16 April, 2017

Vocational education in an international context

By Gavin Moodie

Vocational education is embedded in its context

Vocational education is distinctively embedded in its context. The curriculum for schools and higher education either comes from the education system or it originates from occupations but is strongly reinterpreted by educationalists. In contrast, the curriculum for much vocational education derives much more closely from work. Australia’s training packages are unusually bad in seeking to exclude teachers’ construction of the curriculum and qualifications.

Some schooling includes work experience and some higher education programs such as nursing and teacher education have extended experience in the workplace, but this is strongly framed by the school and by the campus. Much vocational education is based heavily in the workplace and there is less learning on campus or even in purposely designed learning spaces in workplaces.

School and higher education is assessed by educational criteria. Australian vocational education is meant to be assessed by workplace criteria. This leads to a lack of appreciation of the role of teachers and teaching in vocational education because it is based on the erroneous assumption that it is possible to ‘read off’ a curriculum from workplace criteria. Vocational education teachers must interpret the knowledge and skills and attributes required for occupational practice and to support students’ educational and personal development.

Vocational education’s context is very varied

Because economies, industries and workplaces differ markedly by countries, states, regions and employers, it is harder to generalise vocational education across different contexts. For example, some 34% of Australian students at secondary school and above study at least 1 vocational subject. This is rather higher than Aotearoa New Zealand (25%), the USA (12%) and the whole world (14%), and is closer to Italy (36%), Finland (35%), the Netherlands (33%), Switzerland (33%) and the UK (32%). This variation was a major difficulty that we encountered in our report for Education International on Global trends in technical and vocational education and training: a framework for social justice.

The AEU is a member of Education International, the federation of 396 associations and unions which represent some 32.5 million teachers and other employees in all forms of education: early childhood, primary school, secondary school, vocational, university and adult education. Education International represents organisations from 171 countries which are served in 5 regions: Africa, North America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Latin America.

Under provision of vocational education in developing countries

Vocational education is vital for developing and sustaining economies and for supporting social inclusion and social mobility, yet low and lower middle income countries are grossly under represented in vocational education. Some 49% of the world’s population live in low and lower middle income countries according to the World Bank’s definition, yet our best estimates are that these countries have only 22% of the world’s vocational education.

Some of this apparent under provision of vocational education is probably due to under reporting. Data on educational orientation are expensive to collect and report, and poorer countries have the fewest resources to devote to collecting data. Some vocational education is in the informal economy, which is estimated to be much bigger in developing than developed economies. And the volume as well as the nature of vocational education needed by an economy is probably related to the extent of its development as well as its structure.

Yet the under representation of vocational education in low and lower middle income countries is so stark that vocational education is likely to be underprovided in the countries that need it most. This is because vocational education is expensive. Equipment, workshops, training facilities, simulated workplaces and supervised work experience are much more expensive to provide and maintain than classrooms for general education.

Teaching costs are much higher for quality vocational education. Vocational teachers have to be expert not only in teaching but in their occupation, and the best systems ensure that vocational teachers maintain their industry knowledge and skills. Vocational teacher-student ratios have to be low to protect students from injury in some industry areas to give students enough personal guidance and supervision to ensure they acquire skills at the appropriate level.

It is easy to understand developing countries’ prioritisation of basic general education. Literacy and numeracy are fundamental to full participation in social, economic and political life, and are the foundation of further education, including vocational education. It is also tempting to prioritise more advanced general and academic education. The individual and economy wide returns on investment in higher education are well known to be high, and universities have higher status locally and internationally than vocational institutions. There is, however, growing attention internationally by policy makers about the role that vocational education plays in supporting economic and social development and in building inclusive, tolerant societies.

Qualifications’ three purposes

Sometimes employers use qualifications as a signal that graduates have specific knowledge and skills needed for a job they want to fill. Examples are nursing diplomas, engineering degrees and welding certificates. The content of these qualifications is specified tightly and often their teaching is also specified to include minimum experience in the workplace. This describes an occupational labour market, where entry to and progression in these occupations is via specific qualifications. The qualification and occupation is often regulated by a government body, by an occupational association or by employers and unions.

Other times employers use qualifications to screen applicants for potential to undertake a variety of jobs. Examples are year 12 certificates and diplomas and degrees in business, general arts and sciences which might be used to screen applicants for jobs such as administrator, analyst, carer, clerk, machine operator, manager and salesperson. While labour markets for these jobs do not specify occupationally specific qualifications as a condition of employment, they may be identified by sector such as finance, hospitality, property or transport. These jobs are subject to only general regulation such as of occupational health and safety, anti discrimination and minimum wages.

Unregulated occupations may be located within internal or external labour markets. An internal labour market is where employers use the initial qualification to screen the potential of employees upon entry, but then provide within the firm enterprise specific training to graduates as part of their employment and progression to higher level jobs. In contrast, an external labour market is where entry to and progression is through the competitive market external to the employer. In external labour markets graduates must ‘second-guess’ the labour market and often provide their own continuing education.

A qualification can be both a signal and a screen. Common examples are law degrees and qualifications in commerce and mathematics. Law firms use a law degree as a signal of legal knowledge and skills when hiring first year associates but many other employers use law and often other degrees to screen for graduates with putative high intellectual ability. Some employers use commerce and mathematics qualifications to signal a specific ability, but many employers use these qualifications to screen for applicants with general business or quantitative skills.

