Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What is vocational education? What are current challenges of VET in Switzerland?

Vocational Education in different contexts
Vocational education (also called  career and technical education (CTE), technical and vocational education and training (TVET), or vocational education and training (VET)), can be described as education that prepares people for a specific trade, craft, or career.

Traditionally, vocational education refers to classic trades such as carpenter, mason, plumber, electrician, blacksmith, etc. However, the lines can get blurred when one includes programs such as engineering, accountancy, nursing, medicine, architecture, pharmacy, and law.

At the upper-secondary level in Switzerland, over 60-70% of young people enter a VET program while 30-40% go to university (OECD report). Given the above definition of VET, many university students could also be considered part of VET (such as engineers, medical doctors, architects, lawyers, psychologists, teachers, etc.).

Following this line of thought, education could (roughly) be divided into two strands:
  • Occupation-specific education: Education programs that prepare students for a specific profession (which often includes practical experiences through internships and apprenticeships).
  • General education: Education programs that teach knowledge and skills independent of specific careers, particularly the liberal arts (for example literature, languages, art history, music history, philosophy, history).
Graduates from occupation-specific programs find it often easier to find a job after their program as they have a clear(er) career path, practical experience on the job, and relevant skills. However, university education is still perceived as more desirable. In 2014, over 13,000 Swiss VET apprenticeship positions could not be filled (Newspaper article July 16 2014). In the UK, studio schools try to combine schools with VET. In the US, forming a vocational education system could improve the overall education system (see article here).

Like Germany and Austria, Switzerland has a long history for vocational education going back to apprenticeship programs in the middle ages. Today, Switzerland builds on the 'dual system' approach for VET. Students learn practical skills and procedural knowledge at the workplace (under the supervision of a vocational trainer) 3-4 days/week) and theoretical (declarative) knowledge in vocational school (under the supervision of vocational teachers) (1-2 days/week). Additionally, students also attend yearly inter-company courses (organized by their professional unions) in industry training centers to complement their skill sets (under the supervision of vocational instructors). Some professions, particularly commercial employees, attend vocational school full time. Swiss VET program can take between two and four years and lead to a Federal VET Diploma (full 3- or 4-year program) or a Federal VET Certificate (less demanding 2-year VET program). Graduates from a university of applied sciences receive a 'professional bachelor' or a 'professional master' (Newspaper article June 18 2014). Currently, PhDs can only be granted by the regular universities.

Switzerland draws a distinction between vocational education and training (VET) programs (which take place at the upper-secondary level) and professional education and training (PET) programs (which take place at tertiary level). Beyond PET, universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen) offer vocational education at higher tertiary levels. Pathways enable people to shift from one part of the education system to another. The line between PET and university education (particularly of the occupation-specific programs) becomes increasingly blurred.

A big difference between the two strands is the cost factor. While the state heavily subsidizes university education (students only pay about $700/ semester), higher degrees in professional education need to paid fully by the student (often around $3000-4000/ semester). A professional diploma can cost as much as $30,000 to 40,000.

The question for a society (and economy) is to find the right balance between the two education strands. A society that focuses solely on occupation-specific education might have a highly skilled workforce but lack people who see pattern across narrow contexts, think critically about bigger issues, and find innovative out-of-the-box problem solving approaches.

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