Monday, September 12, 2011

Vocational Education in Malaysia: It’s Alive!

From today’s Utusan (excerpt):

Vocational foundation programme at 15 selected day schools beginning 2013

IPOH Sept 11 — The Vocational Foundation Programme (VFP) for Form 1 to Form 3 students would be implemented from 2013 to make vocational studies mainstream education, said Deputy Education Minister Dr Mohd Puad Zarkashi.

He said the VFP would replace the vocational subject currently being taught in the day schools and this move was in line with the transformation of technical and vocational studies.

"Students who pass the VFP at the lower secondary level will be allowed to join the technical colleges as we will be transforming the secondary vocational schools into vocational colleges.

"We are working at this so that vocational studies will become mainstream education and the certificate on par with the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia,” he said, here, today.

Mohd Puad said the VFP would be implemented in 15 selected day schools as pioneer schools for the programme nationwide, and those who passed the VFP would receive the Sijil Kemahiran Malaysia (SKM) Level I and II.

He said from there (VFP), among the approaches to be taken by the government was establishing cooperation with the private sector through the private funding initiative involving the setting up of new vocational colleges by them, or the government sending the students to the existing vocational colleges.

Psychometric evaluation test would be among the methods to be used by the ministry in selecting primary Year Six pupils, and not the UPSR, to take up the VFP at the secondary level, he said…

…"The problem with vocational education in this country is that it comprises 55 per cent technical and vocationl (voctech) studies and 45 per cent academic, whereas in developed countries, it is 70 per cent voctech and only 30 per cent academic.”

Mohd Puad said after the VFP, it would not be enough for students to study at the vocational colleges only for two years because in developed countries, the course was at least three years including job training in order to produce highly-skilled graduands.

Finally some movement even if we’re talking about implementation on a very limited scale in 2013. Long term though, this is a necessary and critical step to take. For too long has vocational education been considered a step-child within the education system, with a shortage of skilled workers the main result and a gender imbalance in tertiary education a corollary.

This won’t impact workers now of course, nor will it have an impact on Malaysia achieving developed status by 2020. But post-2020, a higher proportion of skilled workers will be a necessary ingredient in maintaining high income status, as well as providing an outlet for the non-academically inclined.

I find it ironic that only one major mainstream paper (so far) has picked up this Bernama story. Perhaps a sad reflection of the attitudes towards vocational education in this country.


  1. Have you ever been to a vocational school to see the skill levels of the teachers there? Teachers who teach welding cannot even make a proper weld. Teachers of automotive engineering do not understand that an exhaust turbocharger does essentially the same job as a supercharger run by a pulley. Students of these vocational schools who have trouble telling clockwise from anti clockwise. Improve the shitty quality of these schools first before telling Malaysians about the merits of vocational education.

  2. And how would you improve the quality?

    Making the case for vocational education helps push through improvements:
    1. By raising the profile of vocational education and making it acceptable to the mainstream;
    2. By putting more resources and funding into it, to attract teaching talent (better salaries) and improve infrastructure;
    3. By making the qualification worthwhile and thus prove vocational education as a viable education avenue;
    4. By drawing government and public attention to the present shortcomings, and thus provide the social and political pressure to improve matters.

    Unless the case is made that vocational education actually matters to the nation, will there be any improvement? If the public does not know, or worse does not care, do you think anybody would put any resources into improving vocational education? I don't believe so, which is why as bad as it is, I'll keep pushing for widening access to vocational education.

  3. The press article is unhelpful. So i'll drawl away.

    I recall that in sekolah teknikal of yonder days, forms 1-3 students would take some technical subjects like drafting, motor mechanics, woodwork and metalwork but they still took their SRP exam which had other more academic subjects as well. Then they went into form 4 in technical colleges and sat for the SPVM on finishing form 5, or went into academic forms 4-5 and did science or arts or commerce.

    This sijil pelajaran vokasional Malaysia was taken as equivalent to the SPM for all intents and purposes, including admission into appropriate further studies.

    Now it seems the MOE will be trying to take the SPVM stream to a higher level but on the same cohort of students and embedding it in the SPM environment.

    It would be good to know what has happened to all the SPVM holders so far. Are they doing well or otherwise? If not doing well, what are the reasons? I think that has to be candidly and unflinchingly answered. First. Because if the reasons be not fleshed out, this new thing will be another scheme that will flounder as has all the other MOE experiments so far.