These different characteristics of qualifications are shown in the accompanying table.




Qualification role

To indicate specific skills

To indicate general potential

Qualification specification




Usually specific


Labour market


Internal and external

Our analysis of vocational education in Australia and Canada finds very loose links between vocational education and occupations. In Australia, the student outcomes survey reports that only 37% of vocational education graduates work in the occupation for which their training package ostensibly prepared them. The percentages are much higher at around 80% for qualifications which prepare graduates for regulated occupations such as nursing and the traditional trades.

So despite the best efforts of policy makers, graduates of most vocational qualifications are not using their qualification for entry to a specific job, but for broader entry to and progression in the workforce, and for progression to further education. Vocational qualifications also have different relations with other qualifications. Some vocational qualifications have high proportions of graduates proceeding to qualifications at a different level in the same field while other qualifications have low proportions of graduates proceeding to qualifications at a different level in the same field.

We therefore argue that all postsecondary education qualifications should have three roles:

  1. a labor market role to prepare graduates for entry to and progression in work;
  2. an educational role to prepare graduates for further education;
  3. a social role to contribute to equity and social justice by widening access to postsecondary education and supporting disadvantaged students to enter higher studies and occupations.

All three purposes are needed to support both educational and occupational progression, to strengthen the links between qualifications and jobs, and to support social inclusion and social mobility. However, qualifications differ in the way they serve these purposes and this is largely related to how they are used in the labour market.

The balance between the purposes that qualifications play may vary depending on the relationship between the field of education and the occupational field of practice, and whether occupations are regulated or unregulated. Qualifications for strongly regulated occupations would emphasise the labour market purpose, while they must also include the educational purpose to support progression within the occupation, and they can be evaluated by the extent to which they serve the third purpose. Qualifications for unregulated occupations would emphasise the educational purpose of qualifications because this enables graduates to gain higher-level qualifications and the broader knowledge and skills that they need for a wider range of occupations.

Productive capabilities

Our paper for Education International offers a framework for strengthening vocational education that applies general principles of strong vocational education to local contexts. It is based on productive capabilities, which applies Amartya Sen’s and Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach to vocational education. Productive capabilities are the resources and arrangements of work and the broad knowledge, skills and attributes that individuals need to be productive at work, to progress in their careers, and to participate in decision-making about work.

Because capabilities are embedded in their social context and manifest differently in different contexts, they require local engagement with social partners, educational institutions and a nuanced understanding of the different kinds and levels of resources needed by different learners. To develop students’ productive capabilities vocational education needs to develop individuals in three domains:

  1. the knowledge base of practice;
  2. the technical base of practice; and
  3. the attributes the person needs for that occupation.

Productive capabilities rest upon broader social, economic, cultural and technological resources. For example, individuals need to have the language, literacy and mathematical skills for engaging and progressing in study and work. They need to have access to the social and economic resources that facilitate their participation in study and work, such as the necessary housing, healthcare, transport and childcare, as well as enable their participation in civic society and in their communities. And they need to have the knowledge, skills and attributes required to navigate, negotiate and engage in these aspects of life; the capacity to be skilful at work emerges from broader knowledge, skills and attributes.

While vocational education should develop a broad field of practice, it should also contribute to and benefit from helping students develop the building blocks of these broader capabilities. Qualifications may do this in different ways, depending on their relationship with the structures of the labour market.

Productive capabilities would be realised in different ways not only between nations and regions, but also between industries and fields of practice. They provide the conceptual basis of qualifications, but the specific focus and content of teaching and learning and curriculum requires deep understandings of the contexts for which students are being prepared, engagement with local communities of interest, and negotiation over the outcomes.

Vocational education needs strong institutions

Vocational education cannot contribute to developing individuals’ and society’s capacity without it itself having the capacity to do so. This requires an appropriate curriculum and the pedagogy and the resources to support high quality teaching and learning. Those resources include appropriately qualified teachers with enough time to devote to their students’ and their own development, and facilities in which they and their students can work. As with any other form of education, vocational education also needs the structures and physical and social institutions to accumulate expertise, transmit knowledge from the past and anticipate and codify future needs. In many jurisdictions, vocational education institutions need to be further developed and strengthened to increase their contribution

Social partners and social dialogue

Because of its direct interaction with both work and general and academic education, vocational education particularly needs to collaborate and coordinate with other sectors. Strong collaboration and coordination may be achieved by engaging vocational education in a social dialogue with social partners. The European Union understands the social partners to be organisations which represent the interests of workers and employers.

The social partners’ participation in deciding and implementing vocational education policy is highly desirable to maximise workers’ participation in decisions that affect their work and futures, to encourage participation in continuing as well as initial vocational education, to support close cooperation between vocational education and work, to facilitate vocational education and work responding to their changing conditions, and to contribute to active labour market policies. Employers’ participation in vocational education programs encourages their acceptance of students on work placements and their employment of graduates since they have direct knowledge of students’ strengths.

Full paper

A summary of the paper is at DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.33196.87685

The full paper is at: DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.21452.82561

You can read the full report, Global Trends in TVET: a framework for social justice online at http://download.ei-ie.org/Docs/WebDepot/GlobalTrendsinTVET.pdf.

Gavin Moodie and Leesa Wheelahan