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Midweek Review

Making vocational training an impressive choice

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By Dr. Ajith Polwatte

Globally, a significant number of young persons choose vocational and technical training so as in Sri Lanka as the way for developing a livelihood for their life. At the same time, the Government and non-governmental organizations trying hard to increase the enrollments for such training using range of methods, including media and other promotional programmes. This article presents some of the important things which the responsible agencies can adopt to make vocational training an impressive choice for youngsters as well as adults for them to be able to develop a livelihood.

Vocational training is referred to as training of persons for specific occupations in the industry. In Sri Lanka, with the inception of National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) system, the vocational training system has improved significantly nevertheless, due to number of reasons, still it is not impressive enough to be an alternative choice for youngsters. They still view vocational training as “inferior” product to other educational choices thus as said before, responsible agencies in vocational training sector are compelled to spend resources to promote vocational training.

There are several things which would help making vocational training a good choice for young persons. If a vocational training system lacks the factors discuss in this article, people say the system is inferior thus cannot be trusted as a pathway for life success. Let us discuss those factors which would determine choosing a vocational training program a better choice as discussed below.

Demand-driven courses

* Training centres with right number of courses and students to reflect good image

* Use of modern technology in teaching

* Up to date technology with appropriate level of digitalization

* Qualified, competent and committed Teacher / Trainers

* Attractive learning environment

* Merit-based enrollment

* Opportunities for extra-curricula activities

 

Demand-driven Courses

The term demand-driven is a bit familiar term in vocational training system of Sri Lanka (especially after inception of NVQ system) however, those who involve in training management need to understand the real meaning of the term. The “demands” are the work requirements or the expectations of the employers in the industry. In other words, it is what the work setup expects from the workers to do. The workers are supposed to fulfil those expectations thus the training centres need to train own trainees in such a way that they would be able to fulfil those expectations. Then such courses are titled as “demand-driven” courses.

Due to internal as well as external pressure factors, not all courses run by training centres are demand-driven. Internal factors include staff issues, available equipment and buildings, etc., whereas external factors include needs of the general public, opinions of influential persons, etc., which are referred to as “social demands”. Especially, the public sector training centres tend to deliver “social demand-driven courses” due to the said pressure factors. Social-demand driven courses not always ensure employment but real industry-demand driven courses ensure employment within or outside of the country. The outcome of vocational training should be a gainful employment and earnings thereof thus when youngsters making choices one of the key determinants would be the assurance of an employment upon completion of training. Designing of courses thus shall be based on industry needs rather than social needs. Therefore, it is better making all the vocational training courses “industry-demand-driven” towards the march for a better vocational training system.

 

Training centres with right number of courses and students to reflect good image

There is a proverb called “small is beautiful”. Though there is a perceived truth behind this proverb, the vocational training setup has exceptions. When a training centre provides 1-2 courses, there would be no room for social interaction thus the centre becomes an unattractive and monotonous place for the trainees. Also, the unit cost of training increases as few numbers of trainees are trained. Whereas if a centre is able to provide around 10 courses instead of few courses it can get “economies of scale” thus unit cost of a trainee decreases. As large numbers of trainees are trained, social interaction increases which makes the training centre a livable and attractive place to general public. Most people love to be part of “big places” than “small places”. Big places mostly have opportunities for extra curricula activities than small places which makes a significant impact to people’s minds in making choices. Therefore, those responsible for vocational training better start thinking about “big centres” than smaller centres for the way towards a better training system. On the other hand, school leavers, for number of years in schools, used to be in a spacious environment with room for extra-curricular activities admire and expect similar environment in vocational training centres as well.

 

Use of modern technology in teaching

Use of face-to-face and “chalk’n talk” method of teaching in vocational training is no longer an attractive method for youth of 21st century. Modern teaching is based on mix method of internet, audio and video, simulations etc. In vocational training, mostly it should be based on practical approach than classroom-based teaching approach. Successful application of competencies at work is the hallmark of vocational training. Practical abilities matter at work which are supported by related knowledge thus teaching methods need to be improved to make vocational training impressive for the youth. Scholars A. Michael and K. Marinos (2018) of CityUnity College / Cardiff Metropolitan University, Larnaca-Aradippou, Cyprus discusses the value of using a combine teaching methods by considering class-dynamics and students’ personal learning style with in-class activities supported by modern audio-visual means as a positive factor to be able to stimulate vocational centre students’ learning appetite. Thus it is necessary to innovate modern approaches to teaching at vocational training centres of our country.

