Over the past several decades, the world has been sold the dream of free-market economics. Neoliberal policies have reshaped our cultures, economic systems, and by default, our approach to vocational and educational training (VET). From post-war, state-led welfare systems, VET has gradually moved towards market-led models, placing the needs of business before those of individuals. The 2008 financial crisis and subsequent austerity have all but hollowed out VET, in both the developed world and in emerging economies.
Then the pandemic struck. Wealthy governments poured money into their economies to keep them afloat. To many, this seemed like an austerity U-turn. But despite cosmetic similarities to big state economics, Covid-19 responses are not the same. Inequality is still rising.
Early in the pandemic, research began to emerge exploring the impact of Covid on the UK’s VET and wider educational system. Meanwhile, our study on responses to Covid-19, conducted with our colleagues James Avis (University of Derby) and Simon McGrath (University of Nottingham), addressed the pandemic’s global impact, outlining potential future directions for VET and society at large.
Exacerbating existing issues, the pandemic and lockdowns have shaken VET systems around the globe. The closure of schools, colleges and apprenticeship programmes has affected millions, from fragmenting youth labour markets in the global north (especially in ‘left behind’ areas) to the microenterprises and informal sectors of the global south.
Efforts to mitigate these impacts by moving VET online have obvious limitations, especially in locations with poor connectivity or device access. Apprenticeship disruption has been especially tough in the global south, heavily impacting the informal sector’s artisan-driven system. In the global north, VET college closures have been sustained by government funding, yet many private training enterprises are ineligible. Youth unemployment is skyrocketing.
However, the pandemic has also triggered a reassessment of who work is for, and what counts as useful labour. There is a new appreciation for roles like nursing and social care, and broader thinking on the notion of what was once considered ‘low-skilled’ work.
How might this shape post-pandemic approaches to VET? Our research identified two likely outcomes. The first is the emergence of a green, welfare-based system that recognises the need for sustainability and equality. Ideally, this would prioritise equitable distribution of income and wealth, focusing on the social and civic value that VET can offer individuals, communities and the environment.
However, the second option is bleaker: a reinforcement of the status quo. Present disruption could be used to shore up the current neoliberal system. Many current policies, e.g. the UNGA’s sustainable development goals, promote the idea of ‘sustainable growth’. But these are based on an erroneous belief that growth can continue (or even accelerate) so long as we introduce technological innovations to reduce emissions and waste. In reality, rededication to the growth economy would likely result in a narrowing of scope and access to VET, as well as growing environmental impacts and inequality.
As these two outcomes battle it out, promising VET practices are nevertheless emerging. In the developed world, short-cycle adult training has already emerged as a strong feature of VET in countries like the Netherlands and Denmark. Australia is retraining the newly unemployed. In the UK, the National Skills Fund has become a source of support for employers and SMEs.
Perhaps the greatest innovations are emerging in developing countries. Sierra Leone, for example, is providing pandemic training to health workers based on Ebola responses. Other systems are contributing to the production of personal protective equipment. In general, the most effective VET responses are community-based, harnessing knowledge to share pandemic-related practices. These focus on human flourishing and social well-being over the development of capital.
Following Covid, the OECD has called for ‘resilient VET’ to support the mobility of labour. This would focus on digitisation, short-term training, recognition of prior learning and online micro-credentialling. On paper, this sounds credible. But we must remain alert to the fact that this Eurocentric focus on qualifications frameworks may work in developed nations, but will be less effective in emerging economies. Ill-considered, blanket policies will hit the most vulnerable hardest: women, older and younger workers, refugees, and those in the informal economy.
Nevertheless, the pandemic has undermined neoliberalism and the political economy of austerity. Pre-Covid, there were already calls for radical shake-ups of VET to tackle social inequality and to challenge competence-based approaches. Others sought more ‘human-centred’ systems that respect individual capabilities. While recent investment will unlikely outlive the pandemic, it does highlight the possibility of new approaches.
Undoubtedly, we're at a crossroads. Decisions made today will lead either to rising inequality or towards a more socially just world. While VET should, of course, consider the world of work and waged labour (the right skills and knowledge affect life quality in general) changes in public values offer us an opportunity to reconfigure VET for the benefit of all. Let's not waste it.