Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light

Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!

It is the business of the wealthy man

To give employment to the artisan.

It was not only in Sri Lanka that, from the inception until very recently, Vocational Training was seen mainly in terms on Technical Education. This is understandable in that this constituted the bulk of what were seen as vocations in earlier days. This was to ignore the socially common use of the word ‘vocation’ as denoting an occupation to which one was committed. On the contrary, vocation when used in conjunction with education or training was seen as equivalent to the word job, such training being designed to find employment. And, to venture into social theory, those who needed to find employment were concerned about blue collar jobs – as opposed to those who, from the gilded halls of the 19th century British university, glided into an occupation, even if it was only smoking.

What might be termed class structures in education continued for a long time in Britain, the most class ridden of societies, at least until the last quarter of the last century, except possibly for Sri Lanka. I still recall the scorn for polytechnics, and the horror at Oxford when these became universities.

Sri Lanka, the last bastion of imperialism, has continued with the dichotomies that Britain has got rid of. We still think of degrees as a precious commodity, to be confined to a very few. Though finally, eight years ago, what was termed the National Institute of Technical Education became a university, it produced hardly any graduates until the last couple of years. And though things are now changing, there is still a tendency to work towards academic qualifications, without stress on practical applications.

We still think in terms of the dichotomy of working with hands and working with the mind. The assumptions of superiority that this dichotomy caused were regrettable. But the division was understandable when the bulk of real work was done in industry and agriculture, with those not engaged in active work functioning at a vast remove physically and conceptually. And it was they after all who decided, as Lewis Carroll might have put it, what words meant.

All that has now changed. The expansion of the middle class has been accompanied by an expansion of what might, to extend the class metaphor, be termed middle level occupations. In addition to work based on technical capacity that is more sophisticated than what was considered the preserve of the blue collar worker, a large proportion of the economy in many countries, and certainly in Sri Lanka, is now based on services. However, while traditional universities develop sophisticated technology skills, there is little training in government educational institutes in Sri Lanka to cater to the service sector. And the general education provided by schools and universities has proved unable to satisfy the needs of many employers.

It is in such a context that we have felt the need to plan in very different ways from previously with regard to what is termed Tertiary and Vocational Education. That is how the area I am now concerned with is classified by the National Education Commission which is in the process of developing proposals with regard to this sector. That factor in itself speaks volumes, because in the last such exercise, in 2009, that sector was lumped together with University Education, which naturally, given our Victorian predilections, dominated the volume that was produced.

In the Technical and Vocational Education Commission itself, we have begun to expand our field of action, wider by working in new areas, deeper by adding new skills to existing training programmes. We need to do much more, for example, with regard to the hospitality industry, and we need too to be aware too that this should encompass ‘experiences, sports, marketing, hospitals, retail – any place people are paid attention to and spend time’, to cite a recent authority whose name I cannot now remember. One branch of this area we need to concentrate on is care, both for children and for the elderly, since the working patterns of those in between preclude the arrangements for necessary care that our society enjoyed in the past.

Another area of great concern which I hope that we can also move into is what we term ‘Technology and Education’. From a practical perspective we need to produce teachers in subjects important for our areas of concern, much more swiftly than the current monopoly on teacher education enjoyed by our Ministry of Education permits. In particular we must raise achievement levels in English and Maths in our rural schools, which suffer most now from the declining capacity of traditional teacher training systems over the last half century.

With regard to depth we need to understand the importance of core competencies to enable our students to function productively in the world of work. Unfortunately Sri Lanka still largely functions on the old British system whereby an elite, having finished their schooling, entered university for academic study. The Americans realized early on, when the numbers of those entering higher education expanded, that many schools were not producing rounded personalities. They began the idea of core courses, which in early days stressed mathematics as well as communication skills. However towards the end of the last century it became clear that more was needed in the modern work place, and the excellent analysis  in ‘Getting at the Core’. by Sisila Blok, wife of an innovative Harvard President, noted ten areas in which additional courses were advisable. They covered a range of competencies from computing to social sensitivity.

In Sri Lanka Sabaragamuwa University was the first to have mandatory Core Courses, but the practice has now been adopted in most universities, albeit with varying commitment and success. While it would be nice to offer courses in many of the areas Sisila Blok identified, we have realized however at the TVEC that we have to concentrate on a few, in line with what employers have registered they need.

Chief amongst these are English Language Skills and Self Confidence, sadly factors that go together since English is seen as of enormous significance socially. Way back in the seventies it was described as a sword, that cut people down. This caused resentment, but fortunately, instead of trying to pull everyone down to the same level, as happened in those days, those who have suffered from deprivation are more keen now to make up for lost time.

The urgency they feel was not shared by an older generation, which failed  for instance to appoint English Teachers for Centres run by the Vocational Training Authority, even though English was supposed to be part of the syllabus on all courses. This has now been remedied, and in addition we are developing a Soft Skills syllabus which we hope will develop initiative and entrepreurship as well as advanced social competencies. But we also see a need for better thinking skills. Unfortunately for too long now Sri Lanka, which led much of Asia in education in the period before independence, now has a system based on rote learning. This facilitates a culture of private tuition which entails sitting in large classes and taking down dictated notes with limited opportunities – or none – for questioning and discussion. Incidentally this problem is connected with one identified in a recent World Bank study which notes that education in countries such as ours suffers from students not having materials. In Sri Lanka we have nothing like the excellent publishing industry you have in India, though one recent step the TVEC has taken is to develop partnerships with publishers so that the materials we produce can also be put on the open market.

Given all these problems, many Sri Lankan graduates find it difficult to find jobs in the private sector, which leads to periodic flurries of recruitment, usually before elections, into government service. Successive governments have registered the problem, successive governments have succumbed to pressure and ministers spend much time finding or creating jobs for their constituents. Meanwhile the private sector complains that they cannot fill vacancies.

Radical measures are needed to remedy the situation. Whether we have the will and the capacity to put these in place on a sustainable basis is however a question.

Island 23 February 2016 – http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=140817