Turning vocational education into students’ first choice

National 4 minutes, 25 seconds

BELAIT

THOUSANDS of students across the country will take pen to paper in the upcoming weeks, as they culminate their secondary education by sitting for the O-level examinations.

The majority will set their sights on gaining entry into Brunei's growing number of sixth form centres, with the promise of an A-level certificate to unlock one’s progression to an undergraduate degree.

Globally, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) has long struggled to shake the public’s perception as a second rate pathway, taken by students unable to cut it in traditional academic curriculum.

As part of a restructuring of TVET in Brunei under the Ministry of Education, Politeknik Brunei (PB) has signalled its intent to change this perception in 2015, allowing O-level students for the first time to gain direct entry into their Level 5 diploma programmes, equivalent to Higher National Diplomas (HND) which are currently being phased out.

Acting Assistant Director of PB Alias Hj Abu Bakar said entry into PB’s HND programmes has previously been restricted to those with A-levels or National Diplomas.

“Allowing direct entry from O-levels means we have to set the bar high; applicants need at least five strong credits in relevant subjects,” said the acting assistant director.

“Direct entry is also a yardstick to see if preference has truly shifted, because these O-level students applying are those who are well qualified to continue to A-levels, but choose a Level 5 diploma instead.”

Alias explained that the Level 5 diplomas, which take three years to complete, are sandwiched between A-levels, considered to be a Level 4 qualification, and Level 6, classified as an undergraduate degree. These differ from HNDs by having an increased focus on competency-based practical skills required by the industry.

Early signs suggest the move has paid off. A total of 329 students out of PB’s fifth intake of 1,099 came directly from O-levels. To accommodate a growing number of students, PB coincided registration for their latest intake with the opening of a dedicated campus in Lumut for their School of Science and Engineering in July.

Now PB has to address the bigger, looming question: Can O-level graduates cope with a Level 5 course traditionally designed for sixth form leavers?

Speaking to several of the 112 O-level graduates studying in PB Lumut, the majority described the gap between secondary and their Level 5 diplomas as “very challenging”, but remained adamant about their decision to enrol.

“I have always preferred hands-on training over just sitting down in classes. The promise of a work attachment in the third year is also something I could not get doing A-levels,” said Science Technology student Muhd Mustaqim Azamay, who achieved nine O-level credits last year.

His coursemate Nurin Jazlina Jafry, who graduated from Paduka Seri Begawan Sultan Science College with the same amount of credits, said the Level 5 course was structured very similar to a university degree, with modules and continuous coursework assessment throughout the year.

“There is a gap between O-level and A-level, but with both you are still sitting in for subjects, instead of modules, with only one or two examinations which determine the grade on your certificate,” said the 17-year-old.

“Here it is much different. It is a much more independent learning environment, you are less spoon-fed. This is the challenge for us coming from a more comfortable background, but the bigger the challenge the more potential for growth.”

Another student undergoing Electrical and Electronic Engineering said sixth form leavers displayed an advantage in early classes, owing to a wider base of knowledge in the fundamental subjects.

“It is clear at the beginning that they have the advantage, because they do have two years more education than we do. Fortunately the course is structured in such a way that first year is general learning. It has been rewarding so far, but it is not easy,” said Ampuan Fatin Afiqah Ampuan Hj Ali Yusof.

Science Technology Lecturer Izuddin Asri said the learning process at PB integrates all students, and does not segregate based on qualifications used to gain entry.

“We do not segregate or have special classes for students from O-level or A-level background. Instead we integrate them together during the learning process, so they can learn from one another as a team in group settings when doing practical work or having discussions,” he said.

Students entering PB with only O-levels and finish with a Level 5 diploma also stand to benefit by being in a stronger position than A-level graduates looking to pursue a degree, should they choose to do so.

“Let’s say you have completed a Level 5 or HND in Civil Engineering. If you decide to take a degree in the same course, depending on the university, you may be able to progress straight into your second year.

“But even if you aren’t able to, you will acclimatise much better. You will be used to continuously being assessed with coursework, and the subject matter for the first few semesters will be much easier to understand,” he said.

Another Electrical and Electronic Engineering student, Nur Amal Asyiqin Mahmud, summed up the consensus of the group when she told The Brunei Times: “We have come to PB because we want to learn what is directly needed by the industry we want to work in. The majority of us here, we just want to be working sooner.”

The Brunei Times