Ideathon: EAfA

Transforming vocational education: The power of partnerships

Collaboration and partnerships based on trust are, without doubt, the fundamental elements needed to develop and implement successful apprenticeships and relevant work-based learning programmes. This was the resounding conclusion drawn by attendees at the meeting of the European Alliance for Apprenticeships (EAfA), hosted by the European Training Foundation (ETF) on 11 October 2023. 

This meeting brought together the public sector, business, and civil society from over 34 European Union (EU) and EU neighbouring countries, with the aim to assess progress in the quality, supply and overall image of apprenticeships across Europe. With the European Year of Skills as a backdrop to the meeting, the ETF conducted a series of interviews with key participants, as part of its own Year of Skills activity. The interviews with colleagues from Albania, Armenia, Egypt, Georgia, North Macedonia, Serbia, Türkiye and Ukraine offered valuable insights into the priorities for vocational education and training (VET) aimed at cultivating dynamic and skilled workforces, equipped for tomorrow’s green and digital challenges.

Building a skilled workforce for the future: How can VET institutions contribute?

For Mustafa Çolakoğlu of the Cappadocia Innovation Institute, Cappinno, Türkiye, the fast rate of technological development means VET institutions and the academic world struggle to keep up.

“The solution is to upgrade curricula and upskill teachers, and this requires stronger interaction and cooperation between companies and education.”

Mirjana Kovacevic, Head of the Centre of Education, Dual Education and Education Policies at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Serbia, agreed that VET institutions cannot work in isolation if they are to help learners gain relevant skills.

“Without the strategic cooperation of companies, VET will not be able to deliver the skills needed by the labour market in the future.”

Designing and developing education and training programmes: A role for companies and employers?

Companies and employers were unanimously considered to be of paramount importance in designing curricula.

Tatevik Gasparyan, Director of the National Centre for Vocational Education and Training Development of Armenia, believed the voice of the employer is crucial.

“When developing VET programmes, we should be asking employers: ‘What kind of qualified person do you need? Which knowledge, competences and skills are you looking for?’”

For Tamar Kitiashvili, Director of the Skills Agency, Georgia, not only companies but all elements of society are the stakeholders in VET.” The collaboration between the Ministry of Education and the Chamber of Commerce has resulted in the creation of the Skills Agency, which aims not only to provide the workforce with new and emerging labour market skills, but also to develop the professional citizens of the future, able to think critically and sustainably.

For Kovacevic of Serbia also, “companies should play a greater role not only in updating existing curricula but also in developing new curricula,” in line with technological advancements and sector developments.

Communication is considered essential in helping companies understand how mutually beneficial their involvement is in the VET sector – an increased role in curricula development and training will result in a greater number of skilled VET graduates, ready to enter the labour market. In some countries, such as Türkiye, the perception that VET and apprenticeships are only for unskilled labour limits their appeal to both students and companies. Addressing this misconception is seen to be a priority.

Goran Spasovski, Advisor for Planning and Implementation of International Cooperation, Directorate-General for Vocational Training, and Nadica Kostoska, Ministry of Education and Science, North Macedonia, both believed closer partnership was needed between VET and companies.

“There needs to be a good relationship between VET schools and the business community. VET excellence is dependent upon good collaboration.”

North Macedonia is indeed making good progress in this type of partnership. In the 2020/21 academic year, 19 companies partnered with VET institutions for dual education across the country. The number of initiatives to enhance engagement has dramatically increased and in the current 2023/24 academic year, 560 companies are offering opportunities for dual education under the apprenticeship and work-based learning schemes.

Flexible learning opportunities are needed

Progress has also been made in recognising the need to provide more flexible learning opportunities. Anastasia Lisova, Director of the Recovery and Reform Support Team at the Ministry of Education and Science, Ukraine, acknowledged that the Russian aggression against Ukraine had created a new dynamic in the workforce.

There are now more internally displaced people due to the war, and there are many women among them. It is important to include them in the workforce to support them and boost the economy. VET institutions should be working to engage these new internally displaced people, and in particular female workers, by providing flexible online learning opportunities that allow them to carry on their other responsibilities, such as childcare. Micro-credentials are a great way to provide such flexible learning opportunities.”

For Kostoska, North Macedonia, “micro-credentials are the building blocks and are often more recognised by the business community as they see the real practical value of these qualifications.” Kitiashvili of Georgia also confirmed that micro-credentials is a key policy area that will continue to be developed in line with the labour market needs.

Kovacevic, of Serbia, strongly believes that flexibility should also be built into how curricula and programmes are delivered.

“Developing curricula that focus on learning outcomes leaves more freedom to schools to adjust and develop their curricula to accommodate the fast pace of local change.”

Teacher profiles for a future-proof VET

When considering what new requirements in teacher profiles could contribute to a green and digital future-proof VET, Ana Zacharian, Cofounder and Chairwoman of the Albanian Skills-National Association for Skills Competitions (NASC) had a clear idea of what needs to happen.

“Teachers have to become students again,” she said in relation to learning new subjects such as climate change and digitalisation. “Teachers need to create environments that inspire students to learn, and teachers need to be open to learning with their students.”

For Zacharian, focusing on improving the English level of VET teachers would enable more international mobility opportunities which, in turn, would support teacher/trainer peer learning, and upskilling and reskilling. In addition, an increase in salaries could halt the decline in the number of new teachers.

Ukraine’s Lisova and Türkiye’s Çolakoğlu also agreed that improved English language skills would enable a greater involvement of VET teachers in international projects such as Erasmus+, which would positively impact the VET system in both countries. Initiatives to increase the use of digital tools in lessons means teachers would be more successful in reaching their teaching goals and students would be more engaged.

The role of governments and policymakers

Governments and policymakers have a crucial role to play in facilitating the development and implementation of green and digital skills development programmes that respond to the labour market. Looking to the future, policymaking needs to rely on accurate and comprehensive monitoring and analysis to ensure that workforces are relevant and agile.

Gasparyan of Armenia and Spasovski of North Macedonia believe that regular graduate tracer studies would be useful to assess labour market success and the relevance of curricula to the job market. Public-private partnerships that bring together education ministries, VET institutions, employment agencies, companies and other stakeholders could result not only in the development of integrated educational policies but also in the implementation of measures and activities to assess progress and identify gaps in skills teaching. 

Building the future

Collaboration and partnerships can lead to more significant achievements than what can be accomplished by individuals or organisations working in isolation. These interviews revealed a clear vision of how close cooperation between VET stakeholders can help education deliver the skills needed for the future. External support to bolster resources, supply equipment, and enhance peer learning and capacity-building activities is seen as vital to strengthening the role of VET in developing tomorrow's skills.

In her closing comments, Pilvi Torsti, ETF Director, echoed the resounding sentiment from all the event’s participants:

“If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.”