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The Spirit of Craftsmanship

Vocational Education on the Rebound

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Vocational Education on the Rebound

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More and more students with good grades are deciding to enroll in Taiwan’s vocational schools, pursuing personal interests rather than attending a school for its academic prestige. These assertive students are challenging established teaching practices, and perceptions.

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Vocational Education on the Rebound

By Shiau-Jing Ding
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 454 )

This year Chen Ching-kao, principal of Taipei Municipal Daan Vocational High School, was in for a pleasant surprise when calling the parents of students who had been accepted at his school.

He called to inquire whether the students would actually take the spot they had won. Based on their scores on the standard Basic Competence Test, Taiwanese students often apply for admission to several schools on their wish list, to broaden their options, and then pick their favorite school. In previous years Chen would get a clear no from a number of parents, but this year virtually all confirmed that their children would claim their places at Daan Vocational High School.

The spirit of craftsmanship is making a comeback, and its revival is reflected in the education system and in changing attitudes toward practical studies in high schools, universities and society at large.

As a result, a growing number of students with good academic achievements have nonetheless chosen a vocational high school. Among this year’s freshmen at Daan Vocational High is a higher number of high scoring students who could have easily enrolled at academically oriented high schools. While last year 53 freshmen had a percentile rank (PR) of more than 90, that number has risen to 74 this year. The PR shows a student’s relative position or rank in a group of students who are in the same grade and were tested at the same time of the year.

Chen has observed that in the past the Basic Competence Test scores of the best students admitted to his school equaled those required at middle-ranking senior high schools, while this year they have risen to the level of upper-ranking high schools.

Wu Wen-wei, a graduate of the junior high school section of Erh Shing Private High School in Keelung City, had such good test scores that he could have attended Taipei Chenggong High School, the fourth most popular senior high school among male students in Taiwan. However, he decided instead to enroll in the Department of Electrical Technique of Daan Vocational High. Asked whether he represents an exception to the rule, Wu responds without hesitation, “Right now, at our age we’re all controlled by our parents, and have no choice but to do as our parents say and attend high school. But society has begun to slowly change. In the future, there will be more and more people like me.”

Technical Schools Reinvent Hands-on Education

This change in students’ attitudes has spurred technical colleges to design new hands-on courses from scratch.

With the start of the new academic year in September, the Ministry of Education will promote the program “4 + X,” which refers to courses that lead to an additional bachelor’s degree for graduates of four-year colleges. These courses emphasize hands-on learning and require students to complete corporate internships and special projects.

Seventy-one colleges and universities including National Cheng Kung University and National Chung Hsing University have all been eager to apply for these new post-bachelor courses. National Chi Nan University has even asked the founder of National Kaohsiung University of Hospitality and Tourism for help in establishing a college of hospitality and tourism.

An even more revolutionary change will be that with the new academic year the longstanding disadvantage of vocational high school graduates with regard to entering prestigious research-focused universities will be eliminated.

For the first time, National Taiwan University, National Tsing Hua University and other major research universities will now accept graduates from vo-tech high schools on the basis of school recommendations. This means that in the future, not only will students from academically oriented high schools gain admittance to technical colleges, but vocational high school graduates will also stand a chance of making it into research universities.

Over the past two years the Ministry of Education has not only made changes in the educational system to promote the vocational track, but has also revised evaluation criteria for educational content, reaffirming the importance of practical courses.

Based on the latest curriculum revisions for the vocational education system, starting with the new academic year practical training at vo-tech high schools will increase from half a day per week to 14 hours per week, as used to be the case 30 years ago. Not only will every student have the opportunity to do a three- to six-month internship off-campus or even abroad, but they will also have to complete two to six special projects before graduation.

Faculty may take unpaid leave of more than half a year to do practical research in a company, in order to ensure that the newest technologies make it to school campuses.

The revival of practical education has also caused a number of structural changes in schools. Vocational and technical colleges are no longer dumping grounds for under-performing students. More and more outstanding students are choosing to enroll in vocational schools to pursue their personal interests, also forcing teachers to rethink their established teaching methods.

During the summer break almost 30 students at Far East University, the school with the highest number of registered patents in Taiwan, decided to stay in school rather than go on a trip or hang out with friends. They spent entire summer days in the lab, sometimes even working late into the night.

These diligent students were trying to improve a patented multiporous structure technology developed by their teacher for use in mould manufacturing to participate in the highly competitive Long-term Smile Contest. Usually more than 1,000 students register for the innovation- and research-oriented contest founded by Taiwanese electronics giant Acer. Far East University vice president Ming-jyi Jang notes that the contest is a means to encourage students.

"The contest is not a goal, but a method,” Jang explains. “The competing students serve as examples, encouraging even more students to join and to be more confident.”

 Huang Yao-nan, standing director of the National Teachers’ Association, who also teaches at National Hai-san Industrial Vocational High School, has found that average and under-performing students rarely protest if teachers do not make any extra efforts. But high performers are more opinionated, so teachers need to carefully design their lesson plans.

“In the past you wouldn’t have any problems as long as the students were able to graduate. But nowadays students are of a higher caliber, so teachers need to be able to keep up with new teaching methods and technologies,” Huang notes.

Vocational Students Not Cheap Labor

What also needs to change is companies’ unappreciative attitude toward vocational students. As a founding member of the Taiwan Alliance for the Rights and Welfare of Cooperative Education, a non-profit organization that fights for the rights of vocational students who receive practical training in companies, Huang has been a vocal critic of corporate attitudes. Many companies view vocational students as cheap labor and fail to notice that vocational schools are no longer the domain of poor students.

In the most typical example of cooperation between companies and schools, students do internships in a company, but instead of rotating through different jobs and departments to learn new skills, they are assigned repetitive mechanical work. The problem is particularly serious in the supermarket and logistics industry, and in the hairdressing and beauty industry.

Huang points out that such internships don’t allow the students to acquire new technical skills, as they end up being used as cheap labor without even a minimum wage. Even if students file complaints with the schools, the schools seldom stand up for their students, because companies pay grants to the schools for these cooperative education arrangements.

The negative stigma associated with vocational education in Taiwan has already begun to fade. But before vocational schools can make a full comeback, policymakers, schools and industry still need to adjust to the changing trend. Yet it looks as if the day is not too far away when technical talent and academic talent will be regarded as equals.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy

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