Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
19th Jul 2023

Measuring the massive vocational training opportunity in developing economies

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • A new World Bank/ILO/UNESCO study projects “exponential” growth in skills training over the next two decades
  • However, the authors also point out that vocational and skills training systems in many low and middle income countries are in urgent need of reform, in order to boost the quality of training provided, graduate outcomes, and links to labour market needs
  • There are a number of important early examples of expansion and/or reform of vocational training systems, including in Bangladesh, Mongolia, and China

A new study, jointly produced by the World Bank, the International Labour Organization (ILO), and UNESCO, paints a vivid picture of the scale of opportunity for skills training in lower and middle income countries.

Building Better Formal TVET Systems - Principles and Practice in Low- and Middle-income Countries makes it clear that technical and vocational education and training (TVET) has a crucial role to play in the progress of many developing economies. But it also highlights that many low and middle-income countries, and their labour markets and societies in particular, are not well served by their domestic TVET systems.

"With its unique focus on workforce development, TVET has the potential to contribute to employment and productivity to better support sustainable economic transformation," says the study report. "[However,] this promise of TVET is unfulfilled in many [low and middle-income countries] because secondary and post-secondary TVET institutions focus on what they know how to provide, but not what students or firms need."

The report projects that globalisation, technological change, and demographic trends will lead to an "exponential increase" in the population of TVET learners in the next 20 years. For example: "In Burundi, Liberia, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, Tanzania, or Uganda, the number of secondary TVET students is expected to more than quadruple; in Sudan and Niger, the number is expected to rise, respectively, by a factor of six and ten."

But the study also highlights the urgent need for reform and capacity building in many TVET systems around the world. The authors establish that the circumstances of TVET learners, the current capacity of domestic training systems, and the lack, in many countries, of measurable outcomes or other strategic direction for this key education sector, means that many domestic systems are chronically underperforming and out of touch with current and emerging labour market needs.

The study is meant in part to provide guidance to policy makers, and for that audience the message is especially clear: "Countries can start reforms with a strategic approach to priority sectors and programs that would deliver quicker results and can be used as demonstration cases to build stakeholder confidence and trust."

More broadly, the authors map three themes for longer-term, transformative change.

"[Moving] TVET from being (or being perceived as) a second-tier education track with limited opportunities for continued learning and highly variable returns to guaranteeing demand-driven and equitable acquisition of relevant skills with hands-on and flexible instruction delivered by high-quality teachers with excellent educational resources and infrastructure."

"[Increasing] the autonomy of TVET providers and [ensuring] greater accountability for results."

"Building a robust information and evaluation system adapted to the [low and middle-income countries] context [to empower] stakeholders to make informed decisions and improving TVET practices."

The report is published in a context of increasing investment in TVET in some countries and an expanded presence of TVET programming in international education.

China is a notable example where, as Times Higher Education recently reported, "The rapid expansion of China’s post-secondary education sector is increasingly leaning towards vocational education." New data from China’s Ministry of Education reports the opening of 61 new universities and colleges in China over the past year (that is, through the 12 months leading up to May 2023). Of those, 56 were post-secondary vocational colleges.

China is also reflecting that increasing emphasis on skills training at home in its efforts to further expand Chinese influence abroad through the massive Belt and Road Initiative. The Chinese government has now opened more than 30 vocational training centres throughout 25 Belt and Road target countries, and mainly in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

As the South China Morning Post reported in late-2022, "At a vocational school in Indonesia’s East Java, classes are being taught on automotive engineering and maintenance for new energy vehicles. Over 13,000 km away in the Portuguese seaside city of Setubal, students are earning degrees in industrial robotics and automation technology. And soon, a vocational school in central Asia’s Tajikistan will start offering degrees in urban thermal-energy planning. They all have one thing in common: China."

Known as "Luban Workshops," these centres provide a wide range of skills training programmes, often focused on Chinese technology and practices, such as maintaining or repairing Chinese motor vehicles, manufacturing systems, or robotics, alongside instruction in traditional Chinese medicine. Tens of thousands of students have already graduated, and earlier this year, the Chinese government reportedly formed a special committee to help drive further expansion of the Luban network.

There is a pattern of expansion and reform here that shows that more governments, families, and students are alert to the need to strengthen skills training. Reforms in many countries have been halting so far, but the scale of opportunity is undeniable and this in turn opens the door to further capacity building in countries around the world, and to a greater role for TVET in international student mobility.

For additional background, please see:

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