“Vocational education and training is a crucial lever for successfully coping with transformation processes”
An interview with Dr. JÜRGEN SIEBEL on the challenges facing vocational education and training in Europe
In 2020, vocational education and training (VET) in Europe will need to take stock and make new plans. Many strategy papers and initiatives are oriented towards this year. The new European Commission’s work programme for the next five years has been available since January. New perspectives will open up for VET as a result of this plan and in the wake of Brexit. The European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop) has acted as a reference centre for the EU since its establishment in 1975. It observes the development of VET systems and supports representatives from the fields of policy, practice and research in the further development of VET in Europe. In this interview, Cedefop’s Executive Director Dr. JÜRGEN SIEBEL outlines his assessment of current and future challenges and provides insights into the work carried out by the centre.
Dr. JÜRGEN SIEBEL
became Executive Director of Cedefop in Thessaloniki in 2019, having spent the previous 20 years in various senior management roles in the areas of human resources management and development. His most recent position prior to taking up the appointment at Cedefop was Head of Strategy, Portfolio and International Operations at Siemens Professional Education in Munich. His work focused on learning and education and training and on the strategic development and introduction of work-based VET programmes right across the world. Within this context, he also cooperated with institutional stakeholders at national, European and global level. Jürgen Siebel studied Economics at the University of Hamburg and earned a doctorate in Business Administration at the University of Vienna.
BWP Mr. Siebel, you left the private sector to join Cedefop in September 2019. How has your view of VET in Europe changed since this time?
Siebel Most people change jobs because they are seeking a new perspective. The same thing applies in my case. I left the private sector to go into public administration. I switched from an international company training organisation to a European VET agency, and I relocated from Germany to Greece. So there were quite a few shifts in perspective involved. My view of VET has definitely sharpened. The diversity of the education systems and of general national conditions and the necessity of developing joint solutions which work for everyone certainly make for a complex task. Cedefop’s scope is broad, but the depth of our work is also crucial. Acting as a research institution is not the least of our functions, and we need to drill down into the issues that matter. This is in stark contrast to a company-based training organisation, which has to take operational requirements into account in the fastest way possible. At the same time, we need to be relevant and demonstrate that we are being effective. This is an interesting balance to strike.
Cedefop – European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training
Cedefop is an EU agency and its reference centre for VET, skills and qualifications. The Agency’s mandate is to support the promotion, development and implementation of relevant Union policy by working with the European Commission, EU Member States and social partners. Cedefop provides evidence, monitors and analyses policies and shares knowledge in three strategic operational areas:
- shaping VET to ensure its relevance and responsiveness to rapidly changing policy priorities;
- valuing VET by supporting learning policies to help people gain and update the skills they need to succeed in the labour market and in life;
- informing VET and skills policies for building a qualified workforce ready for the changing future of work.
BWP Let’s explore a few topics in specific terms. The European Framework for Quality and Effective Apprenticeships places the central emphasis on work-based learning and states criteria which permit an evaluation of reform processes in the individual countries. What data has been made available to Cedefop, and how is this used?
Siebel We are pleased that criteria drawn up by Cedefop together with a number of countries for the purpose of analysing their dual training have found their way into the European Framework. The Advisory Committee on Vocational Training, on which national governments, the social partners and the European Commission are all represented, will monitor its implementation. Our two databases on dual training and on the financing of such training in Europe enable us to record relevant developments.
The first step we have undertaken is to reference the structure of the information contained in both these databases to the individual criteria of the European Framework. This alignment can be viewed on our Internet portal.1 We expect to analyse the data this coming autumn and then make it available to our partners for use as part of European cooperation.
BWP Can this help stimulate reforms in the member states and bring about an improvement in the reputation of VET? What can ultimately convince young people and their parents that vocational training is a good choice?
Siebel As our overviews of VET in Europe show, this route does not lead to a dead end. Nevertheless, according to our own survey, almost half of all respondents believe that VET offers fewer advancement opportunities compared to academic training. High levels of youth unemployment in the wake of the economic crisis of more than ten years ago have, however, occasioned a rethink.
I know from my time in the private sector that promoting the image of VET was a tough and never-ending task. This was particularly true of countries which do not have a wealth of experience to compare with that of Germany, for example. But things worked out if policy makers and the social partners were able to agree that the creation of incentives for dual training, even extending as far as start-up financing, was a worthwhile approach. And we had to be prepared to seek out a clientèle outside the educated middle classes where, as employers and trainers, we had usually found a sufficient concentration of talent. But of course, educational establishments also need to step up to the mark. Permeability in theory is not enough. It must become ingrained within practice.
