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27 Jan 2015

Getting to Grips with Institutional Culture to Improve TVET in Developing Countries: Lessons from the UK By Stephen Vardigans

By Stephen Vardigans, Consultant with Cambridge Education.

UK flagWhen I started teaching in the UK I felt confident that because I was on top of my subject area I was therefore qualified to teach it. And yes, I did seem to manage quite well. My students appeared to enjoy the experience, grasp the topics and pass the externally-set examinations, but I was never really sure what proportion of their success was related to my efforts.

This was at a time in the UK when provided one was well qualified and had some industry experience it was assumed, at least by many involved in technical and vocational education and training (TVET), that one magically had the competence to teach others. There was no requirement to be teacher trained or to be assessed as being competent. Now, when there is so much emphasis on competent performance, this assumption seems rather anachronistic.

At the time of moving from practicing science and engineering to teaching it, I had a sneaky feeling in the back of my mind that further and higher education ought to pay much more attention to pedagogy. However, I discovered that most heads of department and other colleagues seemed to sneer at the idea of ‘lecturers’ being teacher trained. Whether this was because they themselves were not trained and might feel threatened by new, upstart staff who knew something about the psychology of learning and teaching methods, I never discovered. I also observed that the level of engagement with industry and the wider community depended very much on the enthusiasm of individuals and was not a general part of institutional culture. I recall that many colleagues were somewhat reluctant to offer one-off courses which were not part of the formally-listed provision.

On completing an in-service teacher training course I realised that those heads of department and other colleagues were mistaken. Not only did the training enable me to shift my attention over to the degree of student learning going on in my classes, but it also made me realise that there was a whole area of professionalism, underpinned by the study of psychology and effective teaching and learning methods, which was being ignored.

On looking back I can see that the lack of effective pedagogy and the ambivalent attitude towards establishing strong industry linkages were responsible for diminishing both the relevance and the status of UK TVET institutions in the eyes of industry managers as well as the local communities they were supposed to be serving.

Now, at least in the UK, I think that the majority of those inclined towards teaching would agree that both subject competence as well as pedagogical competence are pre-requisites for the job. In addition, any TVET institution which does not maintain vibrant links with industry and the wider community would be assessed as failing in its remit.

The transformation of the UK TVET system has taken around 20-30 years and the road has often been tough for institutions to navigate. A full account is beyond the scope of this blog but suffice to say that the use of many sticks and carrots by national and local government appear in the story. Some of the key changes which have taken place include: institutions becoming autonomous, service oriented and generally having strategic combinations of business managers and academics at their helms; teaching staff being both competency-based teacher trained and technically competent; the streamlining of Government funding channels; skills-development policy being directly influenced by high-level industry bodies; local industry being well represented on Boards of Governors; the nation’s Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) now inspects TVET institutions; the development of an enviable body of industry-developed National Occupational Standards around which institutions can build competency-based courses, and many others.

A look at any UK TVET institution website will convey an implied level of openness, vibrancy and ‘connection’ with the real world which a generation ago would rate as unusual. This confirms a level of commitment by institution leaders to establish high levels of pedagogical and technical professionalism as well as the strong links with industry which are both crucial to ensuring and maintaining quality.

But what about developing countries? Having spent the past 20 years working in a wide range of countries in Africa and Asia I can safely say that the message contained in the previous paragraph cannot be taken as read. Across large swathes of the world TVET’s raison d’être of providing relevant and demanded skills for employment is far from being realised and students’ learning experiences in huge numbers of formal TVET institutions are woefully lacklustre. Millions of trainees are being short changed and I believe that lack of vision, commitment and competence on the part of institution leaders, teaching staff and staff of the national and local bodies which oversee them is responsible.

As was the case in the UK, I suspect that to rectify this problem requires a fundamental review of some of the basic tenets of TVET provision: that industry requirements, industry linkages, effective pedagogy and service orientation should be grouped, conceptually, at the centre. We have the on-going introduction of elaborate qualifications frameworks, and we have development banks and other agencies lending and granting huge sums of money to upgrade facilities and to train, often unsustainably, large numbers of students for employment, but relatively little attention is being focused on the transformation of institution culture and the lack of service-sector orientation.

When I read some of the academic papers covering competency-based training and the various and rarefied discourses on topics such as behaviourism and constructivism, I think to myself how on earth can most of the TVET world engage in or understand this discourse when few of the basics are in place and when most leaders remain removed from it?  In addition we have the age old problem of senior government officials and institution managers often being highly qualified, at least academically, but not being very competent managerially. Unfortunately, in many developing countries where hierarchy counts for all and where open debate and discussion is not encouraged, the few well-read and informed potential agents-of-change are not likely to make themselves heard.

To exemplify my point I shall refer to China – a country which has invested huge amounts of cash in TVET infrastructure but where more than an acceptable number of teachers spend most of their time lecturing directly from textbooks. Most of the ‘essentials’ such as effective questioning, formative assessment, monitored student exercises in class time, active student note taking and the use of clear learning objectives are absent. Of course not all TVET institutions operate like this, but… Not surprisingly, labour market enquiries confirm that industry is unhappy about the skill level (most skills) of the students and has to start almost from scratch to build up the needed skills, on the job. Meaning that most of the 3 years of TVET study is not exactly what one might call cost effective.

Of course one might be tempted to explain the example of China in terms of the one-way, top-down approach to governance and management which is inherent in its political system, but similar scenes are common in many if not most developing countries. In terms of the basics of pedagogy, somehow the Chinese and other educational systems have forgotten the common sense as well as scientific basis for Confucius’s observation that one listens and forgets, sees and understands but must do something, ideally in a guided fashion, to learn.

So how does one explain this ‘corruption’ of pedagogy and the lack of regard for needs of industry? Certainly most TVET teachers in developing countries have not been effectively teacher trained and have very limited industrial experience. They lack both competence and confidence which underpins TVET professionalism. And when these teachers move to managerial positions, as many will, they will remain unaware of the importance of effective pedagogy, industrial linkages and service orientation.

Having lived through the transformation of the UK TVET system it is clear that governments and external loan and grant agencies in developing countries can do much more to improve the quality of TVET. The only snag is that the ‘much more’ strikes at the heart of the governance and senior management structures themselves.

Recalling the earlier assertion that industry needs industry linkages, effective pedagogy and service orientation should be grouped at the philosophical centre when we think of TVET, unfortunately very few formal TVET institutions in developing countries can assemble senior leaders who have the background and experience to weld these elements together to create a fresh institutional culture. Moreover, the very need to do so is not suddenly going to spring into existence from within. These are precisely the issues which the UK was grappling with two or three decades ago.

Of course one should not imagine that the UK TVET system has attained perfection. And as a recent survey published by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) in October 2014 indicates: ‘88% of businesses overwhelmingly feel that many young people are not adequately prepared for the workplace.’ It is very hard to please industry…

Of course every country has to chart its own path but I believe that the changes and lessons learned, both good and bad, experienced by the UK’s TVET sector over the past 30 years are worth studying. In doing so, ideas may emerge which will assist policy makers and funding agencies to focus, longer-term, on more of the key systemic and ‘cultural’ problems rather than pumping in more cash for buildings and equipment etc. Facilitating such strategic-level policy development and policy implementation support, even over the longer time frames required, would not be as expensive as funding infrastructure but the results are likely to be worth much more – and be more sustainable.

Further reading

A history of FE in England: Narratives and Reputation Change Between 1944 and 1996.

Panchamia, N. (2012) Choice and Competition in Further Education.

Stephen Vardigans is currently working for Cambridge Education, supporting the World Bank-funded TVET project in Yunnan province, China. Email:


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