Edited by Richard G. Bagnall, (The Asia-South Pacific Bureau of Adult Education, 2003).
Review: NZ Journal of Adult Learning. 32/1 May 2004, p.78-79.
One of the hardest questions that advanced education is facing is its role in vocational training.
As it gargantuan appetite for funds began absorbing an increasing proportion of national output, some educationalists seized upon the thesis that education contributes to economic growth so an the investment in it would pay for itself. This is so well accepted, that to say that the thesis is a hypothesis with little empirical underpinning would leave many educationalists puzzled (although one might add that this is true for most statement about economic growth – it is surprising how little we know about the causes of economic growth: most expressed certainties are hypotheses). The most extremist version of this view is that public education is only about contributing to economic growth, a position which largely drove New Zealand’s tertiary education reforms of the early nineties, and from which the system is still recovering. But the view that commerce and growth is central to education is now so widespread that it is rarely challenged.
Sometimes the resulting conclusions are unacceptable. Consider adult literacy programs. We
might readily justify them by arguing that literate workers are more productive, but the
implication is that we should not then bother about the illiteracy of anyone who will never get a
job (say in post-retirement). Arguments that their literacy might add to economic capacity,
involve tortuous logic. And they are irrelevant. Being literate – having access to the world of
writing – is good in itself. Literacy programs may have the happy collateral consequence that
some of the beneficiaries also get better jobs, but the primary benefit is not there.
The danger of going down the commercial road is that public funding may be restricted to where
commercial benefits occur, or – as in the case of New Zealand’s current tertiary system – there
may be a bias towards commercial benefits at the cost of education. Thus it is with some
apprehension that one reads Enhancing Income Generation Through Adult Education, A
Comparative Study, with its concern of enhancing income generation (especially Vocational
Education and Training — VET) via the nonformal adult education sector. (Richard Bagnall,
professor of in the School of Vocational, Technology and Arts Education at Griffith University)
and the editor of the book, defines it as ‘educational provision and engagements that are intended, designed , managed and evaluated particularly for adults and that are outside the mainstream of formal credit educational provision’. In Australia, he notes, it is called Adult and Community Education.)
The book is a cross-country study with chapters on Fiji (Joseph Veramu), India (Vandana
Chakrabarti), the Philippines (Rachel Aquino-Elogada) and Thailand (Wisaner Siltragool) as well
as Australia (Bagnall) based on a papers given at meetings in 1998 and 1999. The book well
illustrates the diversity of institutional arrangements which make up nonformal education in
different countries. What it does not do is contrast its role between societies in which there is
mass tertiary education and those where it (and perhaps secondary education) is still only
available to minorities. In the latter, VET is an understandable focus, but where there is mass
tertiary education – as in Australia and New Zealand – the role of ACE is presumably different.
Of course there are groups in Australasia who have poor access to the formal sector, but they are
relatively small, and it is not obvious that the nonformal sector should be dominated by their
Bagnall hardly makes this distinction, and writes as though VET has no impact on the other
activities of the nonformal sector in Australia. Implicitly he alludes to it. There is a concern at the
‘general failure of [the Australian] VET reforms to give adequate (or often any) recognition to
indigenous knowledge systems.’ Well yes, but if the knowledge was vocationally relevant it
would become a part of the commercial knowledge system. He talks about the ‘tendency to over-
promote the potential of either VET of nonformal education to be an effective instrument of
cultural change.’ One would not expect that of a VET driven nonformal system, if it’s primary
purpose is vocational training. Since when did business consciously want to promote cultural
change (especially in the direction which most in the nonformal system desire)?
The book then provides useful summaries of the non-formal educational system in some of the
poorer countries of the wider region, but it fails to reflect sufficiently on the significance of the
impact of vocational training objectives in the richer ones. It shows it has a role, but questions
about the total role, and the extent to which a well funded sub-role distorts that totality are hardly