“Our country rankings also seek to invoke a competitive spirit.”
BWP The skills forecast and the skills index are new tools developed by Cedefop in order to focus more closely on employment systems. What is the idea behind this, and which data informs these instruments?
Siebel The point of both of these instruments is to offer well-founded bases for discussion and decision making. Our skills forecast should be understood as an early warning system. The aim is to assist policy makers in prevent potential imbalances on the labour market and in guarding against outdated VET provision. It also offers sources of support for education and career guidance and for cross-border labour mobility. Many countries prepare prognoses of this kind. Our forecast uses harmonised data and a single methodology and is therefore able to provide comparison options right across the EU. We work on behalf of the Council of the European Union to prepare this projection.
Our skills index, on the other hand, helps to understand how well member states are currently directing their education programmes and labour market policy measures towards the needs of their national economies and societies. It is the first index of this kind to state the interplay between skills development, activation and matching2 within a single measure. The skills index is based on datasets from sources such as the European Union Labour Force Survey and the OECD PISA Study, and it also shows how countries are performing in individual areas. Such a representation of the differences between the various countries fosters policy learning and supports benchmarking.
BWP How meaningful is this type of country rankings given the different education and labour market structures in Europe?
Siebel Well, country rankings and their meaningfulness are always bound to be an obvious point of dispute. We are seeking to use transparent and accessible criteria as a foundation for creating comparability. Another aim, however, is to invoke a competitive spirit. Ultimately, we all want VET systems all over Europe to develop further and to deliver social participation and economic competitiveness. If a ranking system can fire things up a little more, then that’s all well and good.
The skills index also, for example, permits statements to be made regarding which sub-areas may require improvement. This then leads to a dialogue between stakeholders in the fields of general and vocational education and employment, economic and social policy. In our host country Greece, for instance, a group of senior stakeholders and experts developed proposals for reform measures following an analysis of all the parts of the index.
BWP The diversity of education systems in Europe offers an enormous amount of potential for us to learn from one another. What assessment do you arrive at with regard to the important objective of improving the transparency and recognition of skills and qualifications?
Siebel Indeed, the prevailing consensus nowadays is that orientation towards learning outcomes has developed into a kind of common language which facilitates the comparison of qualifications. The European Qualifications Framework and the national qualifications frameworks (EQF and NQF) have met with general acceptance. National and EU-level discussions relating to the assignment of qualifications to the respective reference levels have very much paid off. This has also brought about a change in the way in which competence requirements in VET are perceived in the individual countries. In the German Qualifications Framework, for example, master craftsman qualifications have been linked to level 6 and thus to the same level as a Bachelor degree. This sends out a strong signal, both domestically and internationally. Many countries are now working to integrate qualifications acquired in areas such as continuing training into their NQF. This is a key prerequisite for “seamless” lifelong learning paths, but work does not stop here. In our globalised and digitalised world, an increasing emphasis will be placed on recording international qualifications and digital badges. We are keeping our eye on the ball and will continue to do so.
“In our globalised and digitalised world, an increasing emphasis will be placed on recording international qualifications and digital badges.”
BWP Do you see any signs that this common language is making learning and work mobility in Europe easier?
Siebel The Directive on the Recognition of Professional Qualifications and “our” transparency instruments are definitely helping to facilitate mobility. Take, for example, the national academic recognition information centres.3 They are making increased use of qualifications frameworks.
Alignment towards learning outcomes also assists employers and educational establishments in arriving at a better understanding of the competences of applicants. Nevertheless, no direct causality can be drawn between transparency instruments and actual mobility for the purposes of learning and work. Too many individual factors and complex reciprocal effects are at play. But one thing is certain: The Erasmus Programme has provided learners, teachers and trainers with significantly more opportunities to complete a stay abroad than was the case only ten years ago.
The real level of mobility is difficult to identify, especially outside the Erasmus Programme, because of the rarity of solid data such as that provided by the National Agency Education for Europe at BIBB. We are presently working on a study which will attempt to shed some light in this regard.
BWP England is by far and away the most popular destination for young people wishing to spend a period of time abroad during their training. What do you expect the consequences of Brexit to be?
Siebel The United Kingdom is now a third country and thus no longer has membership of the various VET committees which work at a European level. It does not hold a seat or have voting rights on our Management Board. The outcome of the negotiations will show whether cooperation in VET will be possible in future, for example in a similar way to which this takes place with Norway and Iceland. The results of these talks will also determine whether British learners and teachers will be able to participate in mobility programmes and whether the United Kingdom will continue to be a destination for periods of time abroad spent by young Germans or other EU citizens.
