What does future- fit education look like?
Women engineer oversees student testing (Image: ThisisEngineering RAEng via Unsplash).

What should future-fit education systems look like?

Insights on Europe's diverse educational landscape and implications for the future.


By Jörg Markowitsch and Günter Hefler

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up labour markets around the world, driving up the demand for reskilling. With digitalization, the greening of the economy and long-term disruptions caused by ongoing conflicts, the need for existing workers to acquire new skills is escalating to unprecedented levels.

While there is a global policy emphasis on the reskilling of adults1, the education of young people – and initial vocational education and training (VET) systems in particular – remain the backbone of a country’s skills development. Vocational education helps learners acquire the knowledge, skills and competencies specific to a particular (or type of) occupation or trade. Distinctive educational traditions, including VET, have evolved across Europe, resulting in a rich variety of approaches to skills development. There are, however, a number of key common trends as outlined below.

The variety of skill formation systems in Europe

The breadth of educational approaches in Europe is illustrated in the figure below, which maps the divide between vocational and academic education and the extent to which vocational education is work-based (i.e. learning on the job) versus classroom-based. Educational programmes are classified as work-based if at least 25% of the curriculum is taught at the workplace. The figure below shows that the majority of European countries have school-based systems, many of them dominated by “general education” (lower left quadrant).

Share of VET at upper-secondary level (all age groups) and share of dual education as part of VET for selected countries in 2015 (ISCED 2011)

Note: VET (vocational education and training), WBL (work-based learning). Vocational education refers to programmes that are designed for learners to acquire the knowledge, skills and competencies specific to a particular occupation, trade or class of occupations or trades. Vocational education may have work-based components. Programmes are classified as work-based if at least 25% of the curriculum is taught at the workplace. In countries like Germany, Denmark or Switzerland this share if often much higher (above 70%)

Source: Markowitsch and Hefler, 2019. Eurostat, own calculations.

Common trends in vocational education and training

Research on the recent history of education systems shows that countries move very slowly along these two dimensions, demonstrating the strong path dependency of education systems. Despite major political and economic changes and profound educational reforms over the past three decades – especially in Central and Eastern Europe2 – not one country has seen a wholesale system change since 1995. Nevertheless, a number of important developments can be observed in the gradual changes in skill formation in Europe34.

Cross-country differences have become less pronounced as the proportion of VET at the upper secondary level has decreased in the leading countries (those with 70% and above) since the 1990s, and has increased significantly in countries with traditionally low shares in VET. Hence, there has been both academic and vocational drift. The average age of VET students has also increased across all countries in Europe, with more and more adult students in VET. This is attributed to various factors including the influx of migrants, the extension of compulsory schooling up to age 18/19, a growing trend towards postponed career decisions, as well as more frequent changes between occupational fields.

There is also a growing number of mixed systems where work-based tracks coexist with school-based tracks. Work-based and practice-based learning has increased within a broad range of educational programmes, with mandatory internships for pupils in school-based VET, for example, or project-based learning for students in professional higher education. Within school-based VET, there is a trend towards broader, academically more demanding vocational programmes. Beyond a set of advanced occupational skills, these also provide access to higher education, but at the expense of more specific, practical VET.

VET in Europe has become more open, more diversified and more inclusive. But do these trends provide a blueprint for the future? The overall stability of VET systems over time – incremental reforms notwithstanding – are evidence of their continued relevance to the broader educational landscape. The variety in their implementation also shows that there is no one size that fits all. The policymaker’s challenge is then to select the forms and features that will best prepare the workforce of the future.

Scenarios for vocational education and training in 2035

One way to explore the opportunities at hand is through scenario building5. The European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training6 has recently suggested three basic future scenarios and six detailed future scenarios for 2035 (see figure below).

One of the three basic scenarios is the Pluralistic VET with lifelong learning at its heart, where the distinctions between vocational and general education become increasingly obsolete (upper middle area in the figure below). VET takes place at all levels and in all institutional contexts, including general education and higher education. Learning is increasingly taking place individually throughout life building on flexible systems of recognition of learning achievements. ‘Learning à la carte’ or ‘Cottage gardens’ are examples of the Pluralistic scenario.

Another scenario is the Distinctive VET with occupational and professional competence at its heart, where VET clearly differs from general education but enjoys the same esteem (lower right quadrant). Work-based learning delivered by companies and centres of vocational excellence has become the ‘gold standard’ of VET. The main target group of VET is young people in initial education and training, to whom VET pathways are open at all levels, including qualifications at the highest level (comparable to PhDs). ‘VET for all’ or ‘Renaissance of VET’ are examples of the Distinctive scenario.

The third scenario is the Special-purpose VET with job-oriented training at its heart, where very specific forms of VET survive in an education system which is otherwise dominated by general and higher education (lower left quadrant). The focus of VET in this scenario is on publicly funded retraining and further training of adults who are at risk of unemployment and social exclusion, delivered in short courses. ‘Firefighter VET’ or ‘Professional champions’ are examples of the Special-purpose VET scenario.

Six Scenarios for Vocational Education and Training in Europe in 2035

These scenarios provide a good starting point for policymakers to jointly explore their visions of the future of education. In Norway and Slovenia, for example, these scenarios were recently used in high-level policy workshops to begin developing a strategy for a future-proof education and training system.

If we can draw one lesson from a thorough study of the changing nature and role of VET in Europe, it is that we cannot predict the future, but it is easier to shape it by developing common visions and managing it by considering a range of scenarios.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors based on their experience and on prior research and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNIDO (read more).

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