    Secondly, if it is to now be at a higher level, what will it entail? Better facilities and teachers? We already have precedent where even in some of the better national schools, vocational-type subjects like sains rumahtangga has gone kaput. What more the really technical subjects where you will need more of the facilities such as found in sekolah teknikal of the past. Since this country doesn't even have enough PE instructors, how to train out more vocational instructors to make enhanced vocational studies more mainstream? And if we take it one step at a time, then there will be no national impact on the rebranding exercise.

    Thirdly, ok it's perception. Let's do a thought experiment then. Pick any number of the cabinet members. Tell them that the MOE now mandates their children to de-register from the international schools, and go back to the national schools which will now have enhanced vocational subjects leading all the way to say a certificate in technical studies upon finishing their form 5. Say it's needed for national interest and they are best qualified to set an example.

    I submit to you that all of them will tell the MOE to go fly kites. Now if a cabinet minister will be doing that, won't any parent below that rank react even more vigorously, especially when the latter has more brains and get-real sense than the former, which explains the dilemma being discussed today?

    And you know that sort of sentiment is real. Focus on the one month after the SPM and STPM results are released. Watch how the parents take their children around. Go and visit the academic and job fairs. See the intensity, feel the drive, note the anxieties.

  4. 2/2

    If our government works with the same energy as shown by those young folks in that one month where they're literally scrambling to carve their futures, our first PM won't have to be crying right now (were he to return but for a moment in spirit) because, viola, this was what he had written in his essay published by the Foreign Affairs journal July 1965:

    'Malaysia has the second highest standard of living in the East, following only that of Japan.' (Malaysia: Key Area in Southeast Asia; Tunku Abdul Rahman)

    Let's say all of the above is stretchy. Let's say the bigger situation is the rural students will benefit from the new deal. Fine; i like that too. But if they had not done well with their SPVM, would anyone bet they will do better with something higher which would require another lowering of standards?

    The bromide about standards is that the calibre and contribution will be tested at the place of work, not in the rarefied confines of the MOE.

    That is why i say the MOE must open up whether the SPVM (and others) had been well-received or not. It's just a name.

    We are not one of those advanced countries where the plumber can make more than the degree holder who still has to pay off his study loan.

    What we should be careful about is not to just fix another joint to the secondary school vocational pipe and then say the pipe is strengthened.

    If the situation is to be rebranded, then it should be totally holistic. The people who are doing the policies don't have the worldview and skillsets to articulate the holism.

    Technofascination, precision, inventiveness, meistership programme, holding high the master craftsman, pride of work, paying constant attention to the minutest detail, even being fastidious about neatness and cleanliness and being systematic. Systems thinking, analytical skills, ability to write a technical manual, constant improvement, appreciation of the aesthetics, logic of designs, draftsmanship, use of computers and their programming languages and most importantly, a curiosity about other disciplines so that they will interact. Because it is multidisciplinary interactivity which calls the shots these complicated days.

    Did the planners think of all these or is it another stab at educational plumbing again?

    We need to know quickly because i fear incremental improvement only works in a static environment where the other countries stand still. They don't. I know. I tracked their knowledge and skills intensity.

  5. Walla, I expect no immediate impact from this new emphasis on vocational training. Nothing the government does now in secondary education will make any impact at all before 2020. Nor will the target of achieving near universal pre-school education. In terms of the high income target, this is all meaningless.

    Nevertheless, the effort is well worth doing for the sake of the future. Your criticisms and concerns are all valid, as is Vinnan's - but that doesn't mean the effort should not be made, or that mistakes (and big ones) will happen along the way.

    I keep harking back to Kaizen when thinking about policy issues - we will never get things right the first time. Improvements will come in time, as an iterative and reiterative process, driven by experience and feedback. What's needed are people (on the ground) who are willing to make the attempt and to speak out when something is wrong. There are more than a few models of national vocational systems, but we don't know which is applicable within the context of our domestic conditions. Certainly MOE does not know - and neither do I. That does not excuse not attempting to try. In the process, we'll learn something (and quite possibly add to the sum of human knowledge at the same time).

    I don't think that parents who have bring their precious ones to education fairs and the like are the likely target for this initiative. When I think of vocational training:

    1. I think of my cousins on my mother's side, handicapped by poverty and an absentee father. The eldest is just past (failed) his SPM and is working as a bike mechanic. Would he have done better in a vocational stream, and improved his prospects? Quite probably. He's certainly not academicly inclined.

    2. I think of my workshop foreman, who I've known near twenty years. He only has SRP level education, yet has built up a prosperous business out of sheer hard work and dedication to his craft. He complains now that workers are hard to find, because even at entry level, mechanics now have to know basic electronics (as cars have become increasingly computerised).

