Technical and vocational grads more marketable yet sector suffers ‘poor perception’.

TALKS about rebranding technical and vocational education and training pop up all the time with the most recent in March, when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri urged the Higher Education Ministry to formulate a new policy on TVET. This a good first step. However, any rebranding effort must contend with a major challenge confronting TVET education in Malaysia – poor public perception and awareness. 

The entire sector needs more effective marketing and branding as TVET is perceived as a second-choice alternative to the academic education pathway, and that it caters for poor performers or dropouts.  

This perception led to low enrolment rates at TVET institutions and even lower demand for technical education. Surveys suggest that pre-secondary pupils’ lack of knowledge and parental support are the major factors discouraging interest to enrol into TVET. Accordingly, latest Unesco data shows that the participation rate of youth in Malaysia’s technical and vocational education is relatively low at 6.1%. 

Countries with more successful TVET systems have higher youth enrolment rates. For instance, Singapore with 23.8%, Germany (20.4%) and South Korea (14.2%). TVET rebranding efforts in Malaysia may benefit from success stories elsewhere in Asean.  

In Singapore, a significant turnaround of its national TVET was attributed to extensive efforts in communication, marketing and reforms since 1992. Following the establishment of the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), emphasis moved towards nurturing the less academically inclined based on a the slogan “Hands-on, Minds-on and Hearts-on”.  

The institution’s clear pathway for students to advance in their education is also another plus point. As a result, Singapore’s TVET has gained more recognition over the years. ITE’s image has improved substantially from 37% in 1997 to 69% in 2010. A sizable 65% of students have pursued vocational route for post-secondary education, alongside a high employment rate of 90% post-graduation. 

In Malaysia, efforts over the past decade to reform TVET through the successive Malaysia Plans, education blueprint and polytechnic transformation plan resulted in gains for TVET graduates. Over the last four years, statistics suggest that the marketability rates of TVET graduates have exceeded the overall (including non-TVET) graduates. 

But more work is required to correct the social stigma towards the TVET system. This is crucial as a large body of international evidence indicates that TVET stimulates economic growth through higher productivity and accelerated innovation, higher wages as well as employment rates. 

Rebranding Malaysia’s TVET system requires more than changing its name. One of the possible ways to raise public awareness about the importance and benefits of TVET can be through a national apprenticeship week – a platform to promote the viability of apprenticeships and vocational training by having stakeholders (i.e. students and firms) share their experience with the public, connecting employers with jobseekers and showcasing successful apprentices. The UK and the US have deployed this method to great effect. 

Skills competitions could be another avenue to showcase the talents of TVET students to the public across a wide range of areas, such as automotive technology, IT software solution and welding. Leveraging on the success stories of Malaysian TVET students and alumni winning the WorldSkills Competitions would also boost enrolment numbers as they can help demonstrate the real prospects offered to the students.  

Like how the internationally recognised certifications, such as CFA or ACCA, are touted via the mass media, this initiative would encourage the potential pool of students. This can complement efforts to publish hard data on TVET graduate marketability rate, their skills level and salary range.  

But rebranding should come alongside improvements in the quality of education. TVET educators should be provided with more training to strengthen their skills and knowledge.  

Anecdotal evidence from stakeholder engagement suggests that lacking career guidance skills among educators is one of the main factors shaping the poor perception among pupils and parents. Hence, teachers and trainers themselves need to be equipped with strong understanding of the system before offering advice. Through this, it is hoped that the negative perceptions on TVET programmes are not perpetuated to a new batch of school leavers. 

The goal is to mainstream TVET as its effectiveness and acceptance would depend on its impact on the nation’s social and economic development. 

This article also appeared in the New Straits Times on 28 May 2022.

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