02 SES 03 C, VET in Different Cultural Contexts
Drawing on empirical data from South Africa, we explore the increasing exclusion of large numbers of young people from the formal education system and labour market but also even from the conceptualisations of “normal” trajectories. We suggest that current orthodox theorisations are hopelessly inadequate for explaining much of young people’s lives and livelihoods. Rather, we look to the growing tradition of critical capabilities research, and particularly to a bringing together of the capability approach (cf. Sen 1999) and critical realism (cf. Archer 2003).
Together with others such as De Jaeghere (2017) and Wheelahan and Moodie (2011), we have sought to develop a new approach to VET and critical capabilities (Powell and McGrath 2018). Crucially, this starts from young people. It stresses their voice, agency and well-being as the core of any strategy for youth development.
From Sen, it derives an account of both positive and negative freedoms. Positive freedom, the freedom to do and, is at the heart of Sen’s notions of capabilities, functionings and agency. This is about what young people have reason to value regarding what they want to be or do, and the extent to which they are able to realise these valued outcomes. Sen also has a notion of negative freedom, the freedom from. The critical capabilities approach takes this forward by considering the multi-dimensional nature of poverty and the structural barriers to achieving human development. The human development account believes in the power of education and work but insists on the need to examine how both actually operate and with what practical consequences for the wellbeing of young people and our future world.
The approach has influenced UNESCO’s TVET strapline of “skills for work and life”. That is, skills development cannot just be about employability, but must support wider human flourishing. The account also highlights that the transition from education to work is also part of the wider transition from youth to adulthood. By starting from what young people envision as a good life, the approach has had to address questions about how such visions are formed and communicated. This leads to a focus both on how young people can be supported to envision better futures and on the challenges of how to overcome obstacles that could prevent aspirations from being realised.
This leads to a growing sense of the importance of institutions, and, in particular, the extent to which VET systems and labour markets fail to connect with the lives of young people, and serve to exclude them from the dominant discourse and technologies of transitions to adulthood and work. While fieldwork is still ongoing in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, we explore through the voices of young people how they develop new models of a learning-livelihoods relationship that sit outside the supposed mainstream, and how their agentic development of ‘life projects’ (as Archer terms them) interact with the structures of poverty and marginalisation.
This approach allows us to contribute to the substantive debates about the transformation of vocational education and training as originated by UNESCO. We do this through furthering the existing contribution of the critical capabilities tradition. We show that modern, formal VET is conceptualised and planned in ways that remain rooted in productivist thinking (Anderson 2009; McGrath 2012) and largely untouched by the messy realities of young people‘s experiences, endowments and aspirations. In this area, our new study moves beyond existing accounts, such as our own reading of the value some young people do get from formal VET (McGrath and Powell 2015) and De Jaeghere’s (2017) work on alternative programmes for youth livelihoods.
We combine a theoretical emphasis on the need to understand the lived experiences, aspirations and life projects of young people with a postcolonial ethic of minimising the extractive nature of much conventional research, particularly on those marginalised by mainstream structures and discourses. These underpin an approach that emphasises the need to engage respectfully and authentically with young people as individual agents. The heart of the approach methodologically are interviews with young people that reflect the overall aims of the research but which adjust flexibly to the individual life histories, current preoccupations and imagined future trajectories of the respondents.
In thinking about youth transitions to work, the findings emphasise the importance of recognising that not all work is valuable work. The study shows that few have been able to access the formal labour market. Where they have accessed formal firms, it has too often been as interns (sometimes for prolonged periods) or on wages below the national legal minimum and far too frequently in conditions far beneath that described as ‘quality work’ by (Sehnbruch, 2008). The study shows who are agentially electing to remove themselves from forms of work that they consider to be of greater danger to their wellbeing than the poverty that they are familiar with. The findings show that formal VET is doing little to prepare these young people for the formal labour market, either in terms of the navigational skills to get employment or the emotional resilience to maintain it. Nor is it preparing them adequately for actually-occurring livelihood opportunities. Many of the young people interviewed are pursuing livelihoods outside the formal economy, often producing and selling goods and services from their homes and those who are not aspire to do so in the future. What is clear is that VET has failed to understand the ‘situatedness’ of young people and how they understand and engage with the labour market and, equally so, has failed to adequately imagine the alternative economic spaces that these young people inhabit. Despite this, many of these young people are engaging in vocational learning, whether in more traditional community-based modalities or through the use of new technological affordances such as YouTube. The importance of this study is that it emphasises the importance for policy and practice of understanding better the complexities of youth livelihoods and the transitions from education (and learning) to work for marginalised youth.
Anderson, D. 2009. Productivism and ecologism: changing dis/courses in TVET. In Fien, J., Maclean, R. and Park, M.-G. (Eds.), Work, Learning and Sustainable Development. Springer, Dordrecht. Archer, M. 2003. Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. De Jaeghere, J. 2017. de Jaeghere, J. 2017. Educating Entrepreneurial Citizens. Routledge, Abingdon. McGrath, S. 2012. Vocational education and training for development: a policy in need of a theory? International Journal of Educational Development 32, 5, 623-631. McGrath, S. and Powell, L. 2015. Vocational education and training for human development. In McGrath, S. and Gu, Q. (Eds.) The Routledge Handbook of International Education and Development. Routledge, Abingdon. McGrath, S. and Powell, L. 2018 (forthcoming). Skills for Human Development. Routledge, Abingdon. Sehnbruch, K. 2008. From the quantity to the quality of employment: An application of the capability approach to the Chilean labour market. In Alkire, S., Comim, F. And Qizilibash, M. (Eds.) The Capability Approach in Human Development: Concepts, Applications and Measurement. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Sen, A. 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Wheelahan, L. and Moodie, G. 2011. Rethinking Skills in Vocational Education and Training: from Competencies to Capabilities. New South Wales Board of Vocational Education and Training, Darlinghurst.
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