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Impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on vocational education and training

Snapshots from eight countries

Juraj Vantuch, Horacy Dęmbowski, Marianne Teräs, Elsa Eiríksdóttir, Fernando Marhuenda Fluixá, Stephanie Matseleng Allais, Rolando López Saldaña, Pham Viet Ha

Coronavirus is keeping the world in suspense. Contact restrictions, economic downturns and uncertainty regarding future developments are all creating major challenges for vocational education and training too. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected vocational education and training? Which educational policy measures or practical solutions have been initiated, and which developments will leave a lasting mark on VET? We put these questions to VET experts from eight countries, five of which are members of the European Research Review Group (Edge Foundation, UK). Their snapshots provide insights into current developments around the world.

Impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on vocational education and training

Slovakia: Cooperative efforts and IT expertise help overcome the crisis

Dr. Juraj Vantuch, Lecturer at Comenius University Bratislava

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the strengthening of the powers of the Government and temporarily restricting the autonomy of schools. The amendment to the Education Act (25. 3. 2020) enabled the education ministry to decide on changes to admission and school-leaving procedures and in teaching, based on the recommendations of the Public Health Office. Regulations, digital content and pedagogical advice are concentrated in a new specialised portal (www.ucimenadialku.sk), mirrored by other stakeholder portals. In VET, during the first (until 1 June) and second (since 26 October) lockdown, distance education focused on theory. Practical teaching was moved to higher grades of study. Dual VET contracts were also cancelled in certain cases. A lack of digital equipment and services was a problem in some schools and for some students studying at home. To tackle this inequality, VET schools proposed a “Digital allowance” for educators and families of students, financed from public funds. 

In the 2019/20 school year, school-leaving examinations at all schools were replaced by an administrative procedure taking into account the students’ previous performance. This decision had a stronger impact on VET, as the long-term work on assigned final projects was then disregarded. SIOV, the national curricular authority, has published proposals for modifications to VET programmes and recommendations for online learning (https://siov.sk/ucme-sa-doma/). Schools not able to offer online learning for everyone made use of collection boxes outside, allowing students to pick up worksheets and submit completed tasks. While the theoretical education during the lockdown was more or less mastered, practical education was almost impossible due to social distancing rules. As compensation, some employers made their in-house training tools, videos and simulation programmes available. In the 2020/21 school year, the Minister of Education abolished only the external part of school-leaving examinations (national testing in mathematics and languages) and left exam administration up to schools.

School-company cooperation as well as international cooperation can be very helpful to identify available and produce new open educational resources, simulations and virtual training, which could partly reduce the need for practice in workshops or companies. The pandemic showed how the potential of IT companies in retraining teachers and the accelerated retraining of so-called digital coordinators in schools is pivotal for the digital transformation of schools envisaged by the national digitalisation strategy.  

Poland: Summer and winter final examinations could take place as planned

Dr. Horacy Dęmbowski, Vicedirector of the Central Examination Board (CEB), Warsaw

In March 2020 all upper secondary schools, including VET schools, moved to online teaching until the end of the summer school semester (August). VET schools, however, were already allowed in June 2020 to organise practical training at their premises and learners could attend apprenticeship training. This was not without difficulties as some companies were in lockdown or, due to health risks, were not allowing learners to take training. This was especially true in the social and health care sectors, which were at the front line of the fight against the virus. The VET exam session for 200 000 learners was organised as planned in June/July with only a small number of learners taking their exams later in August. The pandemic situation during summer was good with a small number of infections, so when the winter semester stared on 1st September, schools were opened and classroom lessons were organised with extra precautions (masks, smaller classes, morning and afternoon shifts). However, due to a rapid increase of the infection rate, in mid-October all schools switched to online teaching again. This remains to be the case as of the beginning of February 2021.

Despite school closures in mid-October 2020, VET schools were allowed to organise practical training, but only within the limit of 10 contact hours per week. Apprenticeship training at the companies was conducted within the general pandemic rules, but not in branches not operating due to lockdown (e.g. the hospitality sector). In November 2020, when the pandemic situation was severe, the Central Examination Agency asked all VET schools whether they would be organising the winter exam session. Over 97% of VET schools said yes. The winter exam session for 200 000 learners was therefore organised in January/February 2021 as planned. The scope of examinations, tasks and assessment criteria were not changed, similarly as in the summer session, and as a result the level of difficulty of exams stayed at the level of pre-pandemic sessions. In each practical exam external invigilators were always present. The impact of COVID-19 on exam results is currently being investigated.

VET teachers could use the support from the dedicated regional teacher development centres who were active in the organisation of online seminars. Increased cooperation between VET teachers and general education teachers in exchanging practice at each school and other schools is also mentioned as one of the few positive aspects of the pandemic.

Sweden: The use of digital technologies will have to be incorporated into regular teacher training

Dr. Marianne Teräs, Professor at Stockholm University

In Sweden, all vocational education and training, at upper secondary level and in adult education, moved to online teaching in spring 2020. VET returned briefly to face-to-face education in autumn 2020, but then switched back to online. Some hybrid models were also introduced, for example, small group meetings were held face-to-face while bigger groups met online. This type of model will likely continue during spring 2021. 

Some VET programmes have had difficulties finding practical placements for their students. It seems that the division between different student groups has also increased: while some enjoyed independent work, others experienced low motivation. VET teacher training had difficulties finding schools for internships, because teachers at VET schools were concentrating on transforming their teaching into an online version, and their workload increased heavily. A new regulation was issued. It covers, for example, how to ensure students’ rights to teaching when schools are closed, and how to follow all instructions from health authorities to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It also set out an increase of support, with provision of digital technologies and the training to use different digital solutions, both of which helped teachers to transform their traditional classroom teaching into online education. As of yet there have been no empirical studies assessing the effects of this support, but informal dialogues with practitioners indicates that this support has been particularly helpful in facing a fast-changing teaching environment.