BWP The new EU Commission presented its Work Programme at the end of January. Climate change and the digital shift are two major topics which VET will also have to deal with. How is Cedefop addressing these issues?
Siebel Above all, positively. I believe these are the right topics. And they are nothing new for Cedefop. I also think that the coronavirus crisis, the extent of which was not yet foreseeable in January, will be a further driving force. VET is intrinsically linked with the labour market and economic affairs and will be a crucial lever for successfully coping with these transformations. There are several concurrent challenges of a demographic, technological, political and social nature. These also involve the future of work and the questions of how work will be organised and how and when people will learn. VET is facing a paradigm shift. Whereas initial training will remain important and will need to undergo further development on an ongoing basis, we in Europe will also have to devote closer attention to continuing vocational education and training (CVET) in order to be able to emerge from the crisis in a stronger societal and economic position. Our surveys and observations indicate that this will be a rocky road.
BWP In which regard?
Siebel Adult participation in CVET programmes is falling short of even the modest targets set at EU level, and this is particularly true of the groups which need such training the most. There are also considerable differences between the member states. We have to take these aspects as our starting point whilst at the same time working to develop the quality and adaptability of provision in the area of reskilling and upskilling.
"Europe will have to devote closer attention to CVET in order to be able to emerge from the coronavirus crisis in a stronger position."
BWP How is Cedefop cooperating with national research institutes as part of this process?
Siebel We cooperate with researchers in the member states via the studies we commission and within the scope of the events we stage. Secondly, we have established networks on various topic areas. Our skill needs analyses and the work we conduct on dual training are two examples here. And ReferNet should not be forgotten either! These act as our “eyes and ears” in the member states and in Iceland and Norway and thus constitute a crucial link for the aggregation and dissemination of information in all directions. This also means between the states themselves and not merely to and from Cedefop.
BWP Will Brexit lead to noticeable consequences in this respect?
Siebel Cooperation and academic research networking also takes place beyond the EU within the framework of international organisations and structures. Global influences ultimately exert an impact on all our VET systems, and we include third countries in comparative studies and analyses where it is relevant to do so. We are, for example, working in conjunction with UNESCO and the European Training Foundation in Turin (ETF) to analyse the ongoing developments and characteristics of national and regional qualification frameworks all over the world. To this extent, we will continue to derive benefits from impetuses created by the British, and the UK will profit from the EU-27 by the same token.
But there is one thing I would like to add about cooperation with research institutions. I am delighted with our collaboration with BIBB. You are our ReferNet partner in Germany. There is a flow of information on current issues in the form of “news items” or in the shape of targeted reports on aspects such as digitalisation strategies and the impacts these have on VET. One nice current example is the cooperation taking place within the scope of Germany’s European Council Presidency to help prepare for a Meeting of European Education Ministers in Osnabrück.
BWP Let’s conclude by looking at a topic which has been affecting the world for months. The consequences of the coronavirus lockdown. What makes you optimistic that VET will be able to overcome this crisis?
Siebel My main cause for optimism rests with the fact that VET, particularly the work-based variety, is particularly well suited to meeting challenges. Indeed, it is absolutely capable of acting as a lever and enabler of transformation processes. We have already been able to observe this within the context of digitalisation. After all, with the assistance of BIBB and the social partners, Germany succeeded in updating the industrial metalworking and electrical occupations in less than six months. No academic course of study could be accredited at such a pace. We will see the same adaptability when VET in Europe embraces the Green Deal and supports its implementation. In its capacity as an educational system which is located at the interface between supply of and demand for competences on the labour market, VET will make a crucial contribution towards overcoming the economic aftermath of the pandemic.
In order to support this, Cedefop began to “corona mainstream” its entire work programme at the very outset of the COVID-19 outbreak. What influence is the coronavirus crisis having on VET, and how can the latter help to overcome the former? We are able to arrive at robust results and recommendations in a timely manner with the assistance of our pan-European real-time analyses of online job offers, the identification of trends on the labour market and of changes to competences that are in demand , skills requirements and qualifications provision and thanks to our well established expert networks, of which BIBB also forms a part.
BWP The hope must be that all this data will help us to navigate our way through the crisis. Mr. Siebel, thank you very much for the interview.
www.cedefop.europa.eu/en/publications-and-resources/data-visualisations/european-skills-index (retrieved: 29.09.2020)
(Interviewer: Christiane Jäger)
Translation from the German original (published in BWP 3/2020): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin