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Policy transfer and policy learning in VET. Can we export education and skills formation systems?

Why do “education imports” from other countries have little chance of success? To know more (and to find out what to do instead), read this in-depth analysis starting from concrete case studies.

Policy transfer and policy learning in VET. Can we export education and skills formation systems?

Comparative education research has highlighted the role of institutions and of cultural context for the emergence of differences in education and skills formation systems. Adult education is conditioned by the broader economic, social, and cultural systems in which it is embedded. The same is true for VET systems. The underlying theoretical assumption (Varieties of Capitalism) is that institutions unfold their effects only in combination with other institutions and these country-specific “institutional packages” complement one another (initial education and training system, adult learning system, labour market and welfare institutions, industrial relations). This has implications when talking about policy transfer in education and training. “Education imports” from other countries have little chance of success, regardless of noble policy objectives, and no matter how hard policymakers at European, national or regional level are trying.

A striking example is the tireless efforts made for nearly 40 years to “export” the German dual system of VET to other countries. This dual model provides qualitative apprenticeship training and high skill levels that enables smooth transitions from education to work. It's regarded as a success model; it contributes to low youth unemployment rates and is vital for Germany´s competitiveness.

A policy transfer of the German dual system was last attempted during the peak of the financial crisis in Europe. Hard austerity measures had been enforced in the European South (Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy); consequently, youth unemployment and NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) rates in these countries sky rocketed. At the same time, skills shortages in Germany became evident. As a result, the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research launched the initiative Berufsbildungsexport aus einer Hand - BMBF.  In December 2012, Germany signed a Memorandum for Enhanced Cooperation in Vocational Education and Training with Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Slovakia, and Latvia with the aim to introduce VET forms based on the German dual system and enhance mobility from these countries to Germany. This was part of several initiatives launched by the European Commission at the time to combat youth unemployment and to promote dual elements in the vocational training systems of European countries. These initiatives included the Commission´s  Communication on Rethinking Education, with a focus on work-based training, the European Council's Recommendation on the introduction of a Youth Guarantee and the European Alliance for Apprenticeships launched in July 2013.

What do these concerted actions bring to countries? Do they have a chance of success?

Let’s take a closer look at Greece, which can serve as a case study for policy transfer in VET and seems to be a particularly interesting example. On the one hand, the country’s prevailing educational tradition favours general, academically oriented education. On the other hand, it has been affected by the crisis in almost all aspects of the economic, political, social, and institutional spheres and had to implement reforms in all of these areas, including education.

Cultural aspects are of relevance for understanding a (vocational) education system: in Greece, paideia (παιδεία), ekpaideusi (εκπαίδευση) and katartisi (κατάρτιση) are the three terms related to education. The term paideia stands for enlightenment, receptivity to the “beautiful and good” (ωραίον και αγαθόν), and characterises the citizen (πολίτης) as the result of a long process of education and cultural development. The term ekpaideusi can be translated to education. It takes place in educational institutions, with the aim to impart knowledge and to develop personality during childhood as well as in youth and adulthood. Finally, the term katartisi stands for vocational qualification, it includes knowledge, skills, and competences for utilisation in the labour market. In the traditional understanding, academic education is related to paideia, to democratic values and cultural goals, it is seen as a path to self-knowledge and self-development. While academic education is highly valued, vocational training (katartisi) that provides skills for the labour market is often met with scepticism as it “instrumentalises” education. The conceptual differentiation between education and training can be traced back to ancient Greece, to the dichotomy between mind and body, theory and practice, universality and particularity. This dichotomy can partly explain the low standing of vocational education and training. In the Greek educational tradition, VET is associated with strenuous physical work, while VET programmes are more likely to be considered as an option for low achievers. The lack of appreciation for vocational training in Greece also has economic reasons: after the Second World War and for many decades, university graduates had significantly better opportunities to enter the labour market and the social security system, which further increased the demand for academic education and led to educational expansion.

Besides cultural aspects, institutions are also crucial for policy transfer. In the case of VET policy transfer, these are institutions that shape the acquisition of qualifications and competences (education and training system) and influence the conditions of skills use (labour market and social security arrangements). Vocational education and training in Greece, like the entire education system, is state-centred and contains only a few elements of decentralised control. In the German VET system, the involvement of social partners is crucial, apprenticeship training is a shared responsibility between the state and the social partners based on consensus. This leads to a high level of acceptance of VET by all stakeholders and ensures the trustworthiness of vocational certificates. In Greece, employers' and workers' organisations have only recently discovered VET as a policy field. Further, the social security system in Germany is primarily geared to an occupationally oriented employment system with permanent employment and full-time work; dual VET with apprenticeship training enables social security in this system. The Greek social security system, in turn, is geared towards an internal labour market in which general or academic education promises easier access, the highest occupational status, and sufficient social security, at least until before the crisis. Moreover, the large number of micro-enterprises with up to nine employees and the highest rate of self-employment in the EU (32 per cent compared to the EU average of 14 per cent) as well as high numbers of precarious jobs and undeclared work are conditions obstructing the broad implementation of apprenticeship training. In addition, the crisis has worsened labour law protection. At the insistence of international creditors, Greece has deregulated the labour market and undermined collective bargaining autonomy. A culture of trust and cooperation between social partners under these conditions was not possible. Implementing dual training in a fragmented labour market characterised by precarious and flexible employment relationships is a risky, if not hopeless task. Furthermore, it was extremely difficult to create apprenticeships in an economy that was not only stagnating but had shrunk by more than 25% within seven years.

The European initiatives on Apprenticeship Training and the German-Greek cooperation in VET led to an inflationary adoption of laws and regulations, some of which even contradicted each other. Within eight months (2016-2017) 23 legal provisions on VET had been adopted. Since then, most have been abandoned or have never been implemented. At the same time, binational Greek-German pilot projects aiming to introduce dual VET in certain sectors (e.g., tourism) demonstrated limited success.  

Clearly, all these efforts haven’t led to the anticipated results of a successful policy transfer of the dual system. Transferred elements must be able to connect to existing cultural traditions, discourses, institutional and structural conditions.

However, even a disappointing policy transfer can lead to promising policy learning.

At the German Federal Education Ministry, the funding initiative "Berufsbildungsexport" (VET export) has been terminated, the funding initiative successor is now called Internationalisation of VET. The term “export” has been abandoned. Moreover, together with countries which also have a dual system (Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Denmark), Germany has launched an “Apprenticeship Toolbox” to provide support for decision-makers who want to implement the key principles of dual apprenticeship schemes. The expectations have been lowered, we are now talking about transferring principles and elements and not about exporting a system.

To quote Max Planck: “Science makes progress funeral by funeral.” Obviously, this applies not only to science.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels

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