The “Dynamic Duo” of vocational and academic education, a key to national development

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Devie Rahmawati Chairwoman of PR Vocational Study Program at the University of Indonesia and a recipient of the Australian Awards 2019

IO – In 2017, about 15% of global digital giants, including IBM, Google, and Apple, announced that they no longer employ a person based on his or her diploma of high education. These American titans recruit people with real skills obtained from vocational education, whether from classes (lessons) or certified training.

The same trend also occurs in Australia, a country well known for the strength of its vocational education. Australia’s important Higher Vocational Schools generally have Technical and Further Education (TAFE) certification, comprising 90 study programs in 15 fields of study and more than 500 certification training specialties. These classes are divided into both theory sessions and laboratory practice.

Australian Vocational Schools are a primary ticket for obtaining secure, high-paying jobs. The average applied professional graduate has a chance to obtain a position paying AUD 100,000.00-AUD 150,000.00 a year, while workers graduating with bachelor degrees average AUD 55,000.00-AUD 80,000.00 a year. That’s a 106% higher rate of pay among graduates of vocational schools. Data further shows that the employment rate of vocational graduates is 10% higher than that of academic graduates.

A study by McCrindle Research and Skilling Australia Foundation concludes that only 68% of academic graduates get jobs immediately after being awarded a degree from universities, while 92% of vocational school graduates get jobs immediately after finishing up classes, because they have already performed work apprenticeship since their study days.

Australia is in a unique situation wherein a lot of academic bachelor graduates actually go back to school and get vocational certificates. This is because industrial demand in Australia mostly requires a primary qualification of work skills. Studies show that within the next five years, 90% of the 10% primary professions will require vocational qualification. Data further shows that 36% of professions currently lack skilled workers, especially in trade and technical industries with automotive, hospitality, and technological industries being in the top three. This is where vocational education comes in.

Another interesting fact is that in Australia, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)-based professions are most in demand. 68% of middle-school graduates with high STEM abilities tend to prefer vocational higher education, and only 32% chooses an academic education. Data shows that a contribution as small as 1% from these STEM professionals is equal to an income of AUD 50 billion into Australia’s economy.

Discussions with several Australian professionals show that there is no dichotomy between vocational and academic education in the country. There, everyone is encouraged to focus on their interest, to take the study that is relevant to their abilities and their desired future careers. Vocational education is directed towards individuals who want to have professional industrial careers, while academic education is meant for individuals who want to pursue academic paths, such as teaching and research. However, this does not mean that there is a rigid separation between these two modes of education. Vocational graduates can still take up academic studies later to enrich their theoretical knowledge, while academic graduates can still take vocational education to obtain professional skills.

Building up professional vocational education is far from easy. The Australian Government really provides policy and financial support for vocational education. The facilities of vocational schools are absolutely complete. They limit the number of students to 10-20 in each class. Therefore, each learner can really use their practice equipment fully. Mark the contrast with academic classes, which have theoretical study materials, allowing for big classes that can contain up to 100 students.

Classrooms in vocational schools are designed to precisely mimic actual work conditions, meaning that graduates are guaranteed to be ready to work in their industries because there are no gaps between the materials provided in campuses with the actual situation in the world of work. Furthermore, vocational education teachers also have the obligation to follow up on the latest developments in their respective industries, i.e. by having to go back to work in industry in pertinent positions regularly.

The PR Vocational Program, one study program in the University of Indonesia, continues learning and developing programs and curricula that bring industrial practices closer to studies in campuses. Other than having sufficient classrooms and laboratories, we have been implementing the 3-2-1 curriculum fully since 2018. In this curriculum, our students start practicing in relevant industries from semesters 4, 5, and 6. They enter an industry not as a simple apprentice, but they practice in the latest professions with their industrial mentors. This results in many graduates from PR vocational programs to be recruited for work, even though they have yet to graduate from their vocational education.

However, the basic difference between vocational and academic education in advanced countries like Australia and in Indonesia is not about unavailability of program choices, but in the way of perceiving vocational education in these nations, especially among parents. Advanced countries do not consider vocational education to be second-, let alone third-class education because it only teaches practical skills. Indonesia, which is still acutely suffering from the post-colonial mind set, views skill-related work to be of lower level, because before independence, our colonial masters did not get their hands dirty with skilled work. They simplified the view of skilled work to be something related to the use of “mere muscles” only, therefore lower-class. “Mind”-related work is considered to be more dignified, because it was monopolized by colonialists. This idea crystallized and remained in the country, causing vocational education to be underestimated in Indonesia even though it is most useful in practice.

(Devie Rahmawati is a professor in the Vocational Education Program at the University of Indonesia. She earned her Masters degree in Cultural Studies at the Universitas Indonesia. She continued her studies for 3 years and achieved a Doctors degree from the Swansea University, Wales UK and Padjadjaran University Bandung.)