AMMAN—Saif Hassan, 20, completed vocational high school last year, with a specialization in carpentry and decorating. Although he wanted to pursue an advanced degree in the same profession, he was unable to do so.
“The secondary [school] vocational education system allows students who successfully pass their final exam to enroll in the same professional field at Al-Balqa’ Applied University,” said Hassan. “But the university has recently changed its policy of accepting students and decided to reduce the number of students admitted.”
Because many Jordanians seek the prestige of attending a university instead of a vocational college, a handful of universities have selective programs for vocational students. Al-Balqa’ Applied University is the only university in Jordan that focuses on technical disciplines and allows the enrollment of vocational students who had good grades in secondary school.
But ever-changing university admission policies in Jordan, which focus mainly on the final high school examination, allow only a few vocational students to pursue an advanced degree. Government policy on vocational education has changed abruptly in recent years, discouraging students from pursuing vocational education and leaving some of them stranded.
Having been blocked from his chosen vocation, which he had already studied for three years, Hassan is now studying physics at Al al-Bayt University in Mafraq Governorate, northeast of the capital.
Although he was not admitted, Hassan was one of 414 students, including 175 women, who applied for vocational diploma courses at public universities in Jordan in the 2014 – 2015 academic year. No students enrolled in vocational courses at private universities in the same year, according to the annual statistical report on higher education in Jordan. Students can also study in a variety of shorter degree and certificate programs at one of 40 vocational colleges in the kingdom.
Many believe that ever-shifting government vocational-education policies in the kingdom are the main reason for the low enrollment of vocational students.
“The low numbers of graduates and students enrolled in the vocational professions isn’t surprising considering the lack of a clear government policy regarding the goal of this type of education and how to develop it, said Fakher Da’as, the coordinator of the National Campaign for Defending Students’ Rights. (The Arabic name of the organization, Thabahtoona, means “You are killing us.”) “Of course, we also can’t ignore the lack of mechanisms to introduce students and parents to the nature of technical education, its specialties and the opportunities it offers in the labor market,” Da’as added.
The government’s policies actually force students with lower grades into vocational education, instead of making it possible for smarter students to seek out a vocational career path. In June of last year, the ministry of education said all students who score less than 60 percent in the final exam for the first grade of secondary school should enter applied education, a type of vocational education at the secondary-school level that was supposed to last for two years. Then such students could study at technical colleges without having to take the high school exam. Students could also decide to take a final high school examination in vocational education. If they passed, they could go on to study in certain disciplines at universities, such as computer science, electrical engineering, agriculture or accounting.
The ministry believed that applied education would encourage students to enroll in vocational education, because it did not require passing the much-dreaded final high-school exam and included practical, workplace training. A month after announcing its initial decision, the ministry lowered the cut-off score for students entering applied education even more, to a grade of 50 percent on the final examination, which also reduced the number of students going into applied education, as there weren’t enough schools for them.
In June, the ministry took an even more abrupt, radical step and abolished the entire applied education system that it had created a year earlier. All students in applied education will be transferred back into the standard vocational education system, in which they have to pass the final high school exam to get into colleges or universities.
Thabahtoona believes that the decision to abolish applied education proves that Jordan’s educational policies in general and policies for vocational education in particular are falling apart. The organization says the policies are linked to official whims, disconnected from any strategy for developing education. “The official discourse calling for technical and vocational learning is nothing more than slogans and media propaganda,” said Da’as. “There is no clear vision or real achievement on the ground.”
The National Strategy for Human Resources Development for the Years 2016/2025, which was developed and adopted by the Jordanian government, has an entire chapter on technical and vocational education. The report notes that Jordan has high enrollment rates in all forms of education compared to other countries with similar average incomes. But it also notes that Jordanian families hold vocational education in low regard and that employers have not been engaged with improving vocational education so that graduates obtain workplace-relevant skills.
The report recommends a greater emphasis on practical training, expanded apprenticeship programs, connecting trainers with industry practices, creating clearer pathways to success for vocational-education students, and involving employers more in developing the vocational curriculum.
“Linking vocational education to low marks should be changed, and vocational education should be linked to labor-market needs and priorities,” said Omar Razzaz, the minister of education, at a meeting attended by King Abdullah last month to follow up on the report’s implementation.
Ahmed Awad, director of The Phoenix Center for Economic and Informatics Studies, an independent non-governmental think tank, said that “the number of vocational colleges that graduate technicians in various disciplines has decreased due to the low expenditure on vocational training and low-performing students, especially since most of the students admitted are not distinguished.”
The students graduating from universities in vocational disciplines do not meet the needs of employers, Awad said. “There are more than one million expatriate workers in the kingdom working in the vocational sector. This means there are jobs in the market that are not occupied by Jordanians.”
A 2011 study by the International Finance Corporation and the Islamic Development Bank found that only 10 percent of Jordan’s employers were satisfied with the technical skills of professional vocational graduates, while only 16 percent of them were satisfied with their “soft skills,” such as the ability to communicate. In the same year, employers’ satisfaction in Saudi Arabia was triple those rates.
Da’as and Awad agree with many others that the government’s good intentions, plans and strategies to develop vocational education are not enough, and that action must be taken to achieve the desired development.
“The student is the only one who pays the price of the confused governmental plans,” said Da’as. “That must be changed.”