What’s vocational education for?

David Cooke

Jill:        Many people think polytechs are just training for industry and trades.    

Jon:      Isn’t that what they’re for?  

Jon’s comment above probably reflects the popular view. Regrettably, it’s also close to the official view, which for years has explicitly tied tertiary education in general to the needs of industry and business. Fifteen years ago, for instance, The Tertiary Education Strategy for 2007-2012 put it as, “improving the responsiveness of the tertiary education system to the skills needs of industry and business” (p. 13).  

Such an outlook is echoed in the next round of the TES, in Priority 1: “Delivering skills for industry,” along with employability:

“The priority is to ensure that the skills people develop in tertiary education are well matched to labour market needs.”

TES 2014-2019, p. 10a

One can expect that in a frame of this kind, vocational (work-related) education will likely be even more intensively oriented to business and industry. 

This blog post, by contrast, argues for a much more holistic view of vocational education. There’s reason to be explicit about the purpose of vocational education, because the legislation and official policy in New Zealand read very differently.      

Scope of vocational education

To start with, I offer a broad definition of vocational education. The definition below has been distilled from a variety of sources: an international perspective, a conceptual approach (epistemological, teleological, hierarchical, and pragmatic), a detailed description for one country’s national purposes, and NZ’s tertiary union statement. Together, these sources suggest that: 

  • Vocational education is critical education for life-long learning in careers, trades, occupations, professions and callings  
    (i.e. taking account of the long-term implications of education investment)
  • It should serve the best interests not just of individual students, but also of communities and especially the nation, including Tiriti obligations, in both public and private spheres  
    (i.e. building in the responsibility of the country to act in an enlightened and comprehensive way that in the process creates national benefit from its education provision)
  • It would develop practical abilities of decision-making, action, thinking, and problem-solving through informed focus on relevant practice, theory and disciplines.  
    (i.e. acknowledging the interaction of knowledge and skill)

In other words, an adequate vocational education policy calls for critical thinking within a base of practical exploration of knowledge of the field. That’s sharply different from the narrow way vocational education is framed in official NZ documents establishing Te Pūkenga, the over-arching institution that amalgamates the 16 polytechnics: 

Vocational education and training— (a) means education and training that lead to the achievement of industry-developed skill standards, qualifications, or other awards

Education and Training Act 2020 No 38 (as at 01 July 2022) Public Act 10 Interpretation

The orientation to prioritise industry is reinforced in sources like the Reform of Vocational Education: Announcement, with statements like,

“Industry and employers will have greater influence over the courses and training offered within the new vocational education system.”  

The Act’s definition is then put into practice via Workforce Development Councils, which will have the power to decide whether an educational programme will be approved (outlined further below under “Serving industry”).

Goals for vocational education

In the face of the above prioritising, I argue instead that the most important goal for vocational education is serving the nation, building a base of highly competent graduates able to solve problems through informed knowledge and practice.    

To be explicit, the channel for doing so is the vocational education polytechnic staff, who otherwise appear to have limited agency in the documentation accompanying the establishment of the new Te Pūkenga (e.g., Summary of Change Decisions, even when staff are mentioned several times in the text). In other words, we should recognise that polytechnic staff are powerfully positioned to transform students by virtue of knowledge of the field and disciplined inquiry.  

We shouldn’t have to remind ourselves of the value of staff, but in the current context, it pays to note that they are an experienced and diverse resource within a critical evolving construction.  

There are of course different possible goals for vocational education, such as training for a specific job; serving the needs of industry; and benefiting the individual student.   

Benefiting the student  

To take the last goal first – and briefly, since it is arguably widely assumed and reasonable to defend in considering vocational education – there can be obvious benefit to the individual student from tertiary vocational education. This study can lead to a job; it can provide essential knowledge; it can build foundations for skills and abilities and for applying knowledge. At the same time, there is always the danger that stringent self-interest can blind students to their own place in society or similarly to the role of their profession.  