 

Up to date technology with appropriate level of digitalization

In Sri Lanka vocational training setup, use of up to date technology and application of digital methods in training and assessments is at lower level compared with developed countries. In training, as said before, ICT and online methods with mix modes need to be adopted. In assessments, it takes place as formative and summative throughout the course duration. Formative assessment are done on continuous basis by the teachers and the summative assessments are done by the certification body when national certificates are issued. During both of these assessment methods, it is better if online assessment tools be used where applicable. For formative assessment, one example may be the use of “Blogs” where students discuss and talk around an issue on internet-based Blog which the teachers monitor and give marks which are considered for pass marks. Blogs can be made social-media compatible so that with less cost students can access such assessment tools with lots of interest. These kind of modern assessment methods add value to vocational training setup. Designing Question Banks (Q-Banks) for summative assessments and releasing part of the Q-Bank to common practice (using mobile phones) may energize students to learn with enthusiasm.

 

Qualified, competent and committed Teachers/Trainers

Teaching is considered to be a noble profession which demands capacity in terms of knowledge and dedication. Also being updated with new development is mostly matter for teachers as knowledge is accessible via internet in modern world. Those who join teaching profession due to the fact that there are no other jobs make teaching at vocational training setup very unattractive. It is better industry practitioners in relevant trades could be brought in to the training centres and if vocational teachers could be sent to industry for exposures which would definitely increase of the quality of vocational teachers. Subject matter training and training-method training matter equally to be a good teacher. Vocational teachers are the first party who interact with students thus good teachers make good vocational training centres. Providing at least once-a-year industry exposure would increase capacity of a teacher to be able to teach well in the centre.

 

Attractive learning environment

Quality of vocational training mostly determines by the quality of learning environment. Quality of learning environment makes mainly the teaching and use of machinery, equipment and tools in teaching. In Competency based Training (CBT) introduced with the inception of the NVQ system tried to create a learning environment similar to what is prevailed in the industry. Thus the CBT method has been able to make a difference in the vocational training setup nevertheless it is still argued that there is a mismatch of technology being used in the centre and that prevails in the industry.

Due to several constraints, training administrators find it difficult to update training centres with new equipment. Nevertheless it is a good idea to be in par with the industry in the quest towards a better and impressive training setup.

 

Merit-based enrollment

Enrollment of a vocational training centre is such an important activity where the centre brings “inputs” to make “outputs” at the end of a training course. If a centre selects wrong “inputs” obviously the centre ends up with wrong “outputs”. Therefore, at the enrollment, the centre needs to select the most suitable, capable, committed and creative set of students who would follow the course up to the end. Therefore, a merit-based enrollment scheme is necessary with selection tests and interviews being held to select the best set of students. Then the training centre would be able to give the industry a good output of skilled persons who can actually work successfully.

 

Opportunities for extra-curricular activities

One of the things which make a good vocational training centre is the availability of room and space for extra-curricular activities i.e leisure sports, aesthetic activities, leadership and team building activities, literature, drama and arts activities etc. Training centre need to be large enough in terms of trainees to be able to build teams for these activities. Such social activities make training-life of students enjoyable which may have positive impact for proper learning at the centre. Extra-curricular activities inculcate soft-skills among trainees and training administrators better develop a system to recognize those soft skills for final pass marks.

The factors discussed above and the other positive things would contribute in different magnitude towards making vocational training centres impressive for the youth as well as for adults which encourage them to join vocational training centres. With these attributes in effect, people tend to see vocational training an impressive alternative pathway to learn vocations for life success.

 

 



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Midweek Review

Vaccine confusion: Do European leaders have ‘blood on their hands’?

