ECER 2005 Proceedings
VETNET Research Forum
Setting the European VET research agenda
Back to
Plenary discussion

Nicholas Boreham
Now I would like to open the debate to the floor to encourage colleagues to explore the points that have been made. Again, I would like to remind you that the topic is "setting the European VET research agenda", and that by examining the Maastricht study, we have obtained some very interesting suggestions concerning this agenda. Quite obviously the European Commission has featured prominently in the presentations we have heard. The Commission themselves don't seem to see a problem. The Commission's view of the world is that their policies will achieve the economic goal of increased competitiveness and therefore wealth, and at the same time achieve the social goal of greater cohesion. This is the fundamental reason why they can't see a problem in asking the VET community to take our research agenda from their model of the future development of Europe. 
    But can we be so confident? If you think back to the presentation by James Wickham in this room at the start of the VETNET programme, you will remember that he analyzed the European social model and the role of the VET system as the supporter of that model. James' writings on the European social model question whether it is sustainable, whether we can achieve both social cohesion and economic competitiveness on the basis of the policies which the European Commission is currently following. And there’s another thing that worries me - if you take your research agenda from the European Commission’s view of the world, then it leads you towards a deficit model of vocational education and training. It leads you into the closing of skills gaps between European industry and its global competitors. I don't hear a great deal about the nurturing of human potential in the research agenda which the Commission's point of view directs us towards.

Martin Mulder
Thank you very much for the presentation and the discussion kick-off. I have two or three comments. The first is a question: how is VET doing? We heard about that from Anneke and Tom, but I have a question about that. I don't think there are good indicators to assess the contribution of VET to the Lisbon goals, nor to the general employment and mobility goals etc. I think we need to do a lot more in that respect.
    The second thing is that there is a very big gap between what is going on in Brussels and at the longer level, all these European policy making processes etc and principles. We have a lot of them: we have the exchange programmes, the European CV, the EuroPass, the EQF, the European qualification framework, credit transfer, we have now added recently the sector approach. But what does it mean in practice, in a school, in a local community? I see a big gap between these levels, the European, the national, the local etc. I'd like to have some comments from you, from the floor about that.
    And the third thing is the lack of private funding. Tom Leney was mentioning that. He gave a couple of what he called questions or guidelines or challenges at the end. And one of the challenges was a lack of private funding. But we heard that contribution of Professor Lynch, who said that this is very controversial. If you had a lot of private funding in education it would serve only one community. It would hamper the general good, it would be not good for the social contribution to society, and at the end it would also increase the social divide and it would also be very costly for society in the long run.

Krista Loogma
I would like to refer to Anneke's picture about the educational expansion to fifth and sixth level in Europe. There is the discussion in Estonia right now as there is strong conflict between university level education and secondary VET education. Whether we have to hear the voice of industry and managers, or the voice of students, especially young students, who tried really to get higher and higher education all the time? Industry needs skilled workers, and for this it is not necessary to reach to fifth and sixth levels, and this is really very big discussion and a policy issue in education in Estonia right now. And my question - in your picture we saw that there is considerable educational expansion to fifth and sixth level in some countries, and in some countries it was not so high, for example in Germany. Can you explain this? What could be the reason for such kind of big differences considering the European expansion to fifth and sixth level?

Anneke Westerhuis
The picture was not so much in, if I understand well, in a expansion but in participation. The figures show the different rise in the participation between 1991 and 2001 - the difference is growing in participation in different countries. So the figures show in fact the rising participation in education level five and six in Ireland, these are much higher compared to developments in France and Germany and the Netherlands. And when you are asking why this difference, well to be frank the figure didn't tell it, so what you can get from me are only my private guesses. One could be that for instance in Ireland participation was low traditionally and so gained much more by new investments and new enrolment in education as a whole, and as a consequence, enrolment in higher levels as well. That should be one explanation. Another one might be, but now I am referring to the Dutch situation, that the options to continue the route of VET into higher education were quite limited in terms of learning tracks.

