Post-16 - South East Asian trio tackles region's vocational woes
In two years' time, 10 nations across South East Asia will become a single market with a free flow of labour and trade.
Although the move is designed to bring about economic benefits, three of the countries involved are hoping it will also reap educational improvements: Thailand, Laos and Vietnam have joined forces to create a plan for vocational education that they hope to roll out across the region.
Under the scheme, students from the three different nations will study for the same work-based qualifications, giving them a common currency when looking for jobs. Supporters hope that the initiative will eventually be embraced by all 10 members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean).
While the details of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam's ambitious joint programme are still being decided, the need for improvement in vocational education in the region is urgent. Among the countries' shared problems are the underfunding of colleges and a shortage of trained teaching staff and modern equipment. As is often the case elsewhere, too, vocational programmes are much less popular than academic options such as university.
However, specific - and worrying - issues also exist, including gang warfare among students from rival vocational colleges in Thailand. According to Duncan McCargo, professor of South East Asian politics at the University of Leeds, it is a serious problem.
"Vocational colleges have a very bad reputation," Professor McCargo said. "There are deep, football-style rivalries between different colleges, and many male students get drawn into gang warfare, with lots of street fighting and people getting stabbed and shot.
"It's hard to understand what the culture is but it goes back to the politicisation of the student population in the 1970s."
Despite these problems, vocational education in the country remained popular until relatively recently, when private investment led to a rapid expansion of the university sector, Professor McCargo said.
"Now, a staggering number of people have degrees but very few go to vocational colleges," he added. "As a result, people are either suited to basic service-level or management-level jobs. There is a huge lack of intermediate-range skills."
It is estimated that Thailand's industrial sector is experiencing a shortfall of 300,000 skilled workers.
Thailand and Laos have already been working closely together to improve work-based education, with colleges in the border areas sharing equipment and resources, as well as training students from both countries.
Nouphanh Outsa, director of Laos' department of technical and vocational education, said that promoting vocational education was a priority for his government, which had recently increased funding to the sector.
"Students in fields such as woodwork, construction, the food industry and agriculture don't need to pay tuition fees," he said. "The government also offers them monthly salaries during their studies."
But he admitted that there were still problems with poor teaching quality and equipment and the fact that too many of the brightest students took general education routes.
Dr Chaiprug Sereerak, secretary general of Thailand's office of vocational education, said that the aim ultimately should be to establish common vocational qualifications across all 10 Asean member countries.
"It sounds like a great idea in principle, but it's not going to be straightforward," Professor McCargo said. "As with many things in this region, the difficulty is how to go from a government minister signing an undertaking to it being implemented on the ground."