Vocational education: The stepchild of Malaysian education system?

Posted on: January 23, 2017, by :

I contributed this article as the editor-in-chief of Han Chiang News, an online news portal set up to give budding journo a platform to practice what they have learned. This article was published on April 15, 2015, but my argument is still the same, TVET (technical, vocational education & training) is still a stepchild! More so in the eyes of the parents who are not well informed of its value and the complicated ways in which TVET is managed by too many government bodies and agencies making it difficult to integrate into the “traditional” academic route for tertiary studies for Malaysian youths. I had gained “Vocational Training Officer” credential in 2016 precisely because I see great future in the TVET sector especially in bridging links between TVET & academia.

The choke of my ceiling fluorescent light gave a “pop” sound and the lighting system failed. Not being that competent in handling electrical work, my wife and I decided that we would need the help of an electrician. If your air-conditioner starts to leak water, you would call the air-conditioning technician. If your car refuses to start, or if your car has a flat tyre would you know what to do?

There are countless aspects of our lives where we would require the skills and mastery of a vocational-trained person to deal with. Yet when it comes to vocational education, there seems to be a stigma in channelling our offspring into the vocational stream. Time and again it has been proven that vocational-trained young persons are more likely to get jobs than their counterparts graduating from colleges and universities with academic qualifications.

According to a recent Jobstreet survey (cited in the National Graduate Employment Blueprint), having “mismatch of skills” was the 4th most cited reason given by employers for not hiring a fresh graduate. Why vocational education and certification (aside from the IT & computer science fields and specialized academic diploma programmes in automotive sector) have not been widely incorporated into the curriculum of universities and colleges is the billion ringgit question! This could potentially solve the high proportion of unemployed graduates each year (over 53,000 out of 180,000 annual cohort of fresh tertiary graduates are unable to get employment). Perhaps  the lack of cross-understanding of the operational aspects of both the academic and vocational education pathways by the respective accreditation agencies is one of the key reasons for the Malaysian education system’s inability to cater to the needs of those coming from the vocational education sector and to embed vocational education into academic studies to enhance university graduates’ employability.

Thus the idea mooted by the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (PEMANDU) of the Prime Minister Department to amalgamate accreditation agencies such as the Malaysian Qualifications Agency and Skills Development Department (Jabatan Perkembangan Kemahiran – JPK) of the Ministry of Human Resources is brilliant. This may drive the creation of seamless learning and qualification pathways for those in the vocational sector to earn diplomas and degrees.

In addition, currently vocational education is provided by no less than 7 Federal ministries/agencies which makes effective coordination amongst these players highly challenging leading to duplication and wastage of resources. Amalgamating the operations of all the public sector training institutions currently under separate agencies into one body while leaving the respective functions such as funding and recruitment of learners to the individual agencies to fulfil their different obligations and objectives is therefore a no brainer.

Currently, some of the negative perceptions among parents and school leavers about vocational education are valid. Except for one case, all the trainees I have encountered so far had chosen the vocational studies route because of their lack of the required Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia grades to be on the academic track.

Thus although the Malaysian Qualifications Framework (MQF) provides for those coming from the vocational education route to cross-over to the academic pathway to earn degrees, in reality few if any of those holding Sijil Kemahiran Malaysia (SKM) vocational education qualifications ever made it to earn their diplomas or degrees from universities or colleges.

Personally I have come across a few SKM holders who technically were able to articulate into engineering diploma programmes in a college. However, their gap of knowledge in mathematics and physics (to a lesser extent, chemistry) was a huge hurdle for them. Thus to make a good pathway for SKM qualification holders into academic route, there must be a good bridging course to make up for the gap of knowledge. Presently, only the publicly funded polytechnics have the capacity and expertise to take SKM holders on to the academic route and places at these institutions are very limited.

[Commentary in 2017: In recent years, the Malaysian Qualifications Agency – MQA did put out a relaxation of admission criteria for SKM level 3 holders and allowing training institutions to provide bridging courses in English, mathematics and the sciences at SPM level to augment the knowledge gap which is commendable. However I feel that MQA should remove the need for SKM level 3 holders to have at least a “pass” grade in SPM and at least scoring a “Credit” grade in one SPM subject i.e. passing Bahasa Malaysia, and History. Instead, I would suggest that the MQA revise this by adding, ” candidates without a pass grade in SPM should show evident of their having taken and passed bridging courses in Bahasa Malaysia, history and one other subject relevant to their desired course of study at diploma level. This will allow for instance, students wishing to pursue at diploma level, mass communication but without a pass grade in SPM to have a chance to pursue the academic route if they take the relevant bridging courses while working on their SKM qualifications. We must not put up barrier but should adopt the “easy to get in but strict on passing out” principle to tackle this issue. Using traditional “academic” requirements will always leave those who have the aptitude to progress to academic route but without a pass grade in SPM stranded.]

In budget 2015, the Ministry of Education was allocated RM56.0 billion, but only RM1.2 billion (or 2.14%) of this was earmarked for vocational education. The higher education sector with about 1.2 million enrolees was allocated close to RM5.0 billion as National Higher Education Fund Corporation (Perbadanan Tabung Pendidikan Nasional – PTPTN) loans.  Yet with over 230,000 enrollees, the vocational sector only received RM200 million as study loans via the Skills Development Fund Corporation (Perbadanan Tabung Perkembangan Kemahiran – PTPK). PTPK’s budget has to cater to not only the study loan needs of school leavers but also those who are already working in industries thus making this resource grossly inadequate to deal with the demand of all who are interested to take on vocational training.

With about 5 times less in funding (RM870 per enrolee in vocational sector compared to RM4,167 for enrolees in the higher education sector), it is not surprising that the vocational education sector are not able to cope with the demand of industries. I think if we are serious about uplifting the overall skill-sets of Malaysians, we cannot afford to go on treating the vocational education sector as the stepchild. The power that be, needs to put its money where its mouth is!

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