Teaching useful skills
October 2, 1999
In an important letter [please note: link provided by LOSP web site] in yesterday's newspaper Mr Clarence Ellis put forward an interesting proposition: "If programmes to teach professional, craft and business skills are made widespread, we can in one or two generations eradicate poverty". He went on to submit: "Our university should be conceived as an institution first for developing internationally competitive teaching and research standards in the production activities in which we are engaged (mining, forestry, wood technology, agriculture, food technology, construction, fishing, aquaculture), and second for designing courses for tertiary education in the agriculture and craft and related skills mentioned above".
There is obvious merit in this idea. At the moment, the university is producing many graduates in the social sciences, for example, who have little relevance to our priority needs and may in fact find it quite difficult to get a job when they graduate. At the same time, there is a desperate need for people trained and skilled in mining, forestry, wood technology and the other areas listed by Mr Ellis. The issue was considered by the presidential committee on the university but little has been achieved. Perhaps one obvious reason why change will be difficult is that teaching skills are skewed in favour of the subjects currently being taught which creates pressures against change. Moreover, it will at the same time be necessary to recruit a lot of new teaching skills.
But the thrust of Mr Ellis's argument is obviously correct. To develop quickly we must have the cadres, the people who can do effectively the many jobs that will have to be done in a growing economy. This was the key insight of Mr Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. The emphasis has to be not only on more and better education but on the kind of technical education that will equip us to develop our society. Moreover, widespread technical education can be made available not only to the young but to those who have left school and are in their twenties, thirties and forties and can have a direct impact on poverty reduction. As Mr Ellis argued "What we need to bear in mind is that poverty is perpetuated inter-generationally. Poor mothers and poor fathers parent poor youth. Programmes directed at educating poor youth are often ineffectual because the social conditions in the homes of those young people tend to nullify the tuition and training of the youth programmes. To eradicate poverty, programmes have to be directed at poor parents at the same time as efforts are made to educate poor youth". A national educational programme worth its salt should spell out clearly ideas for tackling these issues. The technical institutions we already have can be the basis for expansion. What must be worked out is the skills, the equipment and the funding needed. One imagines that the National Development Strategy will deal at some length with the expansion of technical education as this will clearly be intimately related to many of the issues to be covered.
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