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Skills needed for work and life

By Abhimanyu Singh (chinadaily.com.cn) Updated: 2012-05-10 13:32

"Building Skills for Life and Work: China gears up for Shanghai World Congress"

The Third International Congress on Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) opens in Shanghai on May 14. Convened by UNESCO in partnership with international development partners, it will bring together about 800 delegates from UNESCO's 195 member states representing a wide range of stakeholders including ministries of education, labor, finance and health; international organizations, the private sector, employee organizations, trade unions, academia, youth and civil society. The participants reflect the multi-dimensional nature of the challenge of reforming TVET at a time when skills and employment have become a leading policy concern worldwide.

Thirteen years after the Second International Congress in Seoul in 1999, the Shanghai Congress comes at a time when there is strong demand for upgrading skills, acquiring new ones, and improving linkages between learning and work in the face of demographic shifts, rapid labor market changes and youth unemployment in many countries. The uncertain global economic conditions have heightened the need to transform TVET systems to make them more responsive.

The central focus of the Congress is on how to transform and expand TVET to ensure that all young people and adults can develop the skills needed for work and life. The Congress will provide a unique platform for the sharing of knowledge, best practices and innovative ideas and charting new directions for transforming TVET systems.

In preparation for the Congress, UNESCO has organized several regional and global consultations. UNESCO will launch the World TVET Report and World Database on TVET to provide an important resource for policymakers, practitioners and specialists.

China has earned the distinction of hosting the World Congress through its impressive achievements in expanding and modernizing its vocational education system in tune with its development model. The TVET system has expanded since reform and opening-up was launched in 1978 and played a key role in the development of the country.

The Chinese TVET system connects education at various levels and is linked with general education. It has over 6,000 technical schools and employment training centers and 20,000 private vocational training institutions. Enrollment in secondary vocational education is now about 22 million, more than half of the total higher school level enrollment; the highest proportion in any country in the world. Even in higher education, almost half the students now are enrolled in vocational education. The government provides financial support to 12 million secondary vocational students from rural areas and families with financial difficulties. The employment rate of graduates of secondary vocational education remains more than 95 percent and higher vocational education employment is more than 72 percent. There has been an improvement in the skills demonstrated by students in the annual National Vocational Students Skills Competition. There is also wide acknowledgement of the quality of graduates by the enterprises.

One of the salient features of China's vocational education is the strong cooperation among government, enterprises, trade associations and training institutions. The School-enterprise partnership is the bedrock of China's success. Enterprises are deeply involved in curriculum design, development and review. They provide teachers for vocational institutions as well as training opportunities for instructors. Students participate in internships at the enterprises for at least one third of their study period. This arrangement benefits both parties, ensuring a constant supply of workers to the enterprises and giving students an opportunity to acquire skills and earn some money. Certificates issued by enterprises to interns enhance their employability. Thus far China's TVET institutions have been able to meet diverse skill needs through an effective public-private partnership.

Nevertheless the next phase of China's social and economic development will pose challenges for the TVET system which will have to step up to meet the needs of what will soon be the world's largest economy in terms of GDP. China is seeking a major transformation from being a low-end manufacturing hub to a more sophisticated, service-oriented and creative economy. While it seeks to improve its competitiveness through innovation it has to reduce its carbon emissions, minimize ecological damage and improve energy efficiency. The TVET system will have to shoulder the responsibility of training a more skilled work force capable of adapting to the new demands of the labor market, globalization and technological upgrading through a process of lifelong learning. This will require openness and flexibility to cater to the needs of youth, women and the aging population.

The migration of rural people to cities poses a major challenge in terms of livelihoods of migrants, reskilling surplus agricultural labor and urban integration. Modernization of agriculture, development of the non-farm sector and the balanced development of the rural and urban areas demand a more diversified and dynamic TVET system.

The Chinese government is responding to this situation with a series of policy measures. The economic stimulus in 2008 provided substantial funding for improving the physical infrastructure of TVET institutions. The National Plan Outline on Medium and Long term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020) recognizes the importance of TVET in promoting economic development. There is a major commitment to expand reform and modernize TVET, including a long-term funding mechanism.

A TVET teacher quality improvement initiative has been launched. Nevertheless issues relating to teacher motivation, status and capacity need urgent attention. Vocational schools face difficulties in attracting competent teachers from partner enterprises.

All these and other related issues will be examined at the Shanghai Congress next month. This will provide an excellent opportunity for Chinese policymakers, academics and enterprises to share experiences; compare systems and fine tune their national strategies to improve the quality of TVET so as to respond to the expectations of their societies, especially youth, and to tackle emerging inequities to achieve the vision of a sustainable moderately well-off society.

China will be expected to demonstrate its global and regional leadership not only in shaping outcomes but in providing resources and expertise to help other developing countries improve the quality and relevance of TVET in tune with the evolving needs of their societies and the global market place.

The author is director and representative of the UNESCO Beijing Office.

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