Sabine Manning, Research Forum WIFO

European research communities in VET and HRD

Comparative analysis of two annual conferences - 
based on indicators related to participation and thematic profile

  • European Educational Research Conference : Programme of the Vocational Education and Training Network (ECER)
  • International Conference on HRD Research and Practice Across Europe (HRD conference)
Period under investigation: 2000 to 2004, including five annual events of each conference

A working paper - December 2005 - 51 pp. ( (see below >Highlights  and >Discussion)

Publication >>> Download complete working paper in PDF / Download flyer in PDF

This comparative analysis, which is based on the author's active involvement in various European partnerships and networks, has been carried out in connection with project work supported by Cedefop and the University Forum for HRD.

Research Forum WIFO



Trends in participation point to the predominant function of ECER and the HRD conference to facilitate dissemination and extend contacts, while the potential for building or strengthening conferences communities seems to be less pronounced.

Both ECER and the HRD conference show similar patterns of attendance:

  • Three out of four participating persons turned up only once in five years. Most of these attended events which took place in particularly attractive environments. It certainly is not speculative to detect a significant factor of tourism in this participation rate - which after all is an agreed part of conference management.
  • One out of eight persons attended three or more annual events of the conference concerned. These frequent participants can be regarded as the core group of a conference community. The size of this group is fairly small, but its effect on the conference concerned is substantial, since there is a close linkage between frequent participation and involvement in research networks and project partnerships. 
Only a few persons attended events of both ECER and the HRD conference: They account for a tenth of the total number of individual European participants at each conference. This proportion of parallel participation is remarkably small, if the close links existing between the two research fields are considered.

The UK and the Netherlands may be regarded as the European pillars of participation in the two conferences. However, with regard to parallel participation in ECER and the HRD conference, the Dutch researchers are in the lead, while the UK researchers are only modestly represented. Consequently, the UK participants are the strongest force - by sheer quantity - in the divided conference communities.

There is a remarkable similarity between presentations at the two conferences, according to the distribution of thematic descriptors. This outcome contrasts with the low degree of linkage between the two conference communities.

Transnational presenters and transnational sessions play a greater part at ECER than at the HRD conference. A major reason for this difference can be found in the specific context of European project partnerships and networks in which many ECER participants are involved.

The mailing lists operating for the two conferences have mainly the effect of maintaining the community of previous participants while contributing little to attracting newcomers. 


The following email messages have been received by the author - further comments are welcome!

Jim Stewart, Nottingham Trent University, UK; Chair of UFHRD (22 Dec 2005)

Two initial thoughts - First, I wondered whether the two communities shared their participant databases for publicising their conferences. I think I have suggested contacting EERA to UFHRD/AHRD conference organisers in the past but I am not sure if it has ever been done and I don't know either if any organisers of ECER have ever used the UFHRD/AHRD conference or membership databases. My second thought arises from my experience of
going from a regular participant of both to not attending ECER. UK universities have been subject to a number of pressures but two affect this directly; a general pressure on resources and the UK RAE. It has always been the case that for the majority of UK academics a paper has to be presented to receive funding for conference attendance. However, in recent years resources have meant less conference attendance can be supported and selection of which to support, because of the RAE, is related to the probability of the conference paper being eventually published in an 'appropriate' journal. 
    I think your paper raises the possibility of closer cooperation between the two communities even if this is at the level of sharing databases. Anyway, much food for thought which I hope leads to some positive actions. 

Massimo Tomassini, ISFOL, Italy (25 Jan 2006)

Concerning the relationships between the two subjects - VET and HRD - I think it will be important that we will take care of a better focusing of our papers on both, trying to demonstrate the implications of our arguments in each one of the two fields.
    Concerning the relationship between the two networks some exchanges should be encouraged, although it is evident that for many people it is impossible to regularly attend both. An interesting initiative could be the one of a cross provision of texts (in electronic or paper version) of authors willing to have their work known in the other network. 
Tarja Tikkanen, International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS), Norway (3 May 2006)
The role of language is pointed to in several places. As a non-native in English I still feel like underlining the issue - which I believe is particularly pronounced again in relation to extending conference attendance to the new EU countries. It is crucial for participation – and particularly for non-participation. Much of it of course boils down to resources, but even more so than for native speakers. It can be both highly time-consuming for a non-native to write a conference paper in English and expensive (and even more time-consuming/ laborious) to have it proof-read (those who have it done). Partnerships in EU projects, naturally, give both an impetus and additional resources for dissemination through conference participation. But there is more to that than money. Attending the conference can be a real challenge, as the native speakers very rarely pay attention to the fact that most of the listeners are trying to make sense out of it as ‘foreigners’. Furthermore, participating in the discussion can be even more challenging for non-natives - as it can be a challenge to natives to listen to a non-native. Every now and then this issue has been taken up in international conferences, but with relatively little impact, as to what I have observed. Oftentimes, then, writing a paper to a journal can be a more attractive alternative to reach the international research community. However, I admit that my perspective may be coloured by my Nordic background – we tend to be more timid and sensitive in regards communication than the southern Europeans, as you may have noticed. An example from the Nordic adult education conferences: While the Scandinavians pretty much are able to understand each other, there is often translation available to the Finnish attendants. However, and somewhat surprisingly, Finnish participants have commented that they find this (particular attention to them) uncomfortable and prefer using English. When organised in Finland last time, the official conference language was English!

This brings me to a brief comment on the unproportional representation of Finland at ECER. This, to me, again is an indication of the strongly education-favourable attitudes of that little country. While PISA (OECD), among others, has shown the good results of this approach in basic education, the analysis of the two conferences perhaps speaks for the same in regards adult education (AE). AE has special historical roots in the Nordic countries, but for some reason it is Finland where the discipline is most established. There are seven universities where it is possible to study AE - also HRD is mostly covered by AE. The amount of professorships in AE is higher. In comparison, there are 2-3 professors in AE in Sweden and none (or perhaps 1-2 if one wishes to exercise goodwill in looking at it) in Norway. In the latter country AE is only a marginally issue , holding to a significant extent also to VET/CVET - though competence development in working life is an issues. 

This analysis has included two series of VET/HRD-related conferences, but left out the closely-related 'Research Work and Learning' conferences taking place every second year. An indication of the strong attraction of these two now analysed/compared conference series may be the fact that participation rate does not change very much those years RWL takes place, though 2003 (RWL in Tampere, Finland) seems to mark a flattening for HRD and a slight downturn to ECER. It would be interesting to know whether RWL in Sydney last December had an impact. Most important to the discussion here, however, is the fact that RWL is still another conference series/ researcher community where the themes and participants overlap with ECER and HRD and where there is a possibility for synergies and dialogue – even if the participants in RWL have more often their background in HRM (economics, management and business-schools). 

Like said, I find it very interesting and timely that this discussion has emerged. Much appreciated that Cedefop is sharing interest in the issue. My paper in Limerick in 2004 - see British Journal of Occupational Learning, 3(1), 33-54, 2005 - addressed much of the same questions. However, it was discussing the fragmentation of this field (which I prefer to see as merged) in terms of consequences to theoretical development and methodology, commenting also on the role of Academia in creating/maintaining the situation. 

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Set up: 15/12/2005
  Latest update: 30/06/2006
 Contact: Sabine Manning