By Ivar Frønes, professor at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo
Norwegian politicians tell us that the future is secure thanks to the country’s large number of graduates – which is clearly considered to be synonymous with a high level of competence. Studies tell us that most people believe that their vocational competence stems from on-the-job learning, but statistics on high competence are based on the period spent at educational institutions.
This is perhaps a relic of a bourgeois society, a time when such higher education belonged to the realm of the elite, and a cand.mag. degree was an indicator of elite status. In the high skills society, bachelor’s or cand. mag. degrees are, not surprisingly, relatively valueless, and grade inflation does nothing to enhance general competence.
Formal or real?
That formal education does not reflect level of competence can be illustrated by the categorisation of electrical engineering as a “low competence” vocational subject in the statistics, i.e. upper secondary level, despite the continuous upgrading of this type of competence throughout a changeable vocational career.
On the other hand, a poor bachelor’s degree with an unclear composition of subjects will forever be classed as “higher education”.
Education constitutes an important certification and basis for competence development. However, a newly graduated academic is not a researcher; he or she is a recruit embarking on real competence development. Some people claim that an academic degree is important because it develops the capacity for abstract thinking and the ability to “learn to learn”, but as we know, it is fully possible to spend a long period at a place of higher education without honing one’s ability to learn.
Education as a test of learning is a matter of sorting the able from the less able. The quality of teacher training in Finland, for example, is partly based on keen competition for places and on candidate selection.
Theory and practice
Behind the notion that a high level of competence has its roots in the classroom lies a misconception about the relationship between theory and practice. A theory is a model for how something relates to something else; when a school requires its students to do history homework and read literature, it does not mean that the school is “theoretical”. When general subjects at upper secondary level are described as “heavily theoretical”, vocational subjects become “practically oriented”, which is particularly suited to students who are “weak on theory”.
Vocational subjects probably contain more theory than general subjects. In his book “Wise hands”, Mattias Tesfaye illustrates how bricklayers looking at a wall see beyond what others see – their practical experience has created theoretical understanding. Without that understanding, i.e. theory, the brick arch collapses.
The education sector’s categories of “theory” and “practice” not only denigrate vocational subjects, but also represent a basic misconception of the relationship between theory and practice. Theory points towards practice and builds on practice. This applies to art, science, handicrafts, innovation, entrepreneurship, journalism and management.
Courses in management for 23-year-olds who have never been outside a library reading room are not only pointless, it is an illustration to the misconception of the relationship between theory and praxis.
In the high skills society, Norway is not merely facing the challenge of some young people leaving school almost functionally illiterate; in societies that are characterised by change and long careers, it is not surprising that “lifelong learning” is an OECD’s mantra. This means that employees’ competence development must be systematised during their working lives. Innovation may be based on creativity, but needs to be embedded in practice.
It is no coincidence that students of technical general studies do well when training to be engineers, and a craft certificate ensures that they have a basis for theoretical understanding. Technical general subjects should be seen as “lead subjects” in the educational policy of the skills society.
Work experience is important for professional programmes of study, not only to be able to gain practice, but to develop an understanding of theory – further education in combination with practice is often better for developing competence than increasing the number of years of basic education.
In many situations there is a conflict between general competence and formal competence – this often differs between generations. The solution to this dilemma lies in establishing systems for translating between real and formal competence. In many vocational contexts, as at universities, this is resolved using hierarchies of formal levels of competence that are achieved according to assessment. For lifelong learning, this type of translation is a necessary part of competence development over a long career.
The education community’s tendency to see competence as synonymous with length of education creates bureaucratisation and hierarchies, and can undermine the strength of the Nordic labour market: competence and independence at ground level. “The skilled society” rests on promoting competence in working life.
The efforts to improve educational systems are significant, but advanced competence and innovation are developed through the learning life of the workplace.