Towards new approaches to lifelong learning: An interview with Lisa Rustico

ETF monitoring of vocational education and training (VET) policy developments in the Western Balkans and Türkiye has identified modest progress in implementing national commitments in line with European priorities. Gaps concentrate in areas such as making VET fit for the green transition, inclusive approaches to advanced technologies, and the lack of a systemic, coordinated and coherent approach to continuing vocational education and training (CVET). 

So says Dr Lisa Rustico, ETF human capital development expert, specialising in work-based learning, apprenticeships and CVET. She is also country liaison for North Macedonia – one of the five out of nine EU candidate countries that have voluntarily signed education and training commitments with the EU so far. 

Rustico, who joined the ETF in February 2023, brings a rich and varied basket of qualifications and European-wide experience. Yet she has encountered challenges. 

One challenge is that CVET is still very much perceived as limited to training provision and not fully embedded in a lifelong learning perspective. This is not enough, Rustico says. 

“What we need is a systemic approach that starts raising people’s and companies’ awareness of skills needs and the benefits of training. The first step is reaching out to all adults, especially those who are in need.” 

A systemic approach also includes lifelong guidance, and personalised tools to support skills development. The EU is exploring the potential of individual learning accounts, and micro-credentials that complement the many tools already in place, including work-based learning, which may be associated with great benefits for young people and adults.

“But all these bits and pieces are not together in a systemic, coordinated and coherent approach that is integrated into broader lifelong learning strategies,” says Rustico. “It’s not me saying this, it’s evidence from ETF sister agency Cedefop [the EU agency that works to improve VET through effective policy-making in EU member states] as well as the European Commission's report on the implementation of the Council recommendation on upskilling pathways." 

A second challenge regards access to training: data from surveys and the literature have shown that most people who participate in training are those who are already more trained and qualified. While upskilling must be for everyone, Rustico insists. 

Since the Council 2016 recommendation on upskilling pathways, Europe has focused on low-skilled adults

“Now a shift is needed towards upskilling and reskilling all adults, including employees, by making workplaces learning-conducive; as well as those further away from the labour market and institutions.”  

Another problem is that European neighbourhood countries struggle to prioritise CVET, also due to scarce resources.  

“We need to find ways to work on adults because it’s an urgent priority. ETF Torino Process data and the results of the European Skills and Jobs Survey give us relevant evidence.” 

This is especially urgent for accession countries. The EU’s new Growth Plan for the Western Balkans will be a significant opportunity for the region. 

A rich and varied experience 

Rustico brings a very clear commitment to the ETF. She is grateful and happy to be back in Italy, her home country. Her learning and career circle has been productive and diverse. It started with a sociology degree at the University of Milan Bicocca in 2006, and a master’s in European and international studies at the University of Trento in 2008. 

In 2013 she obtained a PhD in labour law and human capital development from the University of Bergamo. As part of her doctoral studies, Rustico was a visiting student at King’s College, Cambridge University, in the United Kingdom. 

During her study years, Rustico took her first steps at an international level as a trainee at the OECD and Cedefop. As a young graduate, she worked as a research fellow at Adapt, the Association for International Comparative Studies on Labour Law and Industrial Relations. Later, she worked as an independent VET expert for the OECD. 

She then worked as a consultant for the private sector and on projects for the EU, and at the Italian Ministry of Labour on work-based learning programmes at tertiary level. 

Her academic leaning saw Rustico work as a research fellow at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, and as an independent researcher in the sociology of employment and industrial relations at the University of Milan. Over the years she has produced an impressive 20 journal papers or book chapters. Aside from Italian, she has learned five languages. 

Taking an interdisciplinary approach, Rustico looks at things from different angles. She developed a national country focus at the Italian ministry, and a multi-country focus in her international consultancy work, and she consolidated the EU's view at Cedefop.  

Indeed, the strands of her life came together in 2015 when she joined Cedefop, where she worked as an expert for eight years, mainly focusing on apprenticeships and then on country studies about implementing EU upskilling pathways recommendation,  which is very relevant also for ETF partner countries. 

“After the pandemic, I felt a call to work in a more international environment, beyond the boundaries of the EU,” Rustico continues. “What I carry with me from all these experiences is the importance of stakeholder involvement.” 

This is useful for the ETF as it broadens its support for skills development to embrace social partners, civil society organisations and the private sector. 

The matter of apprenticeships 

Why are apprenticeships in partner countries not happening at a large scale? There are three key aspects, Rustico asserts: 

“The essence of what an apprenticeship is must be retained: social partners need to be at the table, and apprenticeships need to work in the market, if countries aspire to achieve the German dual model of VET.” 

Rustico postulates that more understanding is required around the apprenticeship needs and interest of people, companies and sectors, rather than pushing to make it happen by all means. Her PhD was about "formazione della persona", that is about placing people’s capabilities at the centre. 

“Why don’t we shift the focus a little? I dream of looking beyond national system developments: at what’s happening on the ground, the learners’ needs and their freedom to choose their future. Especially in the ETF’s often fragile partner countries, where the biggest challenge is living in peace. This is the shift that I would make – understanding more and selecting interventions. What do people need and want? Knowing might be useful.” 

A composite portfolio  

Besides Rustico’s activity in work-based learning, she coordinates the monitoring of EU cooperation in the Western Balkans and Türkiye. EU cooperation in VET is voluntary, and Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Türkiye have applied. 

Rustico has recently kicked off an induction process for the four new accession countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. 

 “My hope is that this process becomes an engaging and meaningful learning and cooperation opportunity, less bureaucratic and boring than just reporting,” she says. 

As country liaison for North Macedonia, Rustico works on the human capital development aspect of the country’s accession process. 

The ETF is unique in converging thematic and country work, one of the reasons that makes it special.

However, “this means staff need to create space to study, reflect, write, which is challenging due to the agency’s increasing relevance, expanding scope of work and consequent multiple responsibilities. There is a trade-off between quality and quantity. We need to focus on priorities and work in teams. At least, this is what worked in my past professional experiences.” 

I’m in a happy place,” adds Rustico, a frank speaker and a determined character. 

“I’m exploring this convergence between thematic work and country work. I understand there cannot be one without the other. It is good to have this marriage, but like any marriage, it is not always easy.” 

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