Ed Milliband re-launches the plea for vocational training, newly re-branded as “technical degrees”. In principle I am all in favour. The British vocational training system is appalling and something needs to be done about it. A few concerns though:
- To which extent this idea will be a true innovation, rather than re-heating the same old soup? I am slightly perplexed. The revision of the vocational system promoted through the 1990s did not lead to any good. NVQs deliver qualifications not recognised by the labour market and the return on investment of such qualifications is short-termed and very low. Continous revisions to them system cannot but do worse as the labour market becomes suspicious about degrees that are not known and are not tested long enough to provide any sort of information on the skills delivered.
- The common denominator between Italy (my home country) and the UK is poor vocational training. Yet, the two education systems could not be more different. So, to which extent can the two countries say: “We want to import the German model”? The dual-system that works so well in Germany might not have an easy life in either Italy and the UK, if not adapted to their specific environments (and that is where the problems start!). Besides, the vocational system in Germany works very well because it is linked to a sound apprenticeship scheme, where all the stakeholders have a say. Is there fertile ground to do the same in the UK? Social dialogue in Italy and the UK is very different from social dialogue in Germany; the corporatist approach promoted in the German way to negotiate across social stakeholders is unknown territory in the Italian and Anglosaxon cultures.
- The reform introduced to the HE and FE system in the UK from the 1990s transformed good polytechnics in bad universities. Now it seems that we want to reverse back praising the value of proper vocational education. To which extent will this be a return to polytechnics? In other words: who is going to produce these technical degrees?
- What will be the implications for Universities? We (sadly) spent the past few years scrapping the idea of ‘knowledge’ to substitute that with the mission of delivering ‘skills’. So now we will have ‘skills’ delivered by university institutions and “technical degrees”. What will be the difference? Will this change generate more competition or less competition in the tertiary education sector?
- Finally, my thoughts go to the poor employability officers scattered around HE institutions in the UK. How will they assess, design, and promote the ‘new’ skills generated by technical degrees? How will they market them and differentiate them from the regular degrees? (Good luck guys!)
There is no doubt that the British education system needs to address issues related to vocational training and unskilled unemployment. Perhaps, rather than adding new degrees to a newly re-reformed (and already distressed) HE system, we should find the courage to go back to the old: polytechnics that worked very well and produced skills relevant for the labour market.
I recently attended the HEA Annual Conference in Birmigham. A great event overall, and I will begin my account of it talking about a great session I attended there on “Experiential Learning” delivered by the mighty Laura Ritchie.
When we entered the session venue, the room was already set with violins, cellos, violas and scores: intimidating to say the least. Very few of us had ever touched an instrument. (It took me 40 years to ever go near a violin!) So off we went, the session started with Laura asking us to lift our violin and hold it like the torch of the Statue of Liberty. This allowed us to turn it onto our shoulders and have it just in the correct position, without even knowing it. (Pedagogy Principle 1: when you lay out your teaching material you have to set it so that students will not even need to think about what is the “right” way of approaching it; it will be all orchestrated (pardon the pun) for them so that they can slide into the right practice seamlessly!) We started to get familiar with our instruments, plinging it, finding notes between giggles and hesitations. (Pedagogy Principle 2: learning should be fun and thrilling after all). After this first induction, we were ready to pick up our bows; here we went with another easy demonstration on how to hold the bow right as we were supposed to. After a little of practice, Laura asked us to take turns and observe each other to correct our techniques, helping each other out to fix problems. (Pedagogy Principle 3: peer-instruction anyone?) More was added to our set of skills (jumping across weeks of what constitutes the syllabus for professional players). We were playing our first concerto, we had conductors, and we were asking the conductors what we needed out of them: tempo, prompting …or ‘breathe’ as they call it! (Pedagogy Principle 4: student feedback to their instructors, what do student need out of us? Are they able to articulate it?) We were asked to invent a short tune, and then look at somebody else in the room. The person we picked was supposed to replicate exactly what we did, and play it on her instrument. (Pedagogy Principle 5: peer-instruction and collaboration. Observe each other, replicate each other’s practice). Lots of emotions were going through my mind while I was struggling to catch the tune, mastering the technique, finding notes, holding the bow…and trying to make my violin producing a sound (for how atrocious it was). Laura remarked that we were struggling, but that we did not give up. By the end of the session we were able to play “Old MacDonald’s Farm”…all by ourselves! (Pedagogy Principle 6: It does not matter how small, you need to give your students an objective to achieve. You need to make sure that they constantly see a purpose to the effort they are putting in their learning. You need to allow them to see the light at the end of the tunnel, a little reward for the investment they make, a sense of reward that brings satisfaction ‘right here and right now’, not just at the end of the module, and not just at the end of their degree).
Laura’s session was a truly inspirational and humbling experience: I think I am a good teacher, and I used to think that I knew exactly how it feels being a student learning new material, drawing on my experience and my memories as a student. Yes, there is some truth in all this, and relying on our emotional intelligence is important (quite ironic that Alan Mortyboys, pivotal figure in the emotional intelligence literature, was sitting just next to me with his violin). The truth is that many moons have passed since I was a student, and I had to acknowledge that my emotional intelligence alone does not make up for the fact that I am no longer a spring-chicken in my teaching profession. I needed to be reminded how it feels to be a student struggling to grasp new material, something never learnt before, with peers all around me, who could judge me and make fun of me, but who could also help me and support my own learning. Thank you Laura for bringing me back to a more humble-self, you certainly left a mark.