Readers may not be fully aware that according to section 14 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, EU countries are responsible to provide for the content and organisation of national vocational education and training (VET) and that in turn it is the EU’s role to complement their actions. EU policy typically seeks to address common challenges such as ageing, skills deficits and global competition, with the goal of improving employability and skills. Thus we see how VET has a pivotal role to play in the Europe 2020 strategy.
Regrettably, Malta comes with the lowest percentage of upper secondary school students enrolled in vocational education which, at just 13%, compares poorly to the EU average of 48%. We also have a high rate of early school leavers – these are defined as students who have passed through the entire system, and despite this, still have not learnt the necessary skills. Observers lament that in the past, we embraced a tendency to view education from a purely utilitarian angle and this may have been one of the causes for a subdued preference for vocational training.
It is reassuring that the education ministry has recently consulted experts from Finland where schools have consistently come in at the top in international rankings for education systems, and this change of attitude is most welcome as it represents a reversal of an earlier decision under previous administrations to phase out trade schools. It is now replaced by a policy to gradually re-introduce vocational training embracing all government schools.
This change in policy was recently announced by education minister Evarist Bartolo, who said that the country’s educational system needs to be drastically changed to bring out traits such as creative thinking and confidence in all students. Such qualities improve the ability to express one’s self. He said that the educational system is too focused on exams and does not prepare students for life. Bartolo added that the system does not even prepare students for work as not enough is being done to develop students’ communication skills and ability to work with others. He exclaimed that we are preparing students for exams but not for life or work.
He admitted that there are a number of problems ahead but the government is trying to slowly make the necessary changes. Shooting from the hip, he admitted that the system was also unfair on teachers as they also feel that it did not bring out students’ full potential. Critics have answered back that the minister has been in office for three years and eight months so they expect a quicker turnabout on reforms but of course it is better late than never given that the proposed system will take another three years. It was therefore an opportune time for PKF to undertake a pro-bono study on students attending various institutes at MCAST to assess and report on merits of vocational training. Such an exercise was performed as part of PKF’s corporate social responsibility policy and naturally could only proceed after obtaining clearance and full cooperation of educational officers at MCAST.
The report houses two separate but related works, being a tracer study and a progression study.
The Progression Study delved into the learning pathways of MCAST students during the past five academic years. Amongst other matters, it studied student progression up the various levels, and whether such students remained in the same field upon progressing or whether they changed path.
The Tracer study had the objective of assessing the success of former students who graduated MCAST courses (including VET ones) during 2015, in their chances of finding employment to match their training.
It also assessed the success of VET courses organised by MCAST considering that in the past the country’s trade schools, which provided such courses, had been stymied by the fact that they were used as a dumping ground for students who had failed in the standard academic system.
Under the proposed reform once students reach Form 2, apart from core subjects they will be requested to choose additional subjects in three different paths. These include an academic path, a vocational path or one based on applied learning. There will be an option to mix and match different paths. When fully implemented such reforms are expected to result in fewer lecturing hours, fewer exams and less homework and more time for leisure and physical activity. For example, one may suggest that if schools stay open after 2pm (say for an extended four hours covering extra curriculum activities) there will be less congestion in traffic since fewer school buses are needed to transport students home as working parents can easily collect children (if they wish) after finishing work.
Back to PKF’s Tracer Study, its main objective was to determine whether a selected group of former MCAST graduates had succeeded in becoming gainfully employed in a field relative to their chosen area of study or were engaged in further or higher education. The target population for this study was made up of all students from levels 1 to 6 who left MCAST in July 2015. All MCAST institutes were considered. Further aspects of relevance that were considered include whether subjects learnt were applicable in their present daily employment and whether the length of time spent studying at MCAST bore any direct proportionate relationship with landing better jobs.
For this exercise, all MCAST institutes in levels 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 across all institutes, including Gozo, were considered in a total population comprising 870 students, out of whom a total of 328 students (163 males, 165 females) provided complete and valid replies, leading to an overall sample size of 37.7%. A telephone survey was undertaken to collect data from the above-mentioned students, and as can be expected all responses were treated in strict confidence.
In the case where students could not be reached by telephone, an email with the link of the survey was sent so that this could be answered online, thereby broadening the avenue for data collection. Upon receipt of responses these were analysed and data cleaning was performed to proceed to a second stage when a statistical study was carried out. Data was collected via calls placed to the entire cohort of former students (and by email when calls were not successful) with the aim of gathering the following information through posing a concise yet thorough question set.
Objectives were to identify: 1) Where they are working now (including what designation + job description) in this case students were asked to indicate their job description in order to compare the same with the respective course followed, 2) Whether they feel that what they learnt at MCAST is being used in their current job, 3) Whether what they learnt is related to the field they are now in or not, 4) Whether they are employed on a full/part time basis, and 5) Whether they do any self-employed work/entrepreneurial activity.
On the other hand, the Progression Study analysed the progression path of former students from the past five academic years, namely 2011-2012, 2012-2013, 2013-2014, 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 to check if these are furthering their studies, and if so, within which institution. The methodology involved asking questions and obtaining answers for questions in accordance with this delineation:
A) To establish student progression: Level 1 to 2, 2 to 3, 3 to 4 (main focus), 4 to 5 and 5 to 6 or otherwise
B) Whether such student remained in the same field upon progressing or whether he/she changed completely (this was done for Level 2 to 3 progressing students)
C) How many students are leaving MCAST
D) How many students enrolled and exited MCAST in the span of a year
E) Grouping exercise of all entrant level 3 students
F) Grouping exercise of all students entering and exiting at same level
G) Success rates also considered repeater years that appear as successfully completing year but would be a repeating year so separate grouping in this instant carried out.
In conclusion, both studies provided an interesting insight on movements of students and exemplified the merits of vocational training while it revealed a number of valuable pointers to the career progression of students across various institutes. For further information and to acquaint themselves better with the works, readers may contact Dr Marilyn Mifsud at firstname.lastname@example.org.