Vocational Education: Revisiting the Gung Ho! Spirit
After my generally pessimistic note about vocational education in developing countries (the earlier story here), I received several emails, mostly from India but also a few from Africa and elsewhere, confirming my observations that while the current practice possibly falls short, one shouldn't yet call 'Game Over' for vocational education. There is enormous potential (read 'unemployed and unskilled people') and new ventures will take shape to do things better.
In context, I thought I could do better in presenting my argument. I had two problems with the way vocational education is currently being done in developing countries (which, in turn, follows a Western European model). First, the whole proposition is based on the assumption of a new industrial revolution, but such industrial revolution is largely a work of fiction. In today's world, it is difficult to see expansionary large industry absorbing the excess labour coming out of the villages. The other alternative - professionalisation of trades and creation of a class of self-employed tradesmen - is also a long shot. Therefore, I am arguing, that there may be no common model of vocational education, and each country may need to find its own based on the ground realities. Second, I had an objection about how vocational education is provided. In most countries, government funded the initiatives, and delivered vocational education through 'providers', companies and institutions specialising in education delivery. This model invariably comes up short, because the object of this model is to get people trained rather than facilitating a vocation (however much lip service is paid to employability, training providers train, they don't employ), and the government mandates often skew the attention to numbers of people put through the training than whatever happened to them afterwards.
Now, because I am arguing the model is flawed does not automatically mean that I am arguing there is no need for vocational education. The argument is rather that we need to look more deeply and see what's relevant to each country context rather than just retrofitting our proposition with whatever is available on a Pearson or Cengage catalogue, the big global publishers whose business model depends on recycling old training materials from developed country to the developing. And, the model needs to put the requirements of the learners first, a common-sense idea which is often overlooked in case of vocational education, and not treat them like dumb recipients of whatever we thought best fit for them.
If and when we do this, and turn this publisher-led model of vocational education on its head, we may discover models and ideas, and spaces for innovation, that we deliberately obscured ourselves. My favourite example, and one that I invoke often when I am asked about the alternative, is the one of 'Gung Ho' movement in China (yes, that's where the expression originated). For those not familiar with this piece of history, this is a movement in Pre-Communist, Nationalist China under Chiang Kai-Shek, run by China Industrial Corporation (CIC). Its aim was to maintain the Chinese industrial capacity in the face of Japanese invasion, at a time when most of Chinese manufacturing bases were taken over or destroyed. This movement, whose name is Mandarin was made of two characters, 'Gong' and 'Hir' (thus the English derivative 'Gung Ho'), was about setting up 'Guerrilla Industries', micro-manufacturing operations which can be shifted easily if the location becomes overrun by the Japanese. And, indeed, to maintain this vast operation, people needed to be trained: Mostly young boys and girls without any prior work exposure, because all the able bodied were perhaps conscripted, were recruited and trained in Bailie Schools, named after Joseph Bailie, the American who tried to set up Agricultural training schools and improve agriculture in China a generation earlier. These 'Bailie Schools', offered training on a range of industrial crafts:
An amazing variety of practical skills were taught. There were pottery kilns, paper-making, glass-blowing, spinning and weaving of cotton and wool. There was a leather section, where the hides were scraped, leather polished and dyed and jackets and shoes made. They had a flour mill and they made sugar from beet. There was a farm where they ran sheep sent from supporters in New Zealand. They had a coal mine and a power plant which provided electricity to the whole complex. (See the full story here)
These methods were successful, because they survived its trial by fire. This was nothing to do with the communists, but the ensuing Communist takeover of China and the commemoration of these heroic war efforts by the Communist leaders made such models disappear from public view behind the cold war curtain. This is indeed not a model we discuss when we discuss vocational education, despite the fact that it did augment Chinese industrial capability at a very crucial time and enabled a generation of skilled workers.
However, there is one more reason why the CIC experiment may still be significant when talking about vocational education. To be successful, developing country policy makers may need to look more at what is happening in the West today rather than what happened two hundred years ago. So, if one looks at the growth of micro-manufacturing in the West - the so-called Maker movement - and see the already dominant trends of DIY manufacturing and repair (mobile phone repair, anyone?) across the developing countries, it becomes apparent that there may be a better way to augment skills and create prosperity. In my emails to people writing to me about their dreams of setting up vocational education outlets, I urge them to consider setting up manufacturing cooperatives instead, where the learners just don't get trained, but also find employment. If anyone is trying to tell me that done this way, one can't train large numbers, I know that the motivation is plain wrong: The motive is to train and claim money, which eventually leads to ubiquitous fraud that ails vocational education, and not to enable a vocation.