Skills Sri Lanka: Transformation for the Future | Daily News

Skills Sri Lanka: Transformation for the Future

Skills development in Sri Lanka evolves from ancient times where skills were taught by father to son or by elder relative to a younger one to ensure a regular supply of skilled artisans for society. Sri Lanka had high standards of skills in construction, crafts, architecture and hydraulic technology during that time. This harmonious system that prevailed for centuries was disturbed during the period Sri Lanka came under colonial rule. With the passage of time, requirements emerged for skills in manufacturing, construction, machinery maintenance, etc., with the progress of industrialization. Against this backdrop, formal vocational training had its beginnings in 1893 when the first Technical College at Maradana in Colombo was established to train skilled workers needed for development works.

The period after independence (1948) saw a renewed interest in the development of skills required for achieving the development objectives of a newly emerging nation. Accordingly, actions had been taken to establish a network of technical colleges and many other autonomous Vocational Training Institutes under different ministries. The company-based apprenticeship training system was re-organized by establishing the National Apprenticeship Board (NAB) in 1971. The Tertiary and Vocational Education (TVE) Act No. 20 of 1990 (amended by Act No. 50 of 1999) established the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (TVEC) as the regulatory body in the vocational training sector and re-established NAB as the National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority (NAITA).

Recent development initiatives

When progressive developments were taking place in the vocational training sector, the Labour and Vocational Training Ministry, the first ministry with the specific mandate for vocational training, was formed in 1994 and Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed the Minister. He created a new vocational training institution – the Vocational Training Authority of Sri Lanka (VTA) in 1995 by bringing the training centres of the Vocational Training arm of the then Manpower Division of the Labour Ministry under its purview and establishing new training centres with regional and rural focus. The main objective of establishing the VTA was to bring the rural communities, especially the young people, into the mainstream of economic development which would result in eradicating poverty in rural areas. Then the VTA was tasked with consolidating skills training further in rural, semi-urban and urban areas with rapid expansion.

Sri Lanka as a tropical island nation had traditional fishing methods and slow transformation was taking place with new fishing techniques and with the introduction of multi-day fishing boats. The potential of the fishing industry as a foreign exchange earner and supply of nutritious food to the nation is enormous. Mahinda Rajapaksa as the then Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Minister, noting the need to develop human resources for a modern fishing industry, took steps to establish the National Institute of Fisheries and Nautical Engineering (NIFNE) in December 1999. The institute offered training to fishing communities on various trades and conducted certificate, diploma and degree level courses in fulfilling the original objective of developing a modern fishing industry.

NIFNE was transformed into the Ocean University of Sri Lanka by Act of Parliament in 2014 enhancing its scope for ocean and maritime related education and research. The Ocean University of Sri Lanka now offers postgraduate and undergraduate programmes under two faculties and diploma, certificate and skills upgrading programmes under its Vocational Division. The Vocational Division consists of eight training centres serving the coastal areas around the country.

Establishing NVQ Framework

With the dawn of the 21st century, there were renewed efforts to modernize the vocational training sector by way of addressing the skills needed in the labour market and improving the quality of training delivery in keeping with international standards. International agencies such as the Asian Development Bank, ILO, GIZ, JICA, KOICA, etc., supported these efforts with their technical expertise and funding. The result was the establishment of the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) system for training and certification of competencies and equipping the training centres for delivery and assessment of such skills. The main operation centre, ‘Nipunatha Piyasa’, the Secretariat for Vocational Training, was opened in 2005. Mahinda Rajapaksa oversaw these developments as the Prime Minister during the period.

Reforming the entire skills sector of the country with the unified NVQ system was a challenging task. The vocational training programmes and qualifications issued by various institutes in the public as well as private sector during that period were expected to transform into the NVQ system. Initially, 45 National Competency standards with curricula were designed to transform the courses into the NVQ system in 2004 which by now has grown to nearly 400 standards in key occupations in the industry sectors.

Since 2005, the skills sector was given the priority in the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’, the then Government’s national policy strategy, with resources being allocated for expansion of the sector especially targeting the youth as well as adults by providing skills training courses within the NVQ system. The Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) system was to provide qualifications upgrading pathways from certificate to diploma and from diploma to degree, breaking the barriers for entry to higher education through vocational training. Nine Colleges of Technology were established under the Department of Technical Education and Training for diploma-level education and the University of Vocational Technology (Univotec) by an Act of Parliament in 2008. This was the landmark reform in vocational education in the history of the skills sector of the country. The workmen and women with experience in various trades were given the opportunity of earning degree-level qualifications through this historic measure.

The ADB and World Bank assisted project – Skills Sector Development Programme (SSDP) came into effect in 2012 to consolidate the skills development drive and established University Colleges in six major locations in the country to award diploma-level qualifications in new technology sectors. In addition, VTA, NAITA, the Ceylon German Technical Training Institute, etc., were assisted to expand the institutional infrastructure for them to be able to provide quality courses in the NVQ system. The Korean government assisted project funded through the KOICA was also in effect during this period to further strengthen the skills sector.