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AztraZeneca

By Dr Upul
Wijayawardhana

No doubt, there are many necessary evils in life! Powerful nations, that try to solve other’s problems by force, say that war is a necessary evil. I am not too sure about that but one thing I am sure is that ‘Pharmaceutical giants’ are a necessary evil. The billions they spend on research lead to new drug discoveries which benefit all and we are bound to have shorter lives without their products. But, again, not all can afford unless there is a subsidised health service. The problem with most of these companies is that they too suffer from extreme greed, a trait they share with all other ventures in the capitalist society we live in. It is unfortunate, they forget that they are in a business that needs a touch of compassion and do their utmost to maximise profits. They use devious means to incentivise doctors, pharmacists and other health care professionals to use, sometimes misuse, their products. Many have been caught for unethical practices and it is only strong legislations, more effective in some countries than others, that keep them in check.

The greatest medical challenge of our lifetime, the Covid-19 pandemic, gave the pharmaceutical industry an ideal opportunity to gain respectability. In fact, AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical and biotechnology company with its headquarters in Cambridge, led the way. Very early in the epidemic, they announced that the vaccine in development by the research team in Oxford led by Prof Sarah Gilbert, if clinical trials proved successful, would be manufactured and sold by them without profit. If the trials failed, they would have lost millions of Pounds. Perhaps, they expected others to follow but what happened was just the opposite! With the help of some European leaders, who did their utmost to slur the Oxford AZ vaccine, the other two major players in the ‘vaccine game’ Pfizer and Modena are dancing their way to the bank! According to the latest figures, though AstraZeneca has trebled its Covid vaccine sales to $894m in the second quarter of 2021 when compared with the first, Pfizer, the American group has raised its full year forecast for the sales of its vaccine to $33.5bn! This may well be an underestimate as it was reported on 1st August that the EU has agreed to pay $23 instead of $18 for the Pfizer vaccine and $25 instead of $22 for the Moderna jab.

What is of grave concern to us are the rumours circulating in financial circles that AstraZeneca may well stop marketing vaccines altogether and concentrate on other parts of its business, which are very profitable, though the original plan was to continue in the vaccine business, selling at a profit once the epidemic was over. A leading financial analyst has commented: “AstraZeneca might have expected to have earned the world’s gratitude for its not-for-profit stance. Instead, concerns about the vaccine’s safety stubbornly persist, hampering the take-up in parts of the world that should have benefitted the most.”

The confusions about Oxford AZ vaccine persist mainly because of the actions of EU leaders, as well stated by the British journalist Steve Bird, in his post in ‘The Telegraph’ titled “The vindication of AstraZeneca: A vaccine trashed by Macron, politicised by Europe but quietly saving lives across the world” wherein he states “Some are even suggesting European leaders have “blood on their hands” for creating confusion and mixed messages, often about claims or rumours that turned out to be unfounded.”

Steve Bird’s post is interesting reading (https://uk.news.yahoo.com/vindication-astrazeneca-vaccine-trashed-macron-091900030.html) which starts as follows:

“Sitting in the Royal Box on Centre Court on the first day of Wimbledon this summer, Dame Sarah Gilbert appeared a little uncomfortable as tennis fans gave her a standing ovation. Many of the crowd in SW18 that day had themselves received the AstraZeneca vaccine that Professor Gilbert and her team helped to develop. As they rose to their feet applauding, most knew her research at Oxford University in conjunction with the British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant had helped free the UK from the grip of the Covid lockdown. While the audience recognised the achievements of her and her colleagues, some heads of state have found it politically expedient to be anything but complimentary about the first low-cost and not-for-profit vaccine.”

In January, President Emmanuel Macron stated at a specially convened press conference that the AstraZeneca vaccine was “quasi-ineffective for over-65s”, adding that “it doesn’t work the way we were expecting it to”. A few hours later the EU regulator approved it for all adults!

Ridiculing the UK’s strategy of spacing out the first and second doses, to try to maximise the number of people who have one jab and some degree of immunity, Macron went on to say “The goal is not to have the biggest number of first injections. it is a ‘lie’ to tell people they were vaccinated if they had had the first dose of a vaccine that is made up of two”.

