Access to quality education and compulsory education are the two oft repeated mantras for increasing school enrollment. Attempts have even been successful with the Net Enrollment Rate increasing to almost 95% in 2011. A deeper question however remains unanswered and unfulfilled still. If our education has quality, and everyone is literate, then why is it that rising unemployment rate remains an integral part of our development scenario? Why are skilled and unskilled human resources from across the borders, such as for construction work, for garment and pashmina work, perennially in demand? Why is it that Nepalese who go overseas are hired as "unskilled"? Why is the trend for seeking overseas employment seen an exponential rise over the years?
It is in this context that interest and investment in vocational education is on the rise. Vocational is seen as having the scope to not only answer some of the above questions, but also address larger issue – youth empowerment and employment.
Vocational is often described as being "based on identified particular needs of a particular locale". Vocational has elements of addressing local needs and by its very definition has a real world application. The fact that such instruction is results-oriented means that pedagogical effectiveness is of paramount importance. According to Wikipedia, vocational (paraphrased), “... prepares trainees for jobs that are based on manual or practical activities, traditionally non-academic, and totally related to a specific trade, occupation, or vocation. It is sometimes referred to as technical education as the trainee directly develops expertise in a particular group of techniques”.
In the human capital framework, general education creates ‘general human capital’ and vocational and technical education ‘specific human capital’ (Becker, 1964). Vocational imbibes specific job-relevant skills that can make the worker more readily suitable for a given job and thus also more productive. Vocational education prioritizes teaching procedural knowledge rather than declarative knowledge, which is the hallmark of general curriculum.
Attitudes towards Vocational
In Nepal, vocational training was introduced in the lower secondary classes, in the 1950s and it was described as prevocational education. At the secondary level, almost 25 percent of the curriculum consisted of vocational training. Vocational education was also introduced to facilitate secondary school graduates to directly enter into the job market after school. The subjects included agriculture, agronomy, horticulture, poultry, animal husbandry, dairy science, fishery, industrial electrical installation, furniture and metal work, building construction, and bamboo work. From early 1980s, however, vocational education in secondary schools began to be curtailed and by 2000, vocational instruction through secondary schools was treated as one subject with a weight of about 14 percent and only a minimal emphasis on skill acquisition.
Now that vocational training was no longer integral to school studies or mainstreamed via the curriculum, several generations of school children lost out on acquiring skills and building up alternative livelihood options right from childhood.
Relevance of "Vocational"
General education and vocational education are equally important. Education systems in many countries include both streams in varying proportions. Vocational and technical education and training (abbreviated hereafter simply as VET) that includes at least two major forms: vocational and technical education in formal education systems are adopted in many countries. It may also, at a higher level, also include apprenticeship-training systems and / or enterprise based training, etc.
Leading social scientists have lent strong support for vocational education. Thomas Balogh (1969) was emphatic in arguing: “As a purposive factor for rural socio-economic prosperity and progress, education must be technical, vocational and democratic.” However, social attitudes to vocational education are not encouraging in many Asian countries, and until the recent revival by the government in Nepal, it had also waned in both popularity and relevance. Negative attitudes to manual work severely dampened the demand for vocational education. Further, vocational is conceived as a system of education for the poor, and for the educationally backward sections that are not eligible for admission into higher education.
Given the high incidence of poverty in Nepal and its immediate impact on women along with a shrinking job market for the youths, vocational education is once again re-emerging as a possible option that could contribute immensely to addressing impoverishment, and reduce unemployment, create skilled employees, enable self-employment and engendering a higher propensity for skilled or semi skilled labour force participa¬tion. Vocational education is in recent months being taken on as a major agenda by Curriculum Development Centre. It is being pushed for as a key educational initiative by CTEVT. The Minister for Education, Dinanath Sharma was recently in the news for noting the relevance of vocational along with the government's commitment to strengthen it. Piloting vocational curriculum has already begun in middle and high school grades in several districts with the inclination to now push for the "learning by doing" philosophy. The plan is to mainstream the curriculum within a few years in all public schools.
There is need to proceed with caution however. Rather than emphasizing on one size fits all, sufficient ground work needs to be done to allow flexibility for inclusion of locally relevant topics. There is also need to ensure the availability of trained human resources and instructors in schools, a supportive job market and the monitoring of return on investment. After all, once introduced, this curriculum would be affecting the future of hundreds and thousands of Nepali youth who enter the job market. If vocational is indeed meant to promote equity in development outcomes with a distinct pro-rural slant to serve the needs of the poorest and most marginalized youths and women, then it is only fitting that we do the right thing. Our youths deserve it.