During the two decades, from 2000 – 2020, the largest ever investment in the skills sector took place for the benefit of those who seek vocational education and training in our country. Apart from young people, those with employment experience were given the opportunity to obtain certification through Recognition of Prior Learning within the NVQ system.

World Youth Skills Day

In 2014, the United Nations declared July 15 as the World Youth Skills Day on a resolution moved by the Sri Lankan Government under the leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the UN General Assembly. Since then, this day is commemorated worldwide by organizing various events related to skills promotion and the day provides inspiration to youth to acquire skills for employment.

Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour

A new era of skills development of Sri Lanka has dawned with the new Government coming into power with a vision of skilling Sri Lanka with Technocrats as spelled out in the ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ development policy framework of the present Government. It envisions enabling the workforce of Sri Lanka with skills for a technologically driven economy. The Government appointed a Presidential Taskforce to look into further reforms needed in the education sector, and the Taskforce recommended that the decade 2021 – 2030 be declared the ‘Decade of Skills Development’. The Decade of Skills Development would be built around the success of the previous achievements in the skills sector underpinned by the NVQ framework of Sri Lanka. Further, the Decade of Skills Development would take into account the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.

Continuous improvement of relevance and quality of skills training is the prime target of the skills sector. Based on the labour market behaviour and esource availability, the delivery is being rationalized to make it more focused and responsive to the needs of the industry and training seekers. There are many systems that have to work in harmony to train and certify a trainee acceptable to the industry.

Building and infrastructure, equipment, qualified trainers, quality assurance and accreditation systems, assessment and certification are the main systems and they require continuous review and improvement to stay abreast with world trends. Computer-based technologies are to be introduced where possible to improve the efficiency and accuracy of system operations.

In line with this initiative, TVET online system re-engineering is in the process where he digitalization of skills assessment system and institute registration and course accreditation processes are underway. This will make the training delivery and assessment processes user-friendly and the paperwork would be reduced to a greater extent which eventually increases the efficiency and accuracy of processes and service quality.

New initiatives for training expansion

Successive governments have highlighted how skills development can make direct contribution to economic development and change the lives of citizens for better. ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ places great emphasis on skills development and sets targets for reducing the unskilled workforce to 10 percent by 2025. The government has several strategies to achieve these targets despite the COVID pandemic and slow economic recovery. The ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ envisions a ‘One TVET’ concept where all the skills training providers will be brought into the NVQ framework so that all those who follow vocational and technical training will receive standardized and quality assured NVQs with national and international recognition. It is expected that the ‘One TVET’ will also penetrate into all livelihood and community-based training conducted in rural and semi-urban areas in the country.

Increasing enrolment of trainees for training in occupations with high labour market demand, commencing from 2021, is a prime target and additional funding has been allocated to enhance the training facilities and support students. In order to ease the economic burden of parents, it has been decided to give a stipend of Rs. 4,000 per month for trainees in NVQ certificate level courses of high labour market demand. Soft skills and entrepreneurship competencies are being included in course curricula to increase employability and quality of trainees of the skills sector.

Promotion of innovations in the training delivery and assessment processes will be given priority and thus a new mode of skills acquisition has been introduced, titled ‘Flexible Learning Mode’ (FLM) where ‘Nano Qualifications’ are awarded in ‘Narrow Skill’ areas for employed persons. This step is expected to make a significant impact in the industry sectors where thousands of workers who work without proper qualifications will have the opportunity of obtaining national qualifications.

A nationally recognized and internationally understood ‘Record of Achievement’ (RoA) will be awarded to those who qualify in units of competencies of a given training programme in the FLM. The Sri Lanka skills sector is used to provide packaged qualifications over the years in the NVQ system mostly for six months to one-year duration. Nevertheless the FLM will give the opportunity for training providers to provide module based short courses related to units of competencies on part-time basis. This will expect to give opportunities to employed persons to obtain national qualifications for the work they do in industry. As they gradually acquire RoAs over time, they will be able to secure full packaged qualifications in the NVQ framework.

Increasing the access to higher education for those qualifying the GCE Advanced Level is one of the top priorities of the government and this issue is addressed in many fronts. The Skills Development, Vocational Education, Research and Innovation Ministry is entrusted with the development of a new network of universities working in close collaboration with industry, offering employment oriented higher education leading to degree-level qualifications. It is planned to establish 10 universities in identified 10 administrative districts initially and expand the system in future.

The Sri Lanka skills sector is now focused to be responsive to the needs of the industry sectors and as well as to fulfill aspirations of the youth and employed persons. Sustained efforts of all – government, private sector training providers, industry, employees and trainees – will ensure the achievement of goals and a skilled nation.

(The writer is Acting Vice Chancellor, Ocean University of Sri Lanka)