Rights & TVET

Dr Sophie Bissett

27 November 2014

Today’s ThinkBase focuses has two objectives. The opening discussion suggests that post-school technical and vocational education and training (TVET) should be given greater priority within the post-2015 agenda. This leads into a discussion of why it is crucial to take a rights-based approach to the development of TVET within that agenda. While such a brief discussion can only touch lightly upon these issues, the Research Base intends to develop further, more detailed papers on TVET in the post-2015 landscape. In doing so, we will bring together our in-house expertise on the TVET sector and on rights-based theories of education.


The original Education for All (EFA) and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) created a clear focus for collaborative development practice in the field of education, as a result of which 90% percent of children world-wide now receive free, basic education as a right not a privilege. With 2015 fast approaching, the international community is asking how best to extend and improve education provision for those countries, local communities and people most in need? Proposals for post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) that set renewed international targets to be met by 2030 are currently underway. Proposed SDGs developed by the UN Open Working Group include a key education commitment to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ comprising equal access to quality basic, secondary, technical, vocational and tertiary education.

As a recent UNICEF overview of post-2015 education priorities and vision shows, for many commentators, the main challenge lies in ensuring that the growing number of students in receipt of basic education have the opportunity to continue their studies at secondary level and so complete the full school cycle. It is likely that these debates will inform both policy and practice when it comes to implementing the proposed SDGs and thus that basic primary and secondary education will form the key priority areas. There are good reasons to follow this kind of pathway, not least, ensuring that secondary level education receives the focus (and funding) that it deserves. This means developing the necessary infrastructure so that all students completing basic, primary education have access to continued, high quality education. In this sense, renewed focus on secondary education stands as a goal in its own right, as well as being a necessary step towards preparing young people who may aspire to access further and higher education in the future.  

It is essential, however, that the post-2015 focus on quality basic and secondary education does not lead to the second core value of lifelong learning becoming sidelined within the emerging discussion. A lively, meaningful debate about accessible, high quality TVET provision, especially in the tertiary or post-school setting, exists amongst specialists within the field. Yet these valuable contributions have made little mark on the mainstream post-2015 education debate and, until this crossover happens, it is necessary to keep making the case for the central role that TVET provision can and should play in the post-2015 agenda. We cannot simply wait until 2030 to ask the question of ‘what next?’ for skills development and training in local and global contexts.

Crucial to the TVET debate is the question of justification: on what basis can we argue for an increased emphasis on the promotion of and investment in TVET within the post-2015 agenda? The intuitive answer is that TVET is uniquely placed to equip individuals with the skills and training necessary to gain decent employment opportunities. The basic idea is that investment in TVET will reduce unemployment through the creation of a skilled workforce. It is also assumed that this skilled workforce will directly contribute to achieving other sustainable development goals by supporting greater economic prosperity led by social and environmental concerns. The underlying utilitarian argument here supposes a direct correlation between stated aims and anticipated outcomes.  In other words, investment in TVET is needed in order to create a skilled workforce to take up existing or expected skilled employment opportunities. As a recent report by NORRAG has highlighted, the evidence base for this line of argument is surprisingly weak, putting into question the supposed correlation between skills training and reduced youth unemployment rates.

Engagement with the question of TVET provision should stem instead from a right-based theory of education. According to Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, the value of TVET should be measured not only in terms of ‘the promotion of social and economic development’ but also in terms of ‘the empowerment of the individual’. The idea of individual empowerment central to the rights-based approach brings to the fore two key issues that may not necessarily be required by the utilitarian approach: namely, equal access to and high quality provision of TVET. These two markers ensure that the development of policy and practice puts the individual learner at the heart of the process and emphasises the importance of opening up TVET provision for all, regardless of age, gender, religion, disability or socio-economic position. Making equal access and quality provision the cornerstone of the emerging debate on post-2015 TVET also shapes the response to well-known challenges facing the TVET sector - low status, poor student motivation, lack of funding - when seeking to fulfil these education goals within the development framework.

To give one example of how a rights-based approach provides important insights into the current TVET debate, we might consider the low levels of public funding traditionally invested within the sector. Recent analysis completed by the Research Base on behalf of Save the Children on equity in education funding using a rights-based framework showed that, in certain developing contexts, public funding inequities disproportionately favour higher education. This reminds us that a lack of TVET funding is not always a consequence of available resources being directed towards meeting basic school education needs; one of the main arguments made to explain the marginal role that TVET currently occupies in the mainstream post-2015 education debates. Equal access, in this sense, tells us something important about public funding for TVET in relation to the distribution of funds across the education system as a whole.

In sum, a rights-based approach to education not only provides the framework for critiquing such inequalities, which entrench existing educational privilege, but also for asserting the responsibility of individual states to support and promote TVET provision in order to ensure ‘progressive access for all’ (as stated within the Report of the UN Special Rapporteur). The framework can and should be extended to other key issues related to the development of TVET within the post-2015 agenda. Moreover, taking a right-based approach explains why the post-2015 TVET debate cannot simply be postponed until social and economic utility pushes it to the foreground.

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