It was exactly a year since the UK had left the European Union, and Macron may well have been displaying his jealousy towards Britain’s vaccine programme. Perhaps, he may have had a more sinister motive, as Angela Merkel too joined later criticising and limiting the use of the Oxford AZ vaccine. Interestingly, she took the first dose of the same vaccine later! However, for the second dose she took the Moderna vaccine though there was no scientific basis for such an action. Perhaps, she wanted to impress that Oxford AZ vaccine is inferior to Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and took Moderna as second dose, as she did not want to make it too obvious that she was promoting the Pfizer vaccine, developed by a German Biotech company! There are many who sing hosannas to Merkel but the question arises whether she and Macron are doing a great disservice to the many poor nations in the world.

Whilst restricting use, EU banned the export of Oxford AZ vaccine and introduced a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland to ensure this, an action which took the Prime Ministers of the UK and Ireland by surprise! Even today, British citizens who have had successful vaccinations with the Oxford AZ vaccine, manufactured in India, are not allowed entry to EU. I did not care to check whether the jabs I received were made in India as I do not wish to visit the EU, as long as it persists with such pig-headed notions. Afterall, Serum Institute of India is one of the largest manufacturers of vaccines in the world!

EU leaders harped on blood clots as a complication of AZ vaccine but new research has shown this was an exaggeration. A team of researchers from Spain, the UK and the Netherlands compared data from more than 1.3million people and concluded that those who had the AZ jab developed blood clots at the same rate as those who had the far more expensive Pfizer jab. More importantly, they found people who had Covid-19 developed blood clots at a far higher rate than those who received neither vaccine.

By the actions of the EU led by Merkel and Macron, by ‘politicisation’ of a low-cost, easily stored vaccine, it would be the poor countries that would suffer if the rumours circulating prove to be correct. It was announced recently that a billion doses of the Oxford AZ vaccine had been sent to 170 countries. Most developing countries would be bankrupt if they are forced to pay for significantly more expensive vaccines.

Prof. Gilbert’s team is already at work, among others, developing vaccines to combat variants and if they become prohibitively expensive, the only option left to poor countries would be to let the disease spread till herd immunity develops, sacrificing millions of lives in the process.

Let us hope AstraZeneka remains undeterred by the unfair treatment meted out by some misguided politicians and extend its noble gesture.

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Midweek Review

Everything non-inorganic is not organic

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By Chandrasena Maliyadde

The government has decided to convert the entire agriculture production from non-organic into organic. The President has declared that Sri Lanka is the first country to achieve 100 percent organic in farming. Genuine experts and practitioners have questioned the feasibility of this project. Pseudo experts are full of praise for it.

Farmers and smallholders who are not experts have to bear the brunt of the project. They experience shortages of fertiliser and are confused. They claim that during the previous election, politicians promised ‘more’ fertiliser free. But politicians claim that they did not promise chemical fertiliser.

We have been witnessing on electronic, print and social media, seminars, webinars, dialogues, debates, explanations, arguments, counter arguments, protests, rallies on the changeover to organic farming. Nobody speaks against organic farming. Experts, practitioners, farmers, researchers, extension workers are all supportive of it.

There is no single, universally accepted definition of organic food or organic farming. Organic farming is, in general, expected to conserve biodiversity, recycle resources on the farm, and bring about ecological balance. Withdrawal of inorganic inputs is not organic farming by any definition. The government has not declared a clear policy, programme or a formula on the use of organic matters to define what is permitted on an organic farm and what is not.

The changeover from inorganic farming to organic farming is time-consuming (takes three or more years) and expensive. Converting the entire country, at a prohibitive cost, is nearly impractical. There are no competent agencies and personnel to prove the farm is meeting organic standards. No specific standards and formula applicable to different crops and different stages of growth of a plant have been laid down. During the conversion the farmer incurs losses due to non-availability of any type of fertiliser, which in turn causes a decline in yield.

Organic farming is more labour-intensive; the tasks of weeding and applying tons of compost are done manually. Sri Lankan agriculture is characterised by a shortage of labour. As a result, farmers would have greater costs without a proportionate increase in yield. The farmer runs the risk of losing crops due to pests and disease that cannot be dealt with by organic methods. Organic pesticides are less effective and not necessarily trouble-free; they can be harmful to the environment and human health.

