Nordic vocational education and training – ‘dead end’ or pathway to higher education?

Professor Christian Helms Jørgensen, Roskilde University, University lector Daniel Persson Thunqvist, Linköping University, Professor Marja-Leena Stenström, University of Jyväskylä, and Professor Ole Johnny Olsen, University of Bergen. Photo: Mia Smeds

Nordic vocational education and training – ‘dead end’ or pathway to higher education?

05.07.2016
Education in the Nordic countries share many basic values of equality and social inclusion, and have built strong free and public education systems. This is often seen as a common ‘Nordic model’ of education. However, this is not the case for vocational education at upper secondary level.

“In the Nordic countries we find school-based VET-systems (Sweden and Finland), apprenticeship systems (Denmark) and a mixed system (Norway),” says Christian Helms Jørgensen, Professor at Roskilde University. “Despite these differences, the Nordic VET-systems share a number of common challenges for the future.”

Helms Jørgensen has lead the project “The future of vocational education – learning from the Nordic countries” (2013–2016) part of Education for Tomorrow, a major Nordic programme on educational research initiated by the Nordic Ministers for Education and Research and funded by NordForsk.

Access to higher education for all?

The education policy in the Nordic countries has given priority to achieve social equality and social inclusion in education. These goals have been pursued by providing access to higher education for all, also from upper secondary VET programmes and by offering VET for young people who do not aim for higher education.

“Our research has shown that it is difficult for the Nordic VET-systems to achieve these two goals at the same time: to provide eligibility for higher education in VET and at the same time to provide access to skilled employment for ‘weak learners’,” explains Helms Jørgensen.

Helms Jørgensen and his Nordic colleagues have looked for institutional innovation and new solutions on how VET systems better could provide access to the skilled labour market and to higher education at the same time.

In Finland and Sweden, VET has been integrated into the unitary comprehensive school systems, which are better at offering access for all to higher education. However, these full-time, school-based systems have weak connections to the labour market, and offer few alternatives for youth who do not pursue the academic route.

The Danish and Norwegian systems have maintained a separate track of apprenticeship, which is better at providing direct access to the labour market, also for disadvantaged youth. But these VET systems do not provide eligibility for higher education, and for that reason their esteem is decreasing.
One of the reasons for this is found in the history of VET. The researchers found that VET has been given very little attention in public policy in the Nordic countries and that VET has been formed by a multitude of stakeholders with diverging interests.

Promising innovations for the future

By studying the recent reforms of VET, the project has identified a number of promising examples of innovations to manage the trade-offs. 

“We have found a number of promising examples of innovations to manage the trade-offs in recent reforms of VET. Among these are intermediary institutions to bridge the world of education and the world of work”, says Helms Jørgensen, “such as Norwegian training offices, Swedish Yrkescolleges and Danish training centres.”

Another type of new scheme involves hybrid programmes that offer a journeyman’s certificate and eligibility for higher education in an integrated form (Norwegian TAF, Danish eux).
The dominant trend in the four Nordic countries is that VET has tended to become more school-based and more separated from working life.

“The analyses show that two conditions are required to maintain a high quality of work-based training as part of VET. Firstly, the employers must be actively involved in the governance and certification of the training system. Secondly, the state must impose legally binding obligations on the training companies,” says Helms Jørgensen.

It has been difficult to balance these two requirements. Strong state intervention has weakened the employers’ commitment to training and strengthened the development of school-based VET systems. Active employer involvement has weakened the links to general and higher education, and this has increasingly made VET appear as a “dead end” in the education system.

Policy reforms with weak effects

The researcher’s analyses of VET reforms over the latest decades indicate that policies tend to be going in circles or swing between opposite solutions. This can be explained by unacknowledged trade-offs in the policy making process. Unacknowledged trade-offs result in unintended consequences of the political reforms, which later call for new reforms that seek to limit these unintended consequences.

Helms Jørgensen points out another explanation to the unsuccessful reforms: “Policy makers have a limited understanding of the multiple stakeholders and dynamics of the VET-system. These dynamics and stakeholders can limit the effects of political reforms. This is for example the case when policy makers launch VET initiatives to achieve social policy goals, and where companies and young people turn their back to these initiatives.”

In all four Nordic countries, the governments have tried to strengthen or reintroduce apprenticeship with the aim of improving the transition to employment of young people who do not follow the academic route. While these initiatives have had success in Norway and Denmark, they have not been very successful in Sweden or Finland. The Swedish experience in Gy11 demonstrated the risk of apprenticeship as a dead end in the education system if it does not offer eligibility for higher education.

“These problems are strong indications that apprenticeship systems depends on complex institutional conditions for engaging employers in high quality training and attracting young people to apprenticeship,” emphasizes Helms Jørgensen.

Among these conditions are high involvement of the labour market organisations, certification and protection of skills, open slots in the division of work for occupational work, control of the quality of work-based learning, and career opportunities after completion of VET including access to higher vocational education.  

Note: Vocational education (VET) at upper secondary level (grade 10–12, Norway: videregående skole, Sweden: gymnasieskolan, Denmark: ungdomsuddannelser, Finland: ammatillinen koulutus).


More information about the project: www.Nord-VET.dk
Professor

Caption: Professor Christian Helms Jørgensen, Roskilde University, University lector Daniel Persson Thunqvist, Linköping University, Professor Marja-Leena Stenström, University of Jyväskylä, and Professor Ole Johnny Olsen, University of Bergen, discussed what each of the four Nordic VET-systems can learn from other Nordic countries during the Nord-Vet Conference in Roskilde 7–8 June.

Text and photo: Mia Smeds

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