What challenges will technical and vocational education face at the dawn of the next millennium? What are the programmes required to revitalise this sector during the first decade of the 21st century? How can a true, balanced partnership between the players of the worlds of education and work be fostered? And how can international co-operation be strengthened?

These questions will be debated during the Second International Congress on Technical and Vocational Education, which will focus on the theme of Lifelong Learning and Training: A Bridge to the Future, organised by UNESCO in collaboration with the government of the Republic of Korea and held in Seoul from April 26 to 30, 1999.

Considering the high economic, social and cultural stakes involved, the 21st century calls for a visionary approach to this field. Any action in favour of technical and vocational education (TVE) must be undertaken with a long-term perspective, with a view to overcome the persistent gap between the economic forces and the work place, on the one hand, and the world of education, on the other.

A first International Congress on the Development and Improvement of Technical and Vocational Education was already held, under the aegis of UNESCO in Berlin (Germany) in 1987. It focused on the role of technical and vocational education in national development, implementation strategies and international co-operation.

That Congress - and a subsequent resolution voted at UNESCO's 1991 General Conference - led to the creation in 1992 of an International Project on Technical and Vocational Education (UNEVOC), whose goal was to strengthen the development of technical and vocational education in UNESCO Member States. It led to the establishment of a network of institutions involved in education, training, planning, research and development, as well as ministerial departments operating in the field of TVE. The network now brings together 185 centres in 126 countries (see box).

The new situation

Twelve years after the Berlin Congress, globalisation, the rapid advancement of information and communication technologies and the enhanced mobility of labour forces have created a new situation forcing the stakeholders (governments, international organisations, teachers, researchers, TVE specialists) to respond quickly.

The Congress in Seoul is a timely response to the changing situation. It will provide participants from all over the world* with an opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences, question each other about the different methods of adapting TVE to changing needs, update practices, and renew methodologies and pedagogical projects. At stake is determining the strategies that will help improve policies and mechanisms in favour of TVE in the first decade of the 21st century.

Five regional preparatory conferences - in Adelaide (Australia, March 25 - 27, 1998) for the Asia-Pacific region; in Crete (Greece, September 23 - 26, 1998) for the Europe region; in Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates, November 1 - 4, 1998) for the Arab States region; in Quito (Ecuador, November 23 - 27, 1998) for the Latin America and Caribbean region; in Nairobi (Kenya, November 24 - 27, 1998) for the Africa region - have outlined the basis for true regional and international co-operation and types of multilateral activities which can be undertaken to promote TVE by integrating it into general education and ensuring individuals lifelong access to education and training.

Why is technical and professional education needed?

Because of its multidisciplinary nature and its close links to the world of work, technical and vocational education forms one of the most essential learning systems in building a qualified and creative workforce. It gives young people and adults the knowledge needed to practice a profession. For many, it represents a passport to the workplace and thereby a chance for social mobility.

However, industrialised countries - and even some developing nations - tend to see TVE as the "poor relation" of general education and therefor it earns little respect. The pursuit of a long general curriculum has lead young people and their parents to believe that the only worthy path is that of general education and its coveted university diplomas. Vocational education and training, seen as the refuge of those who are not smart enough for general education, is undervalued. Academic elitism does not take TVE into consideration.

There are many possible remedies to revitalise technical and vocational education. They include the rehabilitation of, and gaining acceptance for, guidance and counselling at an early age; creating curricula for all levels of qualification; and finally, ensuring that students can move between general and TVE according to their needs.

The balance between education and training

Models of technical and vocational education vary by country. A whole range of establishments administer them: establishments providing short technical and vocational courses; training centres; polytechnic institutes; technological universities etc.

TVE comes most frequently under the authority of ministries of education, but sometimes also under ministries of labour or employment, responsible for training skilled workers and artisans. A perfect example is the case of the Republic of Korea, where various schools - under the Ministry of Education - provide professional education, while vocational training centres are run by the Ministry of Labour. The two ministries work together efficiently to prepare a highly skilled workforce, contributing to the country's economic and industrial development.

In Singapore and Mauritius, the government and private sector team together in training the workforce through the Industrial Vocational Training Boards (IVTB). These committees determine, within the framework of national economic policies, short-term training needs and combine them with the long-term goals of continuous retraining and upgdrading of the workforce. As a result, both nations boast an experienced and productive workforce appreciated by international corporations many of which have chosen to build plants on their islands.

In Europe, TVE differs from country to country. France has general and technical schools, vocational schools, technological university institutes, and classes for an elite set of technicians preparing for the prestigious grandes écoles. Vocational and technical schools offer classes in both general subjects and in subjects relating to technology and professional training. The schools organise traineeships in firms, which benefit from state subsidies when they hire young unemployed people and re-skill their employees. Germany, Austria and Switzerland, on the other hand, favour an apprenticeship system, which today absorbs three-quarters of their youth - and 90% in Germany. Apprentices spend four days a week in a company and the other days in a training centre studying technological subjects, science, mathematics and modern languages. This mixed, or "dual", approach to vocational education enables students to fit as closely as possible with the needs of the job market.

The emerging countries of Latin America, such as Brazil, drew inspiration from this example, but eventually opted for on-the-job training centres in firms.

