Published On: Wed, Jun 3rd, 2015

To improve your country’s skills system, turn it upside down

We all know job requirements are rapidly changing, and it has become dangerously easy for citizens to fall behind in their skills and employability. The European Training Foundation’s Torino Process monitors improvements to the way skills are taught and applied in EU neighbourhood countries, helping them create innovative public policy that connects their people’s skills to the needs of their economies. Alastair MacPhail explains.

Alastair MacPhail is head of the ETF communication department, and a former European Commission policy officer.

In the future we will have to learn faster and more flexibly to gain skills for jobs that might last months, not years. Most of us will work later into our lives, sometimes for an employer and sometimes for ourselves. We will have to know how to exploit our talents productively, whether we spend our entire life in one village or live and work in many different countries. In this future, policy support for education, training, and employment systems will, more than ever, determine our success in achieving social cohesion and delivering economic competitiveness.

If this sounds challenging for the economically powerful countries of the European Union, it is even more so for those in the EU’s neighbourhood, some of whom are coping with ongoing conflict, political instability, and the legacy of past ideologies. “What we need to do in this context is turn the traditional way of looking at education, training, and employment on its head,” ETF Director Madlen Serban said in a recent interview. “In any given country we need to see the structure of the education system as being a result of the human capital – the knowledge, skills, talents, and behaviours – that the country needs. Not the other way around.”

Vocational education and training (VET) rubs shoulders with general upper secondary education on one side, and higher education on the other, and it must build relationships with primary and lower secondary education too. When young people choose a VET pathway they may still face obstacles from those advocating an academic pathway. But while there are growing concerns about higher education’s relative cost and public value, it is rarely seen now as incompatible with VET. Flexibility in the curriculum and ‘hybrid’ vocational/academic pathways represent the way forward.

“That’s why I’m saying VET should be redefined,” Serban adds. “Because if a higher education graduate should take employability-oriented study programmes, delivered with the closer cooperation of business, then what is that if not VET? To be clear, I am not saying education and training should exclusively fill the vacancies.”

On 3 and 4 June 2015 the ETF hosts the Torino Process conference, bringing together leading figures in education, training, and employment from international agencies, EU member states, and EU neighbourhood countries, which form the ETF’s ‘partner’ countries. The Torino Process is a biennial, evidence-based review of change and reforms in VET systems across most of the ETF’s partner countries. The evidence is analysed to show how well each country is progressing with VET reforms.

Evidence from the Torino Process suggests that where the cycle of education improvement doesn’t match the expectations of citizens and employers there is a growing trend for employers to create ‘parallel’ provision. But the risk is that it’s public education and training provision that ends up paying the cost, because a parallel system means additional spending, leaving less in the public purse. Moreover, increasing the cost while ignoring the limited capability of public policy to deliver results will not help.

The Torino Process is not just about tracking progress. It is also a policy learning tool and, crucially, is owned by the participating countries, not imposed on them. The ETF provides tailored support, based on each country’s needs and interests. Now in its fourth two-year cycle, the Torino Process is producing results that are challenging established thinking about VET, general education, and the labour market.

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