Public TVET Education: How Did Nice People Like Us Get Into a Mess Like This?

In some countries, publicly funded technician education is on the verge of bankruptcy and irrelevance. Buildings are decaying, ancient equipment is unusable, students register only if they have been turned down by every other option in post secondary education and employers turn up their noses!

Provincial Training Center in Cambodia

Yet, in other countries the reverse is the case. Systems are growing rapidly, state of the art equipment is crowding labs and well qualified students including masses of university graduates are lining up to get in.

Naturally, the level of development of each country has some impact on this. But some countries struggling to develop their economies have dynamic TVET systems while others languish, so stage of development is not the sole cause of these differences.

No matter how different systems are, virtually all of them are facing similar problems in government financing. Shrinking tax-based funding has hit North America as directly as it has hit Asia and Africa.

The preoccupation with balanced government budgets and national debt reduction has been as pervasive in Europe as it has in South America.

The need to recover from the financial crisis in South East Asia has significantly reduced funding for social programs and even those relatively wealthy economies are in a cost cutting mode.

So what is at the root of the highly variable performance of TVET systems?

Why are some clearly outperforming others even when they come from comparable economies?

It is not simply the differences in the problems they face because many of the problems are similar and societal wealth seems not to be the sole determinant of successful technician training systems. 

Some systems triumph in the reduction of tax based funding while others are dying. Money flows into some government-based institutions from non-traditional sources while others seem to be incapable of grasping the basic issues they are facing.

What can be learned from the TVET systems that are growing and meeting economic objectives? Can any of this be adapted to help failing systems?

Is there any experience in the resuscitation of bankrupt technician training systems? Does outside donor financial assistance help or simply exacerbate the problems? And in the long run, is government funding the answer, or is it really the problem?

Experience suggests that although funding seems to be the major issue, the answer to the problems do not start with more money!

Even worse, experience suggests that simply throwing money at the problem of decay so as to build new buildings and buy new equipment will only put the systems on life-support, not bring them back to a useful, productive life.

A Bit of History in the Developed Economies

If we start with the premise that technician education cannot survive in most countries if Government is the exclusive funding agent, then we need to look at factors that engage other partners in accepting a role.

Does the history of the various TVET systems give us any hints as to the process that lead to engaging partners in helping to finance TVET systems?

In North America, institutional technician training grew out of necessity in the post war period as a response to the decline in the pool of well-trained immigrants from Europe.

In the 1960’s this decline happened as advances in manufacturing and office technology began to affect the basic requirements of the workforce.

However, in the United States this pressure for institutional training for technicians did not necessarily mean direct government financing. Other factors relieved the pressure, at least for a time.

As an example, the impact of technological change on the 2 million person-military resulted in a massive increase in the complexity, comprehensiveness and intensity of training.

Thus, as citizens completed their draft obligations, left after short service or retired, there was an increasing flow of skilled technicians to industry.

Beyond this, the location of mega-national and multinational home offices in the US resulted in a stronger commitment to in-industry training supported by employers. Managers had some sense of responsibility to the communities in which they lived and worked.

Consequently, in the 1960’s, the pressure on government was to create Junior and Community Colleges in order to integrate immigrants into the dominant culture or facilitate access to University. Technical skills were seen as being met in other ways.

In Canada, with a miniscule military and a largely branch plant/warehouse distribution system rather than a significant manufacturing sector, there was little tradition of skills training beyond repair and maintenance competencies.

British apprenticeship had been imported and met skilled worker requirements such as they existed in the construction industries. Thus when the post war flow of skilled immigrants from Europe’s industries tapered off in the late 1950’s at the same time as the economy began to industrialize, a significant problem emerged.

Beyond this, in both Canada and the United States, the arrival of the post war baby boom at the doors of post-secondary education amplified the need for a mechanism to both satisfy the demand for access and to keep the group off the job market as long as possible.

In United States, private sector universities expanded quickly to absorb some of this demand. 

In Canada with no “entrepreneurial” private University sector, there was no existing post secondary response. Equally in Canada, there was a much stronger tradition of government involvement and accountability in social services such as education.

Higher taxes supported government programs. Industry was conditioned to externalizing the cost of training based on this higher tax base. 

Therefore, in Canada the emergence of government Community Colleges was the most important response to all of these changes and challenges.

In United States, the tradition of multi-stakeholder involvement in the financing of technician education grew easily from their history. In Canada, state financing of all education was more the norm.

In Western Europe, the proud tradition of craftsmanship had evolved into factory schools that met the needs of expanding industry.

Family traditions supported the passing of trades from father to son and the concept of work had not been twisted into a perceived colonial plot to keep conquered peoples in their place.

Technician education was largely a factory based and funded activity with tax based subsidies and government involvement in standards setting. 

Post war socialism ensured that state involvement would remain high. Thus, much training even at the technician level took place in-industry with full management /union supervision but with massive state support.

What seems clear is that technician education systems have either evolved in new directions and new relationships or they have gradually become irrelevant. There seems to be no middle ground. 

As in most ecological, economic or social systems, those that have evolved in pace with their environment are stronger and more dynamic today than they were 30 years ago.

​Those technician training systems that have been frozen in time and have become warehouses for the history of economic change, have become irrelevant to the societies in which they are located. And, the tighter the control by Government, the greater the propensity for system disaster.

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