Pekka Kämäräinen
I would like to link the discussion to the issue 'parity of esteem' between general/academic education (on the one hand) and vocational education and training (on the other hand). It strikes me that there has been very little progress with this issue in the recent years and there seems to be little interest to revitalise the debate. Therefore, we tend to find ourselves making complaints about the relatively lower esteem that is given on vocational learning or on vocational progression routes and career models. However, it strikes me that in this discussion we tend to refer to assumptions on the concept ‘vocational’ and on respectively different ideas on the possible way forward. On the one hand we may refer to very particular and country-specific concepts that need interpretation in the European context. In this respect I would emphasises that in different educational cultures and in different labour market contexts there is a need ,to identify the societal (or - to be precise: configurational) dependency structures that maintain the disparity between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational. 
    To me one of the crucial issues is the distinction between ‘vocational particularism’ and ‘vocational professionalism’. The idea of ‘vocational particularism’ tends to delimit vocational learning as modularised and credit-oriented just-to-the-need learning with little emphasis on professional growth and continuity of the learning history. Vocational professionalism on the other hand seeks to create new frameworks for vocational and professional learning with an emphasis on professional growth, renewal of contextual knowledge-bases and competences and continuity of learning histories. To me both these approaches (that I have characterised as ideal types) run the risk that their idea on ‘vocational learning’ is being defined as a separate realm outside the mainstream education. 
In the light of the above I found the discussion that we had in the prior session on European mobility and credit transfer quite inspiring. Instead of focusing on the transparency of modular packages the presenters tried to develop tools for common and trans-cultural reading on competences. The presenters had used the theoretical groundwork of Dreyfus to develop specific tools to analyse the transition from learning to utilisation of competences. I think that such contributions are needed to create a more open and dynamic understanding on the role of vocational or professional profiles (in different national contexts) and on the similarities or differences in the acquisition and utilisation of competences. Furthermore, such facilitation of trans-cultural dialogue in VET is needed to make progress with the debate on parity of esteem between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ learning.

Helen Colley
I am very interested in the discussion about innovation, because I think one of the big problems that we face when we are talking about innovation in VET is twofold: is what theory of change we have, I think Frank said this before, and what theory of learning we have. I think one of the major problems we are facing in this sector is that there is very little discussion about new theoretical understandings of learning and about pedagogy. Most of the discussion, including what's happened here this morning, looks at the drivers for improving VET and levers for improving it, but very little about the actual pedagogy of VET. I think there are important exceptions to this, but they are few and far between. 
    I'll take as one example the EC policy focus on the validation of non-formal learning. In work I have done with Phil Hodkinson and Janice Malcolm, and with other colleagues in the 'transforming learning cultures in further education' project, we have looked at the way in which the almost complete view of learning as a process of acquisition distorts the cultural understanding of learning and forces formal, informal and non-formal learning to be understood as located in different boxes, whereas if we take a cultural perspective on learning we begin to understand how different aspects of formality and informality are in fact completely inter-related in all forms of learning. And that helps you to get a much better grasp of some of the issues of inequality, how learning actually contributes to reproducing inequality and so on. 
    I think from these critical issues and a critique of this focus on accreditation of non-formal learning in particular there is more research that we have to undertake in order to understand what can be done to bring about improvement in learning theory and in pedagogy, not just what drivers and levers we can throw at the problem.

Felix Rauner
Let me make a remark on Martin Mulder's comment and the last comment. From my standpoint and as far as I have an overview about the TVET research there is an underdeveloped research on the interrelation between VET and innovation as well at the level of companies, local contexts, regional contexts and the national context. National innovation system research, this is done by a special community, not connected to the VET innovation system research, and regional innovation system research we are a little bit connected to this research, and in the companies the interrelation between innovation, competitiveness and education and training is extremely weak. So I would agree totally, we have to develop research on vocational education and innovation. 
    At the same time I agree we have to have in the context of this research this cost-benefit and quality, and the quality dimension is extremely important. We need criteria for quality, otherwise we reduce vocation education to the dimension of human resources development. In so far the debate on quality is extremely important. This is the weakness of the benchmark setting of the European Commission. The comparison of education in Europe is at the beginning, because we have not really criteria, there is a lack of theory. At the same time it is extremely important, otherwise we compare apples with bananas and things like that. That happened in the study that we had to do. 
    Referring to some of the countries where we are for example doing research, I know only one country in Europe where the cost-benefit relation is OK and where the quality of vocational education is really high, and that is Switzerland. In Switzerland the benefit of an apprenticeship training is about 800 to 1000 Euro in three years. In Germany, the similar system, the cost is 8000 Euro in three years, not benefit. The whole debate in comparison between Switzerland, Germany and Austria can't be understood if we ignore this cost and benefit. For instance to reduce apprenticeship training to three years because the cost is too high;  and if the costs are high the quality is bad - things like that have to be investigated. 
    In so far the question innovation and vocational education research is extremely important and I would say we can't do it in the inner circle of the VET community. We need partners, we need colleagues from the political side, from sociology and economists. An important topic is what we started with Alan Brown and others on vocational and work identity and commitment. The commitment research is a research that is done by economists world-wide. And the question of occupational identity or organisational identity or whatever is extremely important for competitiveness, for example. This research should be done in cooperation with economists, and bringing two traditions together, vocational identityon the one side, commitment and the relevance for innovation and competitiveness on the other side. That would be another important topic for TVET research for the next future, I would think.

