Jon Halligan, Director of Schools, VIE Education
“Historically, precollege education has focused on educating for the known, the tried and true, the established canon. This made very good sense in the many periods and places where most children’s lives were likely to be more or less like their parents’ lives. However, “wagering that tomorrow will be pretty much like yesterday does not seem to be a very good bet today”; so said David Perkins, in his bestselling book “Futurewise”, never have his words rang more true. COVID-19 has put so much into question, not least the future of economies around the world; the International Labour Organization estimates that the equivalent of 305 million full-time jobs have already been lost since the start of the pandemic. Not all industry sectors have felt the same impact but one thing is certain, the future for everyone, is very uncertain. Education needs to flex to meet this emerging reality in terms of providing students with an education that enables them to be both life-ready and work-ready.
The same is not good enough:
Firstly, let’s acknowledge, doing more of the same is not good enough, Secondary and Tertiary education are out of step with industry needs. You could argue against this claim, noting that globally, for the most part, graduate unemployment is dropping, however, this ignores the fact that graduate “underemployment” is rising, significantly. The US rate for graduate employment is approximately 96%, however, a recent study found that approximately 40% of those graduates were “underemployed” – meaning that their entry job had no requirement for a degree, and the same study stated that graduates would potentially stay at this underemployed level for up to 10 years, before gaining parity with other graduates. The study noted that undergraduates need to “accrue meaningful and relevant work experience before graduating” as this would enable them to be able to apply real world contexts and develop core employability skills.
Levelling the playing field:
There is a significant disparity in the esteem held, when comparing vocational skills and qualifications with those that are more discipline based (A levels, Degrees etc). Why is that?
Historically, vocational learning at school and college has been undervalued. Scan any social media channel and you will rarely hear celebrations of success around young people going straight from school into employment; what jobs they’ve got or how well they did in their vocational studies. The vast majority are all about the grades or points achieved against world averages, the university destinations and the academic subjects students will be going to read. Our parents targeted university as the ultimate aim for their children, believing that if we went to university, we would get higher paid jobs. The by-product of this perception was the entrenching that “lifeworthy education” centred not around career-related skills, but was singularly focused on academic excellence and that a student’s, parent’s and school’s success depended on admission to university. This led to the birth of what I call the ‘credentialing cartel”. The late Ken Robinson, for whom I had a great deal of respect and admiration, described the current academic education systems as preparing students to go to university, and university as preparing them to be a professor. We don’t need a world full of professors!
The events of 2020 have resulted in many young people questioning the value of school qualifications and university degrees. With growing awareness of alternatives like degree apprenticeships, young people are beginning to see that a workplace education may be more relevant and could launch them further and faster into their chosen career path. The uncertainty around COVID-19, coupled with rising underemployment among graduates, has added momentum to this shift.
Can we break the cartel?
It’s already happening, increasingly, industry is becoming more voluble in terms of the discussion around “lifeworthy” learning, no longer content to leave it in the sole domain of the “credentialing cartel”. Some of the global technology powerhouses are producing employability skills courses and certifying vocational competence. Google is offering high level vocational training via its Google career certificates with high employability at a moderate cost. Microsoft sponsors several coding academies and offers its own suite of certification; Amazon has also entered the fray with its cloud-based qualifications for high school and undergraduates. It is interesting to note that some of the leading financial institutions are looking to recruit school leavers, ahead of graduates, in order to minimize the amount of backfill workplace training they have to provide for graduates.
A new hope?
In an unpredictable world, we need education to encourage young people to be eager not just for knowledge but also to understand how to apply it in the real world and in the workplace if appropriate. As teachers, if we’re to engage students, particularly as they transition from pedagogy to andragogy, a time when they will be asking “what’s in it for me?”, we need to be able to demonstrate how academic study will be relevant outside of the classroom, and what behaviours, attributes and competences are needed to supplement that knowledge.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think vocational education by itself is the answer but I think it is part of the solution. It’s heartening to see some governments looking at how they can blend and integrate vocational education into mainstream education, to give academic studies greater relevance, meaning and purpose. The International Baccalaureate (IB) has launched a Career-related Programme (CP) alongside its established Diploma Programme, in order to provide a more integrated academic and vocational pathway for its students. I believe that this programme allows students the clarity to make connections between academic and industry learning. If, as a student, you are passionate about something, you can build a IBCP industry-specific package around it and reach towards your ambitions, whether they include university, apprenticeship, employment, or a combination of them all.
However, this will only take us so far, Universities now need to change how they structure their courses, and bring industry into the fold, and I think in the future they should be more about competency, attribute and behaviour development; focussed on micro-credentialing of multiple courses (rather than fixed to a 3-4 year degree) which really allows students to hone their skills so that they’re better prepared to pursue post university career pathways.
A final thought, I don’t think we need a credentialing revolution, but it needs to evolve, and rapidly, beyond the tired well-trodden pathway of university degrees, into a more holistic approach involving industry and developing more personalized real world relevant micro-pathways.
As Eric Hoffer said:
In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.