What is vocational excellence? Sure, it’s about high-quality education and training, but it’s also focused on work relevance and the attractiveness of educational programs to both learners and employers.

We can also look at vocational excellence from a provider perspective and the vocational excellence providers should be fostering in their learners. Both are important.

Fostering vocational excellence in learners

This is a potentially important mission for VET providers, so what does vocational excellence look like? A 2019 paper on ResearchGate by Murari Suvedi and Ramjee Ghimire  from Michigan State University in the US describes the attributes of vocational excellence in individuals. It’s more than competence, though!

As they point out:

“It is assumed that individuals with VE [vocational excellence] have all the attributes that competent individuals have. Having knowledge about the tasks, having skills to transform that knowledge into action, and having motivation to apply those skills in real life situations make individuals competent.”

Vocational excellence requires more than technical skills, though. The so called ‘soft skills’ are really critical, this research suggests. Thus, vocational excellence requires excellence in both technical and soft skills. So, what do learners need? The authors suggest the things that make people vocationally excellent include the “ability to articulate what they are doing and interpret or explain new things and difficulties to their clients and peers.” They are communicators. They need to be able to diagnose and solve problems, be able to work in teams, and be adaptive and flexible. They can work under pressure and can “recall, comprehend, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information and knowledge.” They are professional in their approach and learn from their own actions and from those around them and have a real zeal about doing this sort of stuff.

Finally, the authors suggest that vocational excellence is not only for learning to ‘know’ and learning to ‘do’ but also for learning to ‘be’ and have a sense of their social responsibility. They are aspirational and self-initiators. “They are [also] enthusiastic about their work, enthusiastic to learn new things, and enthusiastic to fix problems. This takes things to a much higher level and is more all-embracing than CBT and training packages often allow, and:

“In summary, individuals with vocational excellence strive to attain mastery by learning things as deeply as possible, and they possess high levels of technical and social skills and continually reflect on their entrepreneurial abilities.”

VET providers and their staff play the most important role in building individuals’ vocational excellence.

So, what does a provider building vocational excellence in its students look like?

There are a range of attributes VET providers need, which work by the Learning and Skills Council on the implementation of Centres of Vocational Excellence (CoVEs) the UK in the early 2000s identified. They suggest that the following factors are of key importance in delivering vocational excellence: a clear strategic vision for the institution and each area of learning, robust quality assurance systems right across the organisation coupled with comprehensive information systems; staff involvement in change at grass roots level and a strong commitment by teaching staff to excellence. Finally, providers need a staff development ethos and the capacity to provide continuous professional development coupled with a culture of partnering with employers.

Much really depends on VET’s teachers and how they design and deliver their teaching. Promoting vocational excellence in their learners is about the passion they display as teachers. They must also be prepared to experiment and innovate in their teaching and use teaching approaches that really foster those important soft skills we talked about above. Providers and teachers need to regularly evaluate their curricula and delivery approaches too. They need to get input from industry and teaching and learning experts, past graduates, students, and employers, and then update and redesign courses as needed. That process needs a team, if not ‘the whole VET provider village’.

However, this whole process can be made difficult or relatively easier by factors outside providers’ control. Policy makers, regulators, and funding approaches and contract management, as well as the quality of the building blocks teachers have to work with – notably training packages, can all affect how readily vocational excellence can be built in learners and providers alike.

Of course, and to be fair, a lot also depends on the inherent quality of providers and their staff and the extent to which they are prepared to go that extra mile to develop vocational excellence in their learners. However, that’s a lot easier if they are not distracted by things that, in the end, really adversely affect the quality of what the best providers and their staff would like to do. It would be good if VET did a better job of assessing and recognizing students’ soft skills too.