Bridging the gap: The crucial roles of VET in fostering systems of innovation 

The online meeting 'Bridging the gap: The crucial roles of VET in fostering systems of innovation' examined concrete examples of the contributions of vocational education and training (VET) programmes to innovation. Held on 13 June 2023, the event attracted practitioners and scholars from several countries in Europe, the European neighbourhood and beyond.  Watch here.

Manuela Prina, Head of ETF Skills Identification and Development Unit, opened the session by calling attention to the title of the event, emphasising plural endings of both 'roles' and 'systems'. The 's' in roles reflects the diversity of VET’s potential contributions as 'a catalyst for change', she said. As for the 's' in systems, there is no single innovation system: innovation can emerge through technology, forms of production, business models, and the design of products and services.

'Before, VET was on the sidelines. More and more it is at the centre of attention,' especially regarding upskilling, reskilling, and help with the skills needed for innovation and the green economy, she noted. 

Jan Ganter de Otero, ETF Human Capital Development Expert, launched the substantive part of the programme on a conceptual note, drawing from the theory of creative destruction devised by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. Early analysis of innovation systems highlighted a handful of main actors: government, business, universities, and research institutions. Later, financial institutions and users and consumers came into the mix.   

Most people see the development of innovations as a linear process – starting with science that is subsequently applied to production. This idea 'heavily influences policy today,' said Ganter de Otero. Along these lines, VET is considered only at the implementation stage. 'It is not seen as a form of knowledge production.' Another approach involves 'learning by doing' and is more prevalent among small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) than in the high-tech world and universities. Here, VET graduates are very important, as they allow firms 'to change and adapt technologies, and in that way lead to incremental innovation'.  

Ganter de Otero also presented the three main roles that VET can play in systems of innovation, according to Toner (2010), firstly disseminating information and knowledge through teaching; secondly an intermediary among various organisations and companies; and thirdly through research and development (R&D), notably in jurisdictions where universities and research institutions are weak.  

Presentations about specific initiatives in Europe took up most of the meeting. Notably, speakers discussed the benefits to the innovation system and to VET institutions when the latter exert bigger roles in the former. 

VET organisations can often play the innovation card to attract seed funding. For example, Erasmus+ has provided 80% of the cash for GreenoVET, which has established centres of vocational excellence (CoVEs) in four countries: Austria, Finland, North Macedonia, and Portugal.

'The Erasmus programme can be used to kickstart projects,' said Boudewijn Grievink, Senior Project Manager at Katapult (Netherlands). 

VET institutions appear particularly well-placed to teach the soft skills that are increasingly essential in the workplace. Dr Bojan Jovanovski, Coordinator of the GreenoVET project noted that all four CoVEs under their umbrella teach skills such as ethical and sustainable thinking, creativity, critical thinking, teamwork, and how to spot opportunities. Updated curriculum, which now includes critical thinking, problem solving and entrepreneurship, counted among the keys to success for her initiative, said Melanie Henke, Project Manager at Hanse-Parlament (Germany), a Hamburg-based NGO.  

VET institutions also seem adept at training the trainers, thereby addressing the all-too-common lack of capacity among educators. This is a priority for GreenoVET, especially in North Macedonia. 'The first focus of green innovation has to be on the teachers and trainers,' said Dr Trajce Velkovski, head of the CoVE in Green Innovation – Skopje, which is associated with GreenoVET. In Skopje, they also emphasise training for staff non-teaching members.  

VET institutions often take the lead in forming partnerships. 'Network building' represented one of the six building blocks to success outlined by Grievink. His publicly-funded NGO has relied on private-public partnerships (PPPs) to create 450 projects in the Netherlands.

'The idea is to prevent anybody from having to reinvent the wheel,' he said. 'And to get each other up to a higher level.'

A typical endeavour will involve 35 companies, 400 students, and 50 teachers.  

By adding an innovation component to their curricula, vocational schools might be able to attract more and better students. As a rule, knowledge development and advanced technological skills are 'not available in VET schools', said Velkovski. Greater emphasis on innovation could 'make VET more attractive' to young people who might otherwise choose the university route, added Henke. This might help address the sticky issue of skills mismatches, whereby many university graduates are overqualified for the jobs they seek or hold, while companies simultaneously complain that they can’t find qualified people. 

Ganter de Otero already sees increased cooperation between universities and VET institutions on this front. 'Each actor has its strengths,' he said.    

In his final remarks, Ganter de Otero called for an effort to find 'specific solutions' to enhance the contributions and participation of VET initiatives in the drive for greater innovation. The focus should be on 'simple measures that can promote progress in the short term', he said. 'What concrete actions can policymakers take to increase the role of VET in this process?' In answer to his own question, Ganter de Otero suggested that it might help to make sure that vocational schools have sufficient autonomy to seek outside funding, for example, and to guarantee that teachers can pursue outside activities.

Did you like this article? If you would like to be notified when new content like this is published, subscribe to receive our email alerts.