Anke Grotlüschen
I appreciate the tension between politics and university or academic approach we received in the two or three statements, and I would like to come back to focus on a more academic approach to the question of participation in VET and continuing education and training. According to me the questions of politics, of how to do things better, how can we improve the situation - these are the questions we face at the moment, but from an academic point of view, and I think you [Helen Colley] mentioned this as well, we should perhaps first of all ask how are things and how do people manage to make things better. We do it on a systematic level, but perhaps we can as well find out how people manage to participate in vocational and continuing education, even if according to their heritage they are not the perfect ones to start from out of a very low-level situation. 
    My background question is how can we move those 13 per cent of non-participants in continuing education which we face in Germany, and non-participants and this figure means that they never participate in continuing education. I hope that we might find with pedagogical research some who made it, who made their way out of it and learned from them. So this is the academic idea. 

Graham Attwell
I am mainly interested in participation. We keep saying people aren't participating. What are they not participating in? They are not participating in the bloody system. They are participating in learning. We have to be very careful that we don't conflate and make learning seem the thing as our systems of qualifications. We have been doing a lot of work on the use of ICT for learning in small and medium enterprises. I have been involved in twelve case studies in the last three months. In not one of them was a single person involved in a formal e-learning programme. In every enterprise people were using computers for learning, often on a daily basis. 
We have a divide between what we see as learning and vocational education and training, because all what is seen as legitimate in learning terms is those things which meet the educational objectives of the vocational education and training system. That's my problem with that nine level or eight level or how many level nonsense it is. We are drawing up a whole series of educational levels, which are on a whole series of educational qualifications, and we say yes, we want to recognise your non-formal learning, but the only non-formal learning which is valid is the learning which fits in to our qualifications; anything else is invalid non-formal learning. 
So I want to look at how we increase participation in learning, and that is a much broader topic than increasing participation in a series of educational qualifications driven by systems. At this conference so far, I don't know why, people seem to be very quiet, we seem to be absolutely obsessed at the moment by systems. I haven't heard learning mentioned. First time you [Helen Colley] were the first person who mentioned learning, which is why we applauded, in a day, and this is worrying me.

Barry Nyhan
I want to make a couple of points about another term in which learning is used and it's part of the problem at the moment. The concept of lifelong learning is actually blurring the distinction between vocational - if I can call it - professional learning for practice and academic theoretical learning, which you learn in universities. So there is a problem, and I don't how we can address this problem, because lifelong learning is ‘the slogan’ in every country, the OECD, World Bank, the EU. That's one problem.
    The second problem is this concept of the - another slogan - the knowledge society, because that's leading to the very problems that people have articulated about the academisation, if that's the correct word. You know that the indicators for a knowledge society state that the higher level of academic education a country has, the more it can claim to be a knowledge society. For me that's precisely a problem. 
    My last point - I'm from Cedefop - I meant to bring along the call for tender - there is a new call which I think has just come out to follow up the study which Tom Leney and his partners did. So if people are brave enough to tackle - maybe the policies are already decided, as Felix said - but maybe it's a challenge for people to engage and to say some of the things that are being said here. We are in danger of loosing our middle level intermediate workforce, and we are going to displace so many people who get this lower form of academic knowledge. Somebody said to me at a meeting at the other day in FAS it's a kind of sham academicism. I am just putting forward those three points, as a challenge for the VET research community to come up with a response.

