational options.  Moreover, if reconceptualised to incorporate a broad view of vocational learning, it is obvious that vocational learning is for all. The challenge then is to ensure that it is of acceptable quality across its myriad forms.

We also need to remember that work is broader than what economists class as work, and is fundamental to our nature as humans.  Working helps to define us but it cannot be reduced to what we are paid to do.  VET, therefore, needs to be driven by a broader recognition of what work really is and must be directed to supporting work to be decent and enriching.

Development theory has moved on from an assumption that only production and economic growth matter.  Thus our working theory of VET for development needs to take on insights and challenges from the evolution over two decades of rights and sustainability perspectives.  Most especially, there is the beginning of work that looks at how VET can link to notions of human development, well-being and human flourishing and this needs to be built upon.

VET policies cannot be imported and nor can they be simply developed from the top down.   Rather, they need to take account of what learners, workers, communities and employers want in specific contexts.

With two major international VET reports imminent and a growing discussion regarding development post-2015, it is time to make the case that VET can be an important part of a post-2015 vision that places learning, work and human flourishing at its heart.

Simon McGrath is Professor of International Education and Development, University of Nottingham, and Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Educational Development. Email:

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1 Response

  1. Mike

    Yes, these are good ideas. But ‘VET’ will always be and be perceived as being ‘ largely poor quality and primarily for the poor’ because that’s the reality in just about all of the 60+ countries I’ve worked in over the last 5+ decades. If it’s for artisans and signwriters but not for surgeons and lawyers it defines itself definitively as, at very best, second-rate. If it’s aimed at those who fall from the academic path on to the wayside, it cannot help but be seen as for those who couldn’t make it, however we dress it up. Which is why I shall continue to advocate Professional, Technical and Vocational Training and to distinguish PTVT from ‘Education’ which should serve the individual rather than the market.

    ‘VET’ indeed: ‘Vocational Education’ is a dangerous oxymoron. Certainly let us ensure that PTVT addresses all aspects of the work environment, very widely defined – achieving that should assuredly contribute to development, however defined. But Education is about the awakening love of learning in each one of us, never to be corrupted by being geared it to productivity or to GDP or to fulfilling let alone obeying orders.

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