Hello, Industrial Revolution 4.0

"HELLO Fourth Industrial Revolution" (4IR) by Nurul Izzah Anwar caught my eye on my way home from Tehran last week. In contrast, I had the chance to say "hello" to sustainable development at a conference. The gap between the two is daunting to say the least.

While much of what Nurul said makes sense, it is overdue. The TVET (technical vocational education and training) story is not only a sad one but misunderstood. Nurul mentioned a German programme (GDVT) in Penang. Indeed, the 4IR is all German in its origin when they advanced the notion of Industrie 4.0. The rest was history by the time Malaysia jumped onto the bandwagon following the Davos foray more recently. It became a buzzword with little appreciation of what the Germans are up to and where they are coming from. We seem to miss the context each time piggy-backing on ideas from elsewhere in the hope to emulate their success. The education sector is a minefield of such carelessness.

Let me try and illustrate where we failed in bringing TVET up to speed. It goes back to when the Ministry of Education (under the same premiership in the 1990s) introduced the concept of kolej-university or university-colleges based on a German experiment that focuses on working with industry and solving industry-based problems. The university-colleges were intended to be lean institutions (hence the name) of no more than 10,000 students dedicated to TVET, facilitated by practitioners rather than academics (or at least fewer), while "twinning" with relevant local industries – electronics being one (automotive was emerging then) and collaborating with polytechnics as feeders to the university-colleges. Headed by rectors instead of vice-chancellors, they were supposed to be nimble and flexible (less bureaucratic) so as to "dance" with industry counterparts like any business entity for mutual benefit beyond the conventional. Some were even destined to work with German counterparts. The minister then was in full control of the idea (being a former academic) when he established six university-colleges. But the ending was not a good one.

As always, when the prime minister changes and so too the minister; a new education "plan" was put forward to "create" a better system. In this case, it did not when the "kolej-universiti" concept was "expanded" to a full-fledged university, the so-called MTUN (Malaysian Technical Universities Network) of today, taking it away from what it was crafted for even before it got started in earnest. So the number of universities ballooned, creating even wider gaps to fill.

Today we are unsure where TVET will fit in since so much turbulent water has flowed under the bridge. And now that TVET has taken yet another turn in the context of sustainable development goals (SDGs) including green TVET and bio-mimicry to better shape the world that we want as per the six SDG targets, namely dignity, justice, partnership, people, planet and prosperity, the scenario is even murkier. My hunch is that the MTUNs are still groping in the dark as to what the full extent of this implies for Malaysia. To make it worse, unlike the 4IR, Malaysia has yet to embrace the SDGs – an agenda it signed in 2016. Especially given our dismal ecological record (think the frequent and more severe floods of late).

But that is another grim story for another time. For now unless all these mis-aligned acts are put together in a coherent perspective within our own context, chances are NUTP will be spot on in blowing the warning whistle. That Nurul is magnanimous enough to urge NUTP to do so loudly provides another opportunity for the TVET agenda to be presented in an appropriate "light" in line with Education 30. What with another academic helming the ministry under the same prime minister once again.

Hopefully, by then we will have an organisation that is nimble enough to dance to the TVET tempo for the sake of "new" Malaysia we desire. Lest it will be goodbye TVET.

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