Vocational studies for the future

Change is not something those of us who work in education like very much, whether it’s the curriculum, assessment methods, or the brand of staffroom coffee.

So it has been sobering to take a trip around colleges in three Baltic states where the extent and speed of change is extraordinary. And one change education institutions in these former Soviet satellites are enjoying is more freedom.

‘The Soviet system was very simple,” explains Alina Morkuniene, principal of the School of Light Industry and Domestic Services in Vilnius, Lithuania. ‘The executive committee at the ministry of education told us to take 75 tailors and 75 seamstresses each year.”

That would presumably have been the education ministry in Vilnius? ‘Oh no, in Moscow,” she replies. Moscow is not only 10 hours away from Vilnius, but speaks a different language and even has a different alphabet.

The system was simple. Each part of the Soviet empire had a role to fulfil and Lithuania had important clothing manufacturing factories. By asking each factory how many recruits it needed, Moscow came to a figure and that was college recruitment sorted.

‘These days, we advertise on TV and in the press, we visit schools with our roadshow,” says Morkuniene. ‘But we get most of our students by word of mouth.” The college now has 250 students studying hairdressing, floristry and dressmaking, as well as photography and babysitting. Most students are at the college for either two or three years, depending on when they choose to leave school — the earlier they leave, the more standard subjects, such as languages and maths, they must study at college.

But could the new system simply churn out lots of students qualified for non-existent jobs? ‘There has been a growth of higher education across the country,” says Juozas Gaudiesius, at the ministry for education and science in Vilnius. ‘But recent times have seen a rise in the demand for technical training as the economy, especially the service industries, expands.” Certainly the trainee hairdressers were all confident of getting a job in the capital.

The switch from manufacturing to service industries has been pronounced in all the Baltic countries. In neighbouring Latvia, a farmer called Ainaes Stilins spoke about the need to train new farmers. This is a country where, in the past, up to 50% of the population was involved in farming. His local college is still in operation but until recently was using old equipment from former state farms. A deal with a major western equipment supplier means students can now work on the latest electronic gear.

The emphasis on manufacturing and heavy industries is brought home at the College of Engineering in Tallinn, Estonia. Oil refining, railway stock manufacturing and electronics numbered among the specialities of one of the most prosperous parts of the Soviet bloc.

At Tallinn, the core subjects of civil and mechanical engineering and architecture remain. Yet even here the trend towards service occupations is shown by the flourishing course in transport, logistics and car repair. If the fleets of lorries on the main roads and the traffic in Tallinn are anything to go by, these students will have no trouble gaining employment, either.

‘We want to attract more students from abroad but we have very few lecturers who can deliver in English,” says Viktoria Toomik, the college’s manager of international affairs. ‘The college is looking to EU support to address this issue so that courses will be on offer from next year.

‘We are also keen to establish a link with a college in the United Kingdom. Already many of our students go abroad and we have links with partner colleges in Germany, Denmark and Portugal. We also have very strong links with Finland, which is only four hours away by ferry.”

Five years ago, Estonia issued a comprehensive guide in English to the higher and technical education sector. Colleges here specialise in one or two subject areas — there are colleges for the prison service, the rescue services and aviation. The general further education college is an exception. Yet some things don’t change. The college looks with envy upon colleagues in higher education, but feels that giving students a strong practical base to their training stands them a much better chance of employment. Lecturers enjoy a high standing in Estonian society.

‘They don’t go on strike like the schoolteachers, but they are paid more,” says Toomik.

The potential for education expansion and innovation in these three countries is immense, particularly as money comes on board for improving equipment. With so few computers and so much emphasis on practical teaching, as well as the strong link to employment outcomes, they give the rest of us something to think about.

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