The COVID-19 global pandemic has interrupted the usual flow of life all around the world. All aspects of daily life have been affected by the crisis. From education, economy and health to transportation, it is not possible to find a sector which has not been touched by the pandemic. While trying to protect their citizens against the spread of the crisis, countries are trying to maintain their basic services. The total performance of countries in this context also reveals how prepared they are against such crises. People are also able to observe the performance of their countries compared with others.
Education is one of the most affected sectors by the pandemic. All countries gradually began to close educational institutions, from primary to higher education levels. Countries started to support the education needs of students via distance education opportunities through various digital platforms. The education infrastructure of the countries – the digital divide – and the effects of the students' socioeconomic backgrounds, came to the fore in the last weeks on debates on equality of opportunities and education. Countries with the necessary recourses and infrastructure implemented the distance education solutions easily, but those without sufficient infrastructure had difficulties in providing educational services. Similarly, individuals without internet connection or necessary infrastructure in the same country went without support. Even if the necessary infrastructure is available, digital literacy of students also affects the efficiency of distance education. Therefore, the effect of socioeconomic backgrounds on students' academic achievement maintains its impact after COVID-19, just as before the pandemic.
Vocational education and training (VET) is one of the most discussed topics in education systems in almost all countries. Dual system and apprenticeship programs continue to be one of the attractive models for VET for many years in continental Europe, and especially in Germany. The most important issue in the construction of the VET policies, is the strength of relationship between VET and the labour market for each country. For example, if you configure your VET system based on the German model, but your job market is not structured as in Germany, the system will not work as efficiently as in Germany as a whole. Skills mismatches arise in the labour market when human resources combined with the skills demanded by the labour market cannot be trained via VET, or when the labour market lacks mechanisms to reward VET graduates with the demanded skills. Similarly, when the supply-demand balance is not rationally established in the VET based on the needs of labour market, skills mismatches arise and the perception of VET in the society begins to deteriorate.
On the other hand, as the level of social welfare increases in countries, the demand for higher education also gradually rises, and ultimately VET becomes a compulsory destination of low-achieving students, rather than their preferences. At the same time, the extensive usage of artificial intelligence technologies and automation in the production and service sector transforms the labour market and leads also to transformations in the skills sets demanded by the labour market. These transformations directly affect VET, and the expected skill sets lead to higher expectations from VET. These two processes concurrently stand as the most important paradox for VET: the skill sets demanded by the labour market require academically high performing students. However, VET is not the first choice of high performing students.
In this context, many focused on the relationship between school tracking and VET. School tracking is generally implemented to create a room for VET in education systems. In school tracking, the impact is mainly determined by the age of tracking and the percentage/scale of curriculum differentiation between schools. Especially, when the tracking is performed at early ages although students are clustered into different school types according to their academic achievements, they are clustered latently based on education – and income-levels – of their families due to the fact that the academic achievement at early ages is highly dependent on their socioeconomic background. This situation has adverse effects on the educational equality in society. On the other hand, it increases the clustering of the academically low-achieving students in VET institutions. This situation further strengthens the aforementioned paradox.
In order to solve this paradox, the school tracking should be postponed to later ages as much as possible. Curriculum differentiation among the tracked schools should be reduced, and curriculum should be revised in a way that it focuses broad academic (generic) skills and rather than job-specific education. The VET system in Turkey has undergone an important transformation in this direction since 2018, after the announcement of Education Vision 2023. Collaborations with the sectors in all fields of VET, which focus on the priority of employment and the management of all educational processes together, with an emphasis on academic skills on vocational curriculum have turned a new page and led to positive results in a short period of time. The number of students attending VET has increased by about 20 per cent and reached about two million. For the first time, students from the top one per cent of achievement ranking are placed into VET institutions based on their preferences. The labour market began to express their satisfaction with the developments and started to provide more infrastructure support and skills training support to VET.
While VET has been transformed and gained a dynamic structure based on the demands of the labour market, a different contribution of strengthened VET has emerged in the COVID-19 pandemic. The Ministry of National Education (MoNE) in Turkey has been able to use its production capacity in VET as an important instrument to prevent the spread of the pandemic. In a short time, vocational high schools started mass production of a wide range of products ranging from cleaning and disinfection products to mask production, from disposable aprons and overalls to face protection shields.
To meet the need for masks, nearly 50 vocational high schools produced approximately nine million masks so far, and delivered to health care workers and citizens free of charge. On the other hand, capacity has been increased in the production of cleaning materials by the chemical technology fields of vocational high schools, and priority has been given to obtain the production capacity which can meet all cleaning needs of 54 thousand schools in all provinces of Turkey. This target was achieved in a short time, and the number of vocational high schools producing the required materials was doubled. Nowadays, beyond meeting the cleaning needs of all schools, demands in all provinces can be easily met via production in vocational high schools. Up to now, five million litres of hypochlorite disinfectants, 120 thousand litres of hand disinfectants and three thousand litres of cologne have been produced and delivered to the points in need.
Vocational schools prioritised the needs of healthcare professionals and produced face protection shields, disposable aprons and overalls. To date, 750,000 facial protective shields and one million disposable aprons and overalls have been produced and delivered to healthcare professionals free of charge. In vocational high schools, a monthly production capacity of one million face protection shields and 1.5 million disposable aprons and overalls has been reached.
Considering the importance of automation in increasing the production capacity, MoNE established several research and development centres within vocational high schools and primarily focused on the production of three products: a surgical mask machine, a respirator and a mask machine that produces masks with N95 standard. The first automatic three layer wire ultrasonic surgical mask machine was produced in around 20 days in Istanbul, and mass production ensued. With the production of mask machines, the monthly surgical/medical mask production capacity increased to five million in Istanbul and 15 million in Turkey, only within vocational high schools. Respirators were produced in two different cities, Hatay and Istanbul, and mass production will start upon completion of the certification process. Manufacturing of the mask machine producing N95 standard masks is about to be finalised, and the first tests of the mask machine have been successfully completed.
The rapid production and ease of access to the products needed to overcome the initial shock of the pandemic and to prevent further panic in society are significant in the fight against global pandemics such as COVID-19. In this context, strengthened VET in Turkey has emerged as one of the main actors in this battle. Strong collaborations with the sectors, increasing the active participation of the private enterprises to VET processes, the priority of employment of VET graduates in the labour market and the emphasis on academic and general skills in VET increased the adaptation potential of VET to the changing conditions. The current experience in Turkey shows that a strengthened VET can play an active role to empower healthcare workers and people to cope with the crisis such as COVID-19 by prompt production capacity.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.