Brunei Darussalam is planning to strengthen its technical and vocational education system by increasing the number of institutions providing training, expanding the range of courses on offer and establishing exchange programmes with neighbouring countries.
Over the past decade, the base of Brunei Darussalam’s economy has become more diversified, with less dependence on energy production, both as a result of the state’s long-term policy of developing downstream industries in the hydrocarbons sector and via the reinforcing of non-oil-and-gas segments.
Schemes such as the Brunei Methanol Company’s $450m production facility at Sungai Liang industrial park – which commenced production last year – along with other projects still in the pipeline, require trained personnel at all levels of their development, from the initial planning process through construction to the final operational stage.
As Brunei Darussalam’s economy expands, new and existing industries exploring new technologies are increasingly in need of more skilled personnel. While demand for skilled workers is growing, some observers say that vocational aspects of the education system are not keeping up.
On January 28, Ibrahim Hj Abdul Rahman, Brunei Darussalam’s acting director of schools, announced that the Ministry of Education (MoE) was considering ways of ensuring more students can obtain technical or vocational training to improve their chances of gaining employment. With a limit on the number of students the existing seven technical and vocational institutions can accept, the ministry was looking at establishing new training colleges, according to Ibrahim.
He announced the plan at a regional education conference as part of a presentation on Brunei Darussalam’s long-term plan for the development of the school system, the National Education System for the 21st Century (SPN21).
According to Ibrahim, one of the focuses of SPN21 will be bolstering the vocational and technical education system so that it better meets the needs of both students and the national economy. Students at the secondary school level who may not be suited to university will be encouraged to undertake technical or vocational studies, he said.
“In the past, technical and vocational subjects were seen as second choice as opposed to academic subjects, but not anymore,” said Ibrahim.
It is not just at the local level that steps are being taken to expand the technical and vocational education system. During a recent visit to Brunei Darussalam by Malaysia’s education minister, Tan Seri Dato’ Hj Muhyiddin Hj Mohd Yassin, the suggestion was floated that the two states discuss bilateral agreements allowing Bruneian students to undertake advanced vocational studies in Malaysia, taking advantage of the wide range of technical education facilities in that country.
Brunei Darussalam is always looking for opportunities to transfer knowledge and technology, as well as promote staff and student exchanges, Ho Mun Tai, the acting director of the Technical Education Department, said on January 26.
There is scope to improve Brunei Darussalam’s existing labour pool, certainly in the area of the manufacturing sector, Ho said in an interview with The Brunei Times, and would welcome cooperation with Malaysia, which would complement existing exchange programmes with Singapore and the Philippines.
Closer to home, the MoE is already working to increase the infrastructure for its professional training programmes, with construction beginning in late 2010 on a new $23m extension to the Institut Teknologi Brunei (ITB). When completed in 2012, blocks for petrochemicals and civil engineering, a mechanical engineering centre, lecture theatres and computer labs will all have been added.
Due to current restrictions, ITB can only induct 10 new students for its petroleum engineering degree programme and a further 10 for the chemical engineering course annually, well short of the number of graduates needed in the local labour market. With the increased capacity provided by the extensions, the institute will be able to graduate at least 40 students from its petrochemicals programme, rising to 60 by 2018.
The ministry has also approved a $12.6m upgrade of the Department of Technical Education’s Mechanical Training Centre, which will include new lecture theatres and four workshops for the automotive engineering, mechanical maintenance, vehicle body engineering and heavy construction machinery programmes.
It will take time for both the infrastructure and the new training schemes to be fully developed, but in the medium term they will help Brunei Darussalam better meet its own skilled labour demands while at the same time helping to create employment for the growing number of secondary school graduates.