The end of VET as we know it?

Skills in a lifelong learning perspective - An opinion piece by ETF Director, Cesare Onestini

Exploring the future

In 2018, the European Training Foundation launched an exploration of the future world of skills and skills development. We looked at the different factors driving global change – digitalisation, automation, global value chains, demographic trends, migration, climate change  – and examined their impact on the countries where we work, that is to say North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Western Balkans, Turkey, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. We then considered how these changes would affect the demand for skills and how vocational education and training systems could adapt to this new reality.

We presented the results of this first phase of our exploration at a 2018 conference entitled Skills for the Future: Managing Transition. Next week’s conference, Building lifelong learning systems for green and inclusive societies in the digital era, to a large extent builds on the second phase of our work on the future of skills. In preparing for it, I went back to listen to my 2018 opening speech. 

Two statements, in particular, brought home to me how much our understanding of this issue has changed. The first statement was ‘we need policies that take the future into account’, and the second was ‘we need to understand how to bring this into the classroom’.

First assumptions

These statements imply certain assumptions: one being that that policies need to adapt to future changes, and the other being that it is all about what happens in formal education settings. We also assumed in 2018 that technology is changing so fast, disrupting work at such a pace that it would be difficult for training provision to keep up, especially in the developing and transition countries where we work. Hence the need for education and training systems to focus on core competences and transversal skills. 

The work we have done since 2018, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has led us to review some of these assumptions. Following the 2018 conference, we continued to explore future skills needs in specific sectors, both within and across countries, looking at their connection with innovation, resilience and inclusion.

Exploring further

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we tracked the different responses in our countries to the disruption of education and training, with particular attention to the impact on young people and workers in different economic sectors. We monitored how it has changed systems and the relations between actors, as well as how it has sparked innovation in teaching and learning and affected companies strategies and need for skills development. 

We also tracked new needs, listening to the voice of businesses, especially small and medium sized enterprises, the voice of young people and their aspirations, trying to understand how learning and skills can support them in achieving their goals. And we also listened to public authorities in their efforts to cope with the pandemic disruption, facing choices and setting priorities for access, equity and inclusiveness of learning.

Much of this work has been done in close cooperation with our international and European partners, including EBRD, UNIDO, UNICEF, UNESCO, the ILO and other members of the Interagency Group on TVET.

We have also witnessed the rise of greening to the top of the policy agenda in the EU and internationally. This is a game-changer. We see – perhaps for the first time – a major global disruption on the horizon that is not driven by the invisible hand of the market, but by deliberate policy decisions. 

Value of policy

The first lesson we have learnt – and this links directly to what I’ve just said - is that public policy needs to do more than adapt to the future, it needs to shape the future. Skills development needs to be designed to support broader economic and social policy objectives and drive the transition to a green and digital future. It is all about where we want to go, and what policies and resources we need to put in place to get there. 

If public policy is to shape the future, it needs to be developed and implemented in an inclusive and collaborative way, involving all branches and levels of government and the full range of stakeholders. It also needs to build on experience and evidence of what works and what doesn’t, and have robust mechanisms for tracking progress and correcting course when needed.

We have witnessed how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in society, and it is evident that the disruption caused by global forces affects countries, regions, industrial sectors and social groups unequally. It is the most vulnerable in society who risk being left behind. For this reason, any vision of the future must take inclusion seriously. And inclusion does not happen by chance: the systems we build must be inclusive by design.    

Prediction is possible

The second lesson we have learnt is that we can analyse, assess, and predict skills needs, in many different ways at national, sectoral, local and enterprise levels. We can use big data and artificial intelligence, alongside more traditional methods, to track emerging skills needs and new professional profiles. The challenge is how to make this information widely available in real time to policy makers, education and training providers and individuals so they can make informed choices about what learning to offer or what learning to follow. Having effective career guidance and support that people can access at different stages in their lives is vital in this respect. 

Learning beyond school

The third is that it is not all about what happens in the classroom, or at least what happens within formal initial education. Skills development is happening, and indeed needs to happen, in a wide range of settings beyond the classroom, in the workplace, in social and family life, in civic and cultural institutions. Businesses are already reacting to the changing environment by training and retraining their staff, on their own initiative, or in cooperation with other businesses in the sector or with public authorities. We are seeing a great deal of innovation, and novel partnerships emerging. 

Empowering learners

However, the scale of the disruption facing countries resulting from the green and digital transition will require upskilling and reskilling on an unprecedented scale. This calls for learning to become a society-wide phenomenon. We need to take learning out of the classroom and bring it to where learners of all ages are, and deliver it in forms that are meaningful, engaging and adapted to their different learning styles and life circumstances. Education and training systems need to embrace, value and recognise the diversity of ways and contexts in which people learn and empower them to become active lifelong learners. This is what we mean when we speak about lifelong learning systems. 

But where does this leave VET as a sector of mainly formal and initial education and training, which has been the focus of much of the ETF’s efforts in the past? Do we say that initial VET will never be able to adapt fast enough to deliver the technical skills that people will need in 10 or 15 years time?  Do we say it doesn’t matter much what people learn in initial education as long as they acquire core competences and horizonal skills on which they can build later in life? Is this the end of VET as we know it? 

Skills and lifelong learning

Certainly, VET cannot and should not focus exclusively on equipping young people with technical skills that may be obsolete before they enter the job market. And certainly, young people need to acquire a strong foundation of core competences, including digital and entrepreneurial skills and above all learning to learn if they are going to thrive in a fast-changing labour market. VET certainly has and will continue to have a role to play as a distinct learning pathway offering many young people a more direct route into employment whilst laying strong foundations for further learning. If it is to stay relevant, it needs to be an integral part of a wider lifelong learning system, reaching out beyond its walls to interact with businesses, higher education, research institutes, civic institutions and the wider community. Moreover, we have seen - in particular through the ETF Network for Excellence - how VET institutions, given sufficient autonomy, resources and political support, can become vital nodes in ecosystems for skills development and innovation, supporting local economic development and smart specialisation strategies. Meeting tomorrow’s skills needs calls for a new pact among actors, new means of resourcing and new models and methods of delivery to support the post-pandemic recovery and deliver on the vision of the 2030 agenda. 

I concluded my speech at our 2018 conference on Skills for the Future by saying that, while we all have our different standpoints and starting points in the debate on the future of skills, we are all looking in the same direction. At next week’s conference I look forward to welcoming friends and partners – old and new – and expect to find again that same diversity of perspectives, but unity of purpose in the effort to develop lifelong learning systems that serve the needs of citizens and help them thrive in a future fraught with challenges, but rich in opportunities. 

Cesare Onestini, ETF Director

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.