Training for a specific job  

An idea that gets a lot of traction is specific training for a given job, such as an employer calling for training plumbers just to join pipes. For example, as Dr Wei Loo, a vocational education colleague, reported at the QPEC Forum in June 2021:

He said, ‘why are you teaching your students everything about plumbing – hot water, fluid pressure, all that? All we need is for our students to join pipes, because that’s our main activity, as the biggest employer.’     

The advantage of such training is that it can usher a new graduate straight into a paying job, work-ready, thereby suiting both the employer and the worker.  

But doing so is very much a leap of faith for students, industry, and society, as technology, social developments, COVID and climate change all reshape work sites and work patterns. The obvious limitation in the above employer’s outlook is that it shortchanges the trainee plumber both now and in the future.  

The major problem is that the skills set for many jobs is in continuing flux – consider the changing face of nursing, health care, food production, transportation, urban planning, for example. This fluidity is complicated by the expectation that many current jobs simply won’t exist in their present forms in the near future. So the student who gets trained just for a particular job is likely disadvantaged in a short space of time.  

The weight of this view is that graduates of any trade or profession need to be able to think their way out of the current job to solve new problems and source new solutions. To meet that challenge, vocational courses need to provide a framework that critically explores knowledge of the field, as anyone in, say, Social Work would point out: the response to cases or policy issues would rely not on formulae, but on rich understanding of complex societal issues.  

Serving industry  

In popular talk in Canada, it is claimed* that the Ontario system of Community Colleges was set up so that the public could pay for the needs of business and industry.   Be that as it may, NZ’s new polytechnic equivalent has the hallmarks of doing just that.  

The current round of restructuring in creating Te Pūkenga has embedded industry priorities from the start, through official documents, Minister’s statements, and the legislation (Education and Training Act 2020 No 38), as cited throughout this discussion.  

In the early stages of restructuring vocational education, the Minister of Education stated the orientation categorically:  

“The changes we are making will give industry greater control over all aspects of vocational education and training.”

A new dawn for work skills and training, 1 Aug 2019

Significantly, the legislation establishes Workforce Development Councils, made up of a majority of industry appointments, with wide-ranging authority over standards, qualifications and curriculum.  

These Workforce Development Councils will shape the curriculum of vocational education, and the Tertiary Education Commission’s investments in vocational education. Workforce Development Councils will get to decide whether programmes are fit for purpose, whether those programmes are work-based programmes (like an apprenticeship), taught on-campus or online at a provider, or a combination of both. Unless a programme has the confidence of a Workforce Development Council– effectively, industry’s confidence – it won’t be approved and won’t be funded. Or, as the Chief Executive of the Tertiary Education Commission put it to a Parliamentary commission,

“I like to say they [Workforce Development Councils] have the whip hand around how things are going to get done.”

Inquiry into the future of workforce needs in the primary industries of New Zealand Primary Production Committee, 8 April 2021, p. 7

Last word  

There is a very basic reasoning behind the argument here: since Te Pūkenga is a vast publicly-supported institution, it should serve the public interest.  

The situation is all the more pressing given the needs of a complex and stressed society.  NZ, like other nations, faces urgent national and international pressures like the COVID pandemic, climate disintegration, international war, and the deliberate undermining of democracy, all of which can place stringent demands on knowledge and practice within vocational education 

It’s important to note that the issue in this discussion is not to demonise industry, but rather to suggest that it is inappropriate for official policy to prioritise industry and business interests over a vibrant and carefully constructed tertiary education sector.  

The restructuring of VE could be a golden opportunity to enact an enlightened vision of education. At the current stage of establishing Te Pūkenga, it will require real courage to promote such a construct.  

* When he introduced the enabling legislation for Community Colleges in 1965, the Minister, William Davis, said, it was “essential to the continued growth and expansion of the economy of our Province, and of our nation, that adequate facilities be made generally available for the education and training of craftsmen, technicians and technologists” (quoted in Vision 2000, p. 7). 

* * For two critical research reports on Ontario Community Colleges, see MacKay and Skolnick 

David Cooke was formerly at York University, Toronto, and Unitec NZ, in language education, applied linguistics and teacher education. He writes on tertiary education (e.g., Blind Faith, report to TEU) and is currently National Chair of QPEC, Quality Public Education Coalition.  

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