Although the various vocational education and training systems have frequently proved efficient at home, they cannot simply be transplanted from one society to another but have to be adapted to the local socio-cultural context.

The challenges of the 21st century

The world is undergoing profound changes and an information revolution is underway. In the North and in the South, knowledge has become increasingly important. But traditional educational models are generally ill-suited to the rapid change, and current curricula may no longer reflect the reality of the society or continent in which they are taught. As a result, they no longer provide workers with the skills needed in the job market, itself in a perpetual flux.

As a result of globalisation, competitiveness has become the crucial criterion of a country's success. The speed of technological progress tends to replace the established model of short-term, limited training by continuous training for all, regardless of how developed a country is. It quickly renders knowledge obsolete and makes continuous updating of skills necessary. In developing countries, where economic interests are considered a major priority, problems are exacerbated: surplus industrial capacity around the world brings on the disappearance of entire sectors of local industry; exclusion is growing; the parallel economy prospers; qualified manpower emigrates in the quest for employment and better salaries.

All over the world, technical and vocational education confronts new demands. While it must address everyone's needs - and although equal access for young girls and women is by no means a given - it must also respond to the changing requirements of the world of work. Traditional jobs are giving way to service-oriented activities that call for a higher level of qualification. Work has become more complex and often necessitates technical and engineering diplomas. Consequently, the continuous updating of skills is heretofore indispensable and now makes up part of the curriculum. Both old and young now have to face the reality of changing jobs, re-training themselves in mid-career and learning new skills The challenge is immense. Methods of education and apprenticeship must be reformed to include the new information technologies; environmental issues, foreign cultures and languages must be introduced; curricula must be created and adapted to form a programme of "lifelong education." At the heart of this concept, humanist education must not be neglected and individuals must acquire a transdisciplinary profile. It forms one of the four pillars of education, "learning to do" - defined by UNESCO's International Commission on Education for the 21st Century (1996) - whereby students should acquire occupational skills based on a combination of aptitudes and not just specialised professional training.

Teachers and those who train them are also concerned and must be mobilised. They must rethink teaching techniques and upgrade their own skills continuously, working with new methods on programmes which reflect state of the art innovations.

Furthermore, TVE in developing countries must no longer be designed along the lines of models used in industrialised nations. In the coming years, developing countries must launch more flexible programmes that are more appropriate for the needs of the local or national market, more in tune with the local culture. Such programmes must have the capacity to tap employment by creating poles of companies around the educational centres. These countries will also need to work more in networks and devise regional approaches.

Learning to learn

Learning is a permanent practice and apprenticeship. The challenge now is to gain acceptance for the idea of lifelong education and to provide training to people throughout their life and educate them to question what they know. School is no longer the only place of learning and training is no longer exclusively for the young.

"Education is a lifelong process that, beginning in early childhood, spreads itself through life and encompasses all shapes and forms at every level of schooling - well beyond so-called formal education," UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor declared as early as 1996. Now, more than ever, it is time to learn to learn, to learn to understand and to choose all of which requires a real cultural revolution.

Governments have a crucial role to play in this area. It is their duty to provide their people with the necessary training resources and to provide the necessary funding. Education is a fundamental human right. Governments, along with other stakeholders (including school directors, teachers, trainers, researchers, employers, trade union representatives), are responsible for adopting appropriate policies and laws, establishing institutional structures and look ahead so as to ensure that technical and vocational education meets the needs of all men and women who are entering or re-entering the job market.

Technical and vocational education is a vital tool for social cohesion. By favouring the acquisition of skills, it battles poverty and social exclusion, and favours self-employment. By spreading know-how, it inspires innovation and works to curb unemployment, especially among marginalised youth and adults in developed and developing nations alike.

The main thrusts of UNESCO's action fit into this context. They are to renew and improve the standing of technical and vocational education; adapt it to change; develop alternative means of teaching so that each individual may, at any moment, receive the education and training he or she requires; and promote a better co-operation and compatibility between education and employment policies.

The Second International Congress, in Seoul, in which the government of the Republic of Korea participated actively (both in its organisation and funding), has already sparked a vivid interest among Member States. Nearly 1,000 participants are expected. UNESCO is providing them with an opportunity to share their experiences, present their national policies and propose innovative reforms for the coming decade. Recommendations emanating from the Congress will also form the backbone of UNESCO's TVE programme from the year 2000. The Congress invites the international community to regard TVE as a key factor in development. The Congress will open up new, positive perspectives to TVE stakeholders around the world.

A global approach to technical and vocational education

Launched in 1992, UNEVOC - the International Project on Technical and Vocational Education (TVE) - is concerned by several strategic priorities. It advocates and supports the development of TVE education policies in keeping with UNESCO's fundamental principles (correlation of TVE with human development; priority for the least developed countries; access of girls and women to TVE; reinforcing co-operation among TVE institutions and the world of work, improvement of TVE's status). It initiates and encourages the identification, collection, description and dissemination of information and knowledge concerning innovation, ideas and experience in TVE. It fosters the exchange of ideas and experiences through seminars, symposia and workshops. It assists governments and institutions. It fosters co-operation and mutual support between TVE institutions, nationally and internationally, notably by twinning UNEVOC centres with other centres, research institutions or companies.

UNEVOC operates in all the regions of the world with the support of UNESCO offices.