    3. I think of my sister's fiancee, the successful product of one of the very few apprenticeship programs in this country (in this case Petronas). He's now fielding offers from Brunei and the Middle East.

    4. I think of my other sister, who's never married because she frankly intimidates the hell out of potential suitors (2 Masters degrees and financially independent), perhaps a sign of things to come. Not many men's egos can handle a smarter wife. But if the social standing of technicians and plumbers and the like were higher...who knows?

  6. Sobering points, hishamh. I know them too.

    And that's why i mentioned a more holistic approach to education planning and management. I am surprised there hasn't been enough focus on usability, only output.

    What is the point of making the numbers when the product will be facing problems later and there will be no one will help him out because all had been baked from the same oven?

    So it has got to do with a number of basics:

    one, the way we instruct and motivate our vocational students; with the background they have, their starting life is not only a dredge but already also a drudge.

    How do we yank their minds and spirits out of that and then spark their inner energies and will, make them more disciplined, give them goals they can identify with, enable them to see that if they put in effort, they can actually see their work and the reward it brings? How do we instil in them their own uncompromising approach to standards?

    Some of the techniques used in national service may have to be used in the schools. Which means the syllabus and coursework will have to be different. Which also explains my being wary about making vocational studies mainstream.

    Centuries ago, i was crestfallen when the instructor said he had expected better from me when i showed him the wooden bookcase i had made (the damn thing was bengkang-bengkok).

    To get from that - making a perfectly aesthetic bookcase - to, say, architecting an ikea supply-chain-system, yes that should be how one can look at real vocational studies. A pipedream at the moment, but worth thinking about. Perhaps phasally.

    Second thing that can be done is to tackle the output refinement. We have some lifelong learning programs around but more for social studies and the arts and that's because the investment available to build and run the support infrastructure is small. Mostly voluntary stuff.

    Why not have a national lifelong learning network targeting post-vocational education? This network also has its own self-learning mechanism. It keeps tabs on trends and discoveries, new inventions and analysis. It has a growing repository of plans and designs and methods. It also has a legal corporate service to help them become inventors and entrepreneurs, protect their IPs, teach them things like how to start their workshops and balance their books, find customers and order parts. A complete incubator scheme that penetrates exactly where the enterprise starts - when they're about to carve their careers in life. Not scrambling half-tired after twenty years of smelling gasoline from leaky engines.....

  7. Let's say i come out with a vocational certificate and apprentice myself in some workshop. The work is gruelling and the pay is gruel but i keep at it year after year. There must be a way where i can take a weekend to go to a centre and pick up new skills and knowledge immediately applicable to my work or useful for some other higher tasks later on.

    At that centre there will be others like me. I won't be alone. All speak the same lingo. There's camaraderie. People who have made it will come and give pep talks and provide insights. All from the trade. They will narrate what they have seen at the BMW plant in Germany or in Toyota city. I won't feel small after that. I will see there's a different world from that sweatshop in some backyard.

    At no point in my interaction with anyone will i be made to feel inadequate or insecure. I will be given a chance and the means to get up in life. With occasional support when i fall.

    Now i have seen how shopfloor youngsters at the Proton plant in Shah Alam drive out to line the new cars. They had some spirit there. Why can't the training method be replicated in all vocational schools? Woodworking will have its own, electricals another variant and so on.

    Then we can give them a sense of self-worth and confidence so that they won't look down on themselves when they fail. Getting up is the real deal.

    I can write some more. Plenty of ideas and observations. My main point is - don't knee-jerk another silo solution until the root of the matter is clearly understood, and don't try to do something without engaging people outside the circle to provide real inputs. Not committee-constrained comments.

    At this juncture i won't want to debate the need for higher standards as a prerequisite to creating "100,000 PhDs" (remember?) and other 'mundane' objectives. It's cough all too fatiguing.

  8. Were you thinking along these lines?

    About half way through, MEF director Shamsuddin Bardan talks about "rebranding" jobs and certification.

    I was thinking also in terms old-style European guilds and (shock! horror!) trade unions. Both are proper platforms for maintaining member quality, raising social acceptance and investing in the resources for life time learning. Going this route would also help in raising incomes.

  9. Not along but independently; i try to avoid mainstream.

    And one can't just rebrand because it'll then be like rebadge. One should reengineer. But that'll be painful.

    The guilds and trade unions here are moribund. Because they too are made from the same mould that has to be retooled.

    It's all about brains, hishamh.