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20 Oct 2015

Technical Vocational and Skills Development and the Sustainable Development Goals: Implications for Developing Countries and for Research By Peliwe Lolwana

By Peliwe Lolwana, University of Witwatersrand.

Goal4In this piece I would like to raise two issues about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with respect to Technical Vocational and Skills Development (TVSD):

  • the implications for developing countries, especially Sub-Saharan countries; and,
  • the implications for institutions that teach and research education and training.

But before I do that I must express some appreciation for the presence of TVSD in the United Nations’ post-2015 agenda, under SDG 4, target 4.4, which reads as follows: ‘By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship’. This is laudable as the past agenda – seen in both the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Education For All (EFA) Goals – was almost exclusively about basic education, and also biased towards the developing countries. Now, in the new SDG agenda there is acknowledgement that socio-economic progress will not happen with low skills in all societies. However, it is still not clear how this is going to be achieved.

Implications of TVSD in the SDGs for developing countries

Whilst the major debate about TVSD in developing countries tends to be about parity of esteem with general academic education, in these countries it can also be said that there is lack of visibility of the TVSD system.  Many people do not know where to go to in order to develop the skills needed for the labour market. Yet, lack of opportunity to develop one’s skills presents a barrier to leveraging social mobility in any society as well as the inability to exploit the gains already made through basic education. In other words, the gains already made in many developing countries through the focus put in the MDGs on basic education may become a waste. Studies in higher education (HE) show that young people who live near a HE institution are more likely to attend a HE institution even outside their locality – visibility aspires. Therefore, making TVSD visible for most people in developing countries should be the first step in realising the SDG target related to TVSD.  In other words, because there are fewer facilities for skills development in developing countries, TVSD is not easily an option for young people leaving school.

Having advocated for infrastructure development to realise TVSD for the proposed substantial increase in the SDGs, I also want to caution that the assumption made about the direct link between TVSD and employment cannot be true. Yes, we have accepted the mantra that education is our best economic policy as politicians want us to believe. Serial reforms in education seem to be the norm when what is wrong is in the economy, and we must caution against this when it comes to TVSD because that would be a terrible and expensive mistake to make. The link between education and work is not so direct – a lot needs to be done in stimulating the labour demand to service the supply of skills coming from institutions. Therefore the SDGs related to skills development and employment must be read within this understanding.

Implications of TVSD in the SDGs on teaching and research

First, we must recognise the fact that TVSD is a public good. Education cannot be about general education and for the very young only. The more educated a society the better off it is. Benefits of an educated and skilled society at higher levels are enormous. This generally results in a healthier and more tolerant society, makes people understand what makes the world tick, helps to create a ‘modern’ society, develops a well-skilled workforce, reduces levels of crime and creates a participatory citizenry. These are all the features of developed societies, and it is argued here that individuals in developing countries are not predisposed to a life of criminality and loitering, but that their lack of skills results in them participating less in their societies. Social justice imperatives beyond formal schooling require the distribution of more opportunities in societies. We must level the playing field for all key stages in life so that youth can transit to something meaningful after basic education.  The labour market is already favouring the skilled worker, with very little space for the unskilled.

If we agree, therefore, that all education, including TVSD is a public good, higher education institutions have to start looking at skilling educators who will work throughout the education system. These institutions must explore the relationship between education and the labour market as they mould future educators. For higher education and research institutions, this relationship is not as easy as education and economics involve systems and institutions that have developed separately and tend to be studied separately. The labour market is usually studied through sociology and economics, and industrial policies through industrial trade and economic development. Tertiary education entities, which produce teachers for all levels of education as well as do research on TVSD, are often somewhat disconnected from those who study the economy and the labour markets. This acquisition of knowledge separately and its effects, must be understood by those who work in the TVSD space. Lastly, the development of TVSD educators will require a different kind of teacher training that involves different players, like industry, TVSD institutions and Universities.

In summary, the establishment of SDGs that include a target on TVSD is wholeheartedly appreciated and welcomed.  However, there has to be a plan on how this is to be executed, just as there was a heavy marshalling of resources by NGOs to make basic education realisable under the MDGs/EFA goals. The realisation of TSVD will have to start with heavy investments in infrastructure in developing countries to make this visible. Also, institutions that teach and research in education must expand their remit to include TVSD. But to do so means different approaches from what universities and education research organisations are used to.

This blog is partly based on the author’s input to a panel discussion on 24th September, 2015 in New York, co-organised by NORRAG, Teachers College, Columbia University (New York) and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (Geneva): ‘Research and Teaching in International Education and Development: New Paradigms and Perspectives in the post-2015 Era’. For more information and to view video of this event, please click here.

Peliwe Lolwana is the Director of the Centre for Researching Education and Labour at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg in South Africa.


>>View all NORRAG Blogs on TVSD

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,300 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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