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17 Feb 2014

Can we avoid another Vague Skills Goal? By Robert Palmer

By Robert Palmer, Independent Education and Skills Consultant.

All I can think about is what the post-2015 skills goal will be.

All I can think about is what the post-2015 skills goal will be.

Education is receiving quite a lot of attention in post-2015 discussions, but how this will translate into goals and targets is increasingly on our minds; at the same time, some comment that the whole issue of education post-2015 is being over-complicated. Meanwhile, despite increased global recognition and awareness of the importance of technical and vocational skills development (TVSD) – as evidenced in the bumper year of reports on TVSD in 2012, TVSD does not appear to be getting as much focus in post-2015 discussions as general education.

This said, we should observe that all of the key institutional proposals related to education post-2015 have at least included some kind of vocational skills to work target or else identified this as a priority concern to be addressed (see NORRAG working paper #6 Education and Skills Post-2015: What Evidence, Whose Perspectives?). But where is this apparent interest heading in terms of a technical and vocational skills goal or target?

The immense difficulty in crafting wording around a skills goal is not disputed. Those in the TVSD community are fully aware of the difficulty of defining, measuring and monitoring TVSD; a lot has already been written on this – including by me (e.g. see, King and Palmer, 2008; King and Palmer, 2010; Palmer, 2009, 2013).

We also know full well that the EFA ‘skills’ goal never got any traction: no one could even agree on what ‘life-skills’ meant, let alone how it should be measured or tracked. In fact, the term ‘life skills’ ultimately blocked progress on this goal notes the Director of the EFA Global Monitoring Report. (Perhaps worryingly, ‘life-skills’ as a term is alive and well in the UN Secretary General’s report of 2013! – see p.14).

So can we do things better this time around? How do we avoid ending up with another vague skills goal that may result in yet more years of confusion?

Better present than absent… and being present doesn’t need to mean vague

Some might argue that perhaps the best way to avoid another vague skills goal is simply not to have another skills goal at all! This would certainly solve the problem. But we have to ask ourselves if the TVSD sector would be better served by having no TVSD-related goal/target at all, or one that is the best we can come up with given the challenging context of TVSD measurement and monitoring.

I would argue that the TVSD community would be better served by the presence of some kind of TVSD-related goal or target, rather than the absence of one altogether. But in order for this goal to be more distinct than EFA Goal 3, there remain several key issues that the TVSD community needs to resolve and/or continue to work on.

  • First, we are still not clear on the meaning. Major organisations still do not have their story straight on what ‘skills’ they are talking about (see NORRAG NEWS 48). If we continue down this path, we will have another catch-all skills goal. In a post-EFA scenario, it may be better to have several skills targets (under one broader skills goal), covering different key aspects, including a target specifically on technical and vocational skills – as opposed to having one skills-related target that tries to cover everything as EFA Goal 3 tried – and failed – to do.
  • Second, we are still not clear on measuring… and there is a lot more to measure. Even if there were to be agreement on a single target related to technical and vocational skills, we are not clear on what we are measuring. For other types of skills – such as literacy or numeracy – we are concerned with knowing about access, equity, quality, financing, and learning outcomes. But for technical and vocational skills we want to know all this, and – in addition – we need to know about the demand side; about employment outcomes and about demand for workers by skill type.
  • Third, we are still not clear on the data sources… and our TVSD data is still very unbalanced. The stock of knowledge on TVSD at country level – especially in low- and middle-income countries – is usually low, mostly found in ministries of education related to technical and vocational education, and mostly focussed on inputs. The diversity of TVSD provision, and the cross-country (in)comparability of it, implies that national target setting for TVSD makes a lot more sense than international TVSD target setting.
  • Lastly, the political and policy timing is right, but the convergence is off. There is significant policy and political interest in technical and vocational skills – at both the international and national levels. However, we do not have convergence and a lot of these actors appear to be talking past each other, rather than talking with each other. The TVSD community remains fragmented and leaderless. We still appear to be in a situation where the skills constituency is spread across different ministries at the country level and across different UN specialized agencies. The post-“life-skills” debate is in danger of being steered mainly by UNESCO, which would be a mistake; indeed it should not be a matter for any single UN body.

As I have noted before, the TVSD community must really ‘take the bull by the horns’ and get more involved in post-2015 discussions. There is certainly useful work underway and progress being made towards measuring technical and vocational skills; see for example the work of the OECD; UNESCO UIS, the World Bank, the ILO and the Inter-Agency Working Group on TVET Indicators. But these discussions don’t seem to be connecting to post-2015 discussions on target-setting.

Elsewhere, one slight disappointment was the decision by the Learning Metrics Task Force (LMTF) not to address the issue of vocational learning; they decided that this was ‘beyond the scope of the task force’, and that their focus should be on learning associated with early childhood and basic education. The LMTF may have its critics, but it has certainly done a lot to (re)raise the profile of learning on the post-2015 agenda (even though learning of course has always been on the EFA agenda since Jomtien! – which of course reminds us that whatever wording is finally agreed for a skills goal, the real challenge is translating this into action).

2014 will be a decisive year for formulating the post-2015 goals and targets, including any that mention TVSD. If the TVSD community does not step up and work more clearly and directly with the drafters of the post-2015 goals, we will either see another vague skills goal or perhaps no skills goal at all.

This blog is based on a paper presented at the UKFIET International Conference on Education and Development – Education & Development Post 2015: Reflecting, Reviewing, Re-visioning. Oxford, 10 – 12 September 2013.

Robert Palmer is an independent education and skills advisor. He also supports the Editor of NORRAG News and runs NORRAG Blog. Email: Tweets @SkillsImpact

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