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Vocational education rebranded, finetuned

Singapore made technical training relevant, trendy



It seems rather surprising to learn that education chiefs in Singapore, one of the leading lights in Asean, had to battle a negative image and low public acceptance of vocational and technical education, similar to what Thailand has long encountered. But, thanks to a major transformation, "Lion City" has been able to beat this challenge and become a regional leader in this field.

Bruce Poh Geok Huat, director and CEO of Singapore's Institute of Technical Education (ITE), said: "We started from a very low base in technical and vocational education training (TVET) and we had a very humble beginning. We suffered from poor image but over the years we've done many things to improve our image - in particular our infrastructure, that we've done major revamp.

"The campuses are now as good as a university and sometimes even better than a university. The facilities are wonderful. The staff are well trained. The graduates are in demand. So, with all these positive kinds of images and our engagement with the media that project good outcomes, TVET has a good alternative route for children."

Vocational training has become more popular than general education in Singapore. About 65 per cent of local students go to vocational and technical courses. There are six vocational and technical institutions in Singapore giving education to more than 100,000 students, Poh said.

He was speaking at the Singapore International Technical and Vocational Education and Training Conference hosted recently in his city.

Poh said challenges before the transformation were a negative image and low acceptance of vocational and technical education by parents and students, as well as a limited range of programmes, basic facilities and learning environment, plus low staff capabilities.

To improve the image and acceptance of vocational courses, Singapore did creative "re-branding". And, authentic learning or learning by doing was a key factor behind the transformational success - institutions brought industry reps to their campuses. Teaching staff worked on projects with them to create new things, improved their practical skills and updated their knowledge before they passed it and the necessary skills on to students, he said.

Singapore has been able to adjust its vocational and technical training to serve the country over different periods of growth. The 1960s-1970s was a period of independence and early industrialisation with labour intensive and factory-driven growth. Singapore provided basic skills training for early industrialisation. In the 1980s it restructured and by the 90s it had a newly industrialised economy that was capital intensive and investment-driven. Singapore provided structured pre-employment training for rapid industrialisation in the 1980s and upgraded vocational and technical education for its capital-intensive economy in 1990s. By the 2000s it had a more globalised and diversified economy with knowledge intensive and innovation-driven sectors. The country transformed vocational and technical education to "fit" the global economy, according to Poh.

"Student success is the heart of ITE's transformation," Poh said, adding that to produce "world ready" graduates, 28 per cent of students in vocational training went overseas to gain experience outside the country.

After the transformation, the "success" rate of students who did full-time vocational programmes increased to 82 per cent in 2011 from 61 per cent in 1995, he said.

In a bid to "re-brand", ITE had five-yearly strategic road-maps for transformation. The ITE 2000 Plan (1995-1999) established a post-secondary technical education institution. "Breakthrough" (2000-2004) aimed to create a world-class technical institution for a knowledge-based economy. Then "Advantage" (2005-2009) sought to be a global leader in technical education. Now, "Innovate" (2010-2014) aims to help it be a global leader for technical innovations.

ITE has had several creative re-branding campaigns. The first, in 1998-2000, was "Make Things Happen". A second campaign in 2001-2003 was "ITE - A Force Behind the Knowledge-Based Economy". The third in 2004-2006 was "Thinking Hands Create Success". The fourth in 2007-2009 was "We Make You Shine," and the fifth in 2010-2012 was "I Believe (that I can achieve my goals and I can create the future)".

"Many students have chosen technical and vocational education training instead of universities or colleges because TVET has offered an attractive route to get good skills and good jobs when they graduate. If they want to upgrade to get a university degree, they can still do so. Students studying in vocational education see that their institutions have good facilities, good teaching staff, good outcomes and good careers when they come out," Poh said.

"An average starting monthly salary of a graduate is 1,500 Singapore dollar (Bt37,555). The starting salary would be attractive for our students," he said.

Nine out of ten graduates gain employment within six months of graduation, according to Teo Chee Hean, Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister for Home Affairs.

He said young people would need skills that are current and will make them job-ready. Partnerships with industry were becoming increasingly important. Industry attachments and work experience remained key to a well-rounded and well grounded vocational education. Models adopted by the institutions successfully blended theory and practice, but Singapore must always stay up-to-date with the latest trends and developments.

"Our focus in TVET has thus been to provide students with a holistic education, to equip them with both industry-relevant training as well as 21st century competencies," Hean said. "Although, we have made good progress in technical and vocational education, our work is far from over. Over time, industry demands have evolved as the structure of our economy has changed, from labour-intensive to skill-intensive industries, and now, increasingly towards an innovation-intensive future."

Goh Geok Khim, Chairman of Temasek Foundation (TF) said, as the sponsor of the conference, to date, TF had supported 160 programmes in Asia. As of September 2012, the foundation had funded 29 TVET programmes in 13 countries. Over five and a half years, about S$23 million had been committed towards TVET programmes. These covered a wide spectrum of topics ranging from policies and systems, leadership and management, to pedagogy and curriculum.

The theme of the conference, TVET Forward - Towards Inclusive Growth and Opportunities reflects the enduring importance of vocational education as the foundation for sustainable growth. It was attended by 400 delegates from 30 countries.


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