The density and dispersion of population have drastically changed from the Parakramabahu era to date. Land which was exclusively available for farming has been encroached upon by many other competing needs. Inorganic farm practices and materials were found and promoted to ensure the food security of a growing population worldwide and to overcome the non-availability of adequate farm land. The current farming practices and materials are results of extensive and lengthy scientific research. A suddent replacement of scientifically proven practices with alternatives does more harm than good.

According to findings of soil and agriculture scientists the top soil in many parts of the country especially in the hill country is eroded. Hence the enrichment of soil has become a priority. It has to be done through organic material. Agriculture extension services have failed to educate farmers on such soil enrichment practices. The farmer does not have access to research findings, technology, inputs and new knowledge, reflecting the failure of extension services. He chooses the type of fertiliser and the dosage according to his understanding instead of recommendations by agencies responsible. The government’s decision to ban imports and use of chemical fertiliser is tantamount to penalizing the farmer for the failure of officials.

In 1970s and 1980s food security took precedence over food safety. With population increase successive governments and agriculture authorities came under pressure to ensure food security. The Agriculture Department was busy with studies and research to develop high yielding seeds and planting materials, and effective fertiliser application. These measures were basically non-organic. The Department had been propagating, and promoting these practices until the day before the President announced banning of non-organic farming.

Consumer taste, preference, habits and affordability have changed over time. Many different varieties of agriculture products were produced in response to such changes. Production methods, inputs and cost have changed. The emphasis was on improving yield, productivity and cost efficiency. Scientifically researched and tested chemical fertiliser have come forth to answer plant needs and consumer needs. The farmer cannot decide what type and ratio of fertiliser is required for different plants at different stages. It is a science and experts have to make such decisions.

Sri Lanka has been exporting several agriculture crops. They all use nonorganic fertiliser, weedicide and pesticide. Use of non-organic material has not been an issue for the volume or the price of exports.

Attempts to produce export crops through organic farming will cause their quality to drop. On the other hand, some export crops are not edible, rubber and foliage for example. The said health hazards are not applicable as regards such products. Economic loss will be much higher than whatever the gain.

Chemical contamination doesn’t happen only in the field alone. Most food is processed before they are consumed. Unprocessed organic food undergoes processing, packaging, storage, and transport. They interact with chemicals such as preservatives, processing aids, additives, packaging material and fuel. What is produced on the farm organically reach the plate after much chemical interaction.

Sri Lanka never had a properly laid down Agriculture Policy. We did not have a direction; road map, adequate resources, right technology, right raw material and inputs with a policy and a programme. Our agriculture sector is disorganised. It moved from peasant to commercial farmer and many different actors in between. Our agriculture value chain is so unique. In addition to passing through varying actors, from farmer to the end consumer, it involves the President, ministers, and officials as well. The value chain is so fragmented; links are scattered or piled up in heaps. Pre-harvest actors and post-harvest actors never see eye to eye.

Some farmers who were in dire situations due to the inability to repay loans committed suicide. They are conducting streets protesting against the non-availability of fertiliser.

The government will be praised for the noble thought, but blamed for bad implementation.

The changeover from inorganic to organic is welcome, but has to be done in a systematic, scientific manner based on research and lessons learnt rather than rhetoric and emotion.

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Midweek Review

The Begging Option

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By Lynn Ockersz

 

Solitary, skeletal and grim-faced,

He remains in his car park vigil,

Though it’s some time since night set in,

But the money he’s been cadging,

From shoppers brushing past him,

Falls well short of what he needs,

For, his hearth’s flames,

Must be prevented from dying,

And bills that need to be paid,

Are dangerously piling-up,

But the sharpest pain within him,

Comes on his recognizing,

That he’s masking his true identity,

By getting into this act of begging;

For, he is a state sector retiree,

Who has been pushed into the streets,

By a pension that’s been steadily thinning,

But not so long ago he worked honestly for a living.

 

 

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