Anneke Westerhuis
The first words coming into mind, hearing everything, is the word ownership, who owns education, who owns the system? Well, we are all familiar with the fact that when the development of the state after the French revolution, for the state education was a strategy for educating and for moulding, so to speak, the citizens. That was the origin of educational systems, it was an instrument for the state. I think in a sense you can say, what we've seen over a longer period, and more particular in VET, is the discussion who owns the system. Is it owned by the state, is it owned by industry, is it owned by social partners in a more formal sense, or is it owned more or less also by students in defining their own educational programmes. And for me, what you see, is a kind of shift in ownership. And at least, on a more pragmatic level, more ownership is allocated to the students, when they are given the possibility to define their own programmes. 
    And that brings me to a remark on theory and knowledge more in general. I think you are familiar with this question of Lyotard, being - I'm quoting now - "who defines what knowledge is?". Is it theory, is the industry defining what knowledge is or is knowledge something defined within the framework of an individual? Also there you see this shift of redefining knowledge, and in a sense this has also implications I think for VET researchers. Particular when they are working, as lots of them are nowadays, with teachers and students and school management: what's particular scientific knowledge in this collaboration? I'm not so sure about these demarcations any more, and indeed do we need general educational theories and as the focus of the collaboration between practice and the world of VET researchers? 
    So for me there are also new challenges in defining the knowledge produced by researchers. I'm not so sure we will be helped by returning to the old systems. We have to look for new definitions of knowledge, also in VET research.

Tom Leney
I would just like to make some very brief .comments about this fascinating discussion, and probably the last time that we will talk in any form about this piece of work we have now finished some time ago. It has created real interest in countries, and not least we did try not simply to produce a lot of stuff , we did try all the time to dig underneath - who is doing something interesting, where is interesting innovation taking place - and so hopefully you'll have a chance to study the outcomes. 
    A word about independence. I think Felix is right - clearly there is a big difference between basic research and this kind of, it's not even really applied research, it's policy related synoptic research. And clearly for the VET community that does remain a very important issue. At the same time we had quite a wide range of institutions, as many as you can comfortably have in a contractual arrangement, about ten, our consortium covered Europe well except for the Iberian Peninsula, Spain and Portugal, and it certainly covered state and independent universities and people working outside both of those. And I don't think that Felix in his comments was saying that in a micro sense we didn't remain independent, because I think anybody who knows the process that the research went through knows how fierce the battles we had were with the Commission at various times, particularly this time last year. 
    Indicators and priorities - I mean it has been pretty simplistic stuff so far, and quite clearly, not least when you reach the period when we started to think about the period of 2010 and beyond, when is that period, well it is right now, because we have to be thinking already what should be the priorities and the indicators for the period post 2010. They need (a) to be much better if I can use a simple word, and (b) VET needs to be much better stipulated. And lying behind that is the data, as it stands at the moment. 
    Mechanisms for taking VET out of its isolation - we tried to, in particular in the past report which Anneke and her institute were responsible for, to look at flexibility and attractiveness of VET, and the relationship of VET with general education, and in particular access from VET into further studies of one kind or another seem to us to be two absolutely key and crucial elements, besides the kind of teaching and learning. So whether that may come to the point that Felix was making about universities not really being in for this sort of thing, we thought that universities ought to open their doors rather widely and other kind of institutions be able to do so as well.
    Graham finished with the points about really we're trying to capture learning and people in their learning situations, and we are all learning all the time, and most of that isn't recorded. Clearly that's the nugget of what we are trying to find. I would be hesitant to say well we are all learning all the time, because the problem is that governments will then say that's fine, we haven't have to do anything. 
And in answer to the points about the danger of private and maybe employer investment in aspects of our education and training systems, the problem is this: with competing priorities, governments haven't the facility for funding to provide all that they might want to. There is perpetually a conflict of policy priorities, and simply saying - private funding bad, public funding good - while it saves some of the agenda it puts others at risk. 
    There is another tender out at the moment, I think it's called something like the road to Lisbon. We did lead the 2005 report, it was great fun, we became great friends all of those who did it, it was very difficult and incredibly demanding and hardly any of the consortium took a summer holiday last year, but I'm going to take mine this year. And two or three of us who were involved in this study would be very happy to participate in the 2006 study. I don't want to put any of you off, but none of us are actually in the market for leading the study. And thank you very much for your interest today.

Top of the page
Source: Recording of VETNET session at ECER 2005 in Dublin (details see Proceedings)
Editor: Sabine Manning  © WIFO