Vocational education: why the Fins do it best

Could technical training help to tackle youth unemployment? Gita Subrahmanyam argues Finland’s approach has key lessons for the developing world

Could a bias against vocational education be keeping young people unemployed?

If the Finnish approach is anything to go by, technical and vocational education and training, or TVET, could provide a means of tackling youth unemployment. While a negative social bias has often prevented young people, in both developing and developed countries, from enrolling on vocational track programmes, Finland’s reforms over the past decade have made TVET popular, contributing to lower youth unemployment rates.

One reason for high youth unemployment across the world – and particularly in developing countries – is a growing mismatch between the supply and demand for skills. In most African countries, there is an oversupply of social science and business graduates but an undersupply of engineers, scientists and technicians. Domestic skills shortages mean that countries rely on foreign labour to fill high demand for technically-skilled personnel.

Developing countries could minimise skills mismatches by placing greater emphasis on TVET. Vocational education tends to result in a faster transition into the workplace, and countries that have it at the core of the curriculum – such as Germany, Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands – have been successful in maintaining low youth unemployment rates. Yet by contrast few African governments, for example, allocate adequate funding to this.

Moreover, in many developing countries, young people and their parents shun vocational education, which they regard as a ‘second-choice’ education option. It’s low status is often rooted in countries’ colonial past, associated with the training received by ‘inferior’ groups for blue-collar jobs. Vocational track programmes therefore attract few students. The research that has focused on African countries, has shown the enrolment rate in secondary-level TVET is 5% or less.

Its low status is also linked to quality concerns. Many people associate vocational track programmes with low academic performance, poor quality provision and blocked future pathways. Their concerns are often justified: in most African countries for example, vocational tracks do not lead to higher education, the teachers are low-paid and under-qualified, and learning environments are outdated.

To unlock the potential of vocational educationrequires radical reforms to the education system and sustained campaigns to change social perceptions.

So what practical lessons does Finland have for developing countries? The International Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training recently held an eForum online conference to gather knowledge, experiences, innovations and promising practices on how to increase TVET’s role and impact in tackling youth unemployment. Attendees of the virtual conference included a delegate from Finland who outlined how her country successfully overcame bias against TVET.

According to Mervi Jansson, director of educational partnerships at Omnia, a TVET institution with 10,000 students, Finland’s systematic efforts to upgrade the quality and status of TVET have paid off. Today over 50% of Finnish youth apply for the programmes, and it is now more competitive than general education. Last spring, 70% of applications to the vocational education track were successful, as against 94% to the general education track.

Finland’s success is based on external and internal policy shifts. Legislative reforms since 2000 allow TVET students to progress to further studies at university or applied sciences level and provide its institutions with the same generous basic and development funding as general education institutions. Finland’s curriculum has been restructured to include the national core curriculum required for access to university, as well as strong on-the-job training and lifelong learning components. Finally, TVET schools across Finland promote their services to parents by arranging regular visits and parents’ evenings.

EForum participants identified measures that countries can adopt to raise the status and quality of TVET:

• Change legislation, so that TVET is not a ‘dead end’ but leads to further education.

• Some countries rely on donor financing to meet their education costs, so TVET will be competing with primary and basic education for funds. We need to increase funding, so that TVET institutions can pay teachers reasonable salaries, upgrade learning environments and invest in professional development.

• Integrate on-the-job training and lifelong learning into the TVET curriculum to ensure that graduates are job-ready yet adaptable to changing skills requirements.

• Raise teaching quality by increasing the qualifications levels required of TVET teachers and making pedagogical training obligatory.

• Encourage companies and other key stakeholders to co-operate in TVET planning and processes, including curriculum design, training and mentoring.

• Publicise TVET’s benefits to parents through publicity campaigns, parents’ evenings and showcasing student achievements.

Obviously, these measures would need to be tailored to developing countries’ unique circumstances. In addition, countries would need to find ways of changingsocial perceptions of TVET.

The Finnish example is of course no blueprint. Even in it’s own context, it is only one part of the youth unemployment puzzle: Finland itself continues to suffer from high youth unemployment, despite upgrading its TVET system, because it relies too heavily on a few large firms to provide jobs for its population – as evidenced during Nokia’s recent collapse. While Finland has begun to place greater emphasis on entrepreneurship, including incorporating entrepreneurship education into the TVET curriculum, it still needs to undertake basic labour market reforms. While developing countries also need to address structural issues that impede youth employment, it is time we took a more thoughtful look at the potential of vocational education.

Gita Subrahmanyam is a research associate at London School of Economics.

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