Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Underemphasised Vocational Education

Written by johnleemk on 11:37:53 am Aug 13, 2007.
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When you hear the word "education", what often comes to mind is a fresh graduate tossing his mortarboard in the air. Education is commonly bound up in our perceptions with academia.

Although I myself am academically-inclined, the more I think about it, the less sensible this seems. It's plain as day to anyone who looks at a normal school that far from everyone is cut out for academic pursuits, but yet the perception that the only good education involves the traditional degree route persists.

Obviously there is no right way to set out the different types of education, but for the sake of simplicity, let us say that there are three obvious classifications.

The first is the academic type — the usual route we know. From secondary school onwards, those involved in this route start to focus more and more on a particular academic field, be it history or biology. What they do after they graduate is another thing — they can enter academia, or possibly work elsewhere. (I know of a computer science PhD who has ended up working for an investment banking firm.)

The second is the professional type. This involves subjects which don't exactly fit the academic profile, but nevertheless need some studying. Things like law, accountancy, mass communications, etc. would all probably fall under this.

The third is vocational education. Plumbers and bricklayers don't exactly just start working and learn on the job — for anything more than basic manual labour, that would likely be disastrous.

People often aspire to enter either academic or professional education, which is perfectly justified — it is a mark of aptitude, after all — but this sometimes comes at a cost.

What makes matters worse is government intervention, which usually comes on the side of academic and/or professional qualifications. Sometimes, the government does not bother to differentiate between the two, upsetting intellectuals who feel their ivory towers are being encroached upon.

In any event, the result is that in many countries, people often look down on vocational education. Funding is not often allocated for vocational schools; if it is, it is in small amounts. The focus is on the academic/professional stream.

If you ask me, although it might make sense to put everyone through the same primary school system, when it comes to secondary school, it might be time to start separating different streams of students. Even if they must all share some core classes so our societies can have some shared intellectual foundation, it is simply stupid to treat future scientists, accountants and electricians all the same way.

Obviously the method for such differentiation would be controversial; a lot of thought has to go into implementing this streaming if it is to be effective. But we have to recognise that every student is different. Denying this fundamental reality results in wasted effort attempting to pander to the needs of the average student, rather than tailoring the system to the needs of those with different aptitudes.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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