The use of various digital tools to create conditions for better learning will strengthen vocational training in the long term. This is particularly significant in relation to the design of new learning situations in digital environments which will continue to enrich well-established classroom or workplace-based practices in the future. As previously mentioned, further studies are needed in order to assess weaknesses and potential areas of development. One such weakness is the training of teachers to work in full digital environments, now remedied via fast training and expert support on site (at the vocational schools). The new teaching landscape suggests that regular teacher education will in the near future need to strengthen training in the use of digital technologies for teaching. 

Iceland: The crisis has exposed the strengths and weaknesses of the vocational education system

Ph.D. Elsa Eiríksdóttir, Professor at the University of Iceland, Reykjavík

In Iceland, the VET system is generally organized as a dual system. The closure of upper secondary schools and the disruption to industry and business operations in March 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, therefore had consequences for VET students at school and those completing their apprenticeships.

At schools, practical vocational classes were in many cases suspended, whereas theoretical vocational classes did not suffer as much disruption. The continuation of teaching during this time depended solely on the commitment, creativity and technical knowledge of the teachers. Some of them used videos and introduced assignments students could complete at home or verbally; some decided to make all prior practical work suffice; some completely stopped practical classes. 

While responses in spring 2020 varied by teacher, school and area, the majority of vocational teachers were concerned that students would not receive a full or sufficient education. The renewed restrictions in autumn 2020 did not affect the schools as much, as the measures taken by the schools were better coordinated: Practical VET classes continued under restrictions, and theoretical classes took place online. 

At workplaces, the situation for apprentices varied considerably by fields and the degree to which the COVID-19 restrictions disrupted operations. Teachers estimated that in the spring of 2020 the apprenticeship of about a third of students in their field was disrupted and more than a third was unable to continue their apprenticeship. To some degree government initiatives, such as providing unemployment benefits, and a reduced employment rate, have allowed apprentices to continue and complete their contract, mitigating negative effects such as dismissals of apprentices and fewer new apprenticeship contracts. 

In cases where students move between schools and workplaces, some upper secondary schools enrolled more students into classes to assist them in continuing their studies while the situation in industry remains difficult. Education centres are also monitoring the situation and try to help apprentices complete their studies. 

On the whole, the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected vocational education and training in Iceland, disrupting learning at schools and at workplaces. The crisis has undoubtedly revealed both the strengths and weaknesses of the VET system. For example, a strength of the system can be seen in in the flexible manner in which teachers and schools responded. However, the disruption of apprenticeships reveals a serious weakness. This has, among other things, spurred the government into arguing for a change in the regulation governing apprenticeships; providing options for students to complete their training and graduate when traditional apprenticeships contracts are unavailable. If enacted, this change would be one of the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in Iceland.

Spain: Despite the pandemic, the ministry of education continues to modernise vocational training

Dr. Fernando Marhuenda Fluixá, Professor at Valencia University

The lockdown in mid-March 2020 meant that school attendance was moved online. As the Spanish VET system is school based, all education continued, and the compulsory workplace module that usually starts around spring had to be adapted. The 20/21 school year has started and developed so far face-to-face, allowing every VET school to take measures independently, based on their infrastructures.

The Ministry of Education and Vocational Education issued legislation on April 2020 for the regions, in charge of managing education, in order to introduce more flexibility in the provision of VET, including the specific needs of vulnerable vocational learners.

Regarding work placement, a compulsory part of all VET training programmes, it is now permitted to a) merge the work placement with the final project; b) reduce its length; c) search for alternative activities; and d) adapt assessment and accreditation criteria. 

Steps have been taken to make the Spring term flexible and to reconsider beginning of the 20/21 school year with a reduction in curriculum content and its weight in assessment, which would facilitate progress into further education. However, these steps have to be applied by the education authorities in the regions themselves, who all took a different approach. These measures were taken after the Easter break, three weeks after the lockdown was enforced, and there was ample agreement that the semester focus on reinforcing knowledge previously taught rather than advancing the curriculum content. By the end of April, the Ministry came to an agreement with technological companies to provide support by equipping vulnerable students with tablets and internet access.

Nevertheless, most of these students are not enrolled in the formal education system and instead train in vocational occupations at third sector institutions. These institutions (some of them grouped and accredited under the Spanish Association of Second Chance Schools) are holding online training and accompaniment while also equipping young people with internet access and laptops, and providing both financial and emotional support.

Remarkably, the Ministry of Education has continued the implementation of its VET Modernisation Plan ,launched in November 2019, which led to the announcement made in December 2020 regarding the approval process of a new VET law in accordance with the Osnabrück Declaration. The pandemic has thus actually reinforced the Spanish government’s drive and commitment to strengthening VET.

South Africa: The pandemic has exposed the need for reform in vocational education and training

Ph.D. Stephanie Matseleng Allais, Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the South Africa’s VET system hard. Few colleges have the facilities or lecturer capacity for online learning. Many students don’t have devices and data, and few have the necessary prior educational background. Often, networks are not stable enough for learning, especially in remote areas; tablets or laptops are damaged; students don’t have a calm or quiet space to work in; and there are extreme personal difficulties in households, exacerbated by Covid. Lockdown dealt a heavy blow to workplace experience and workplace learning. South Africa’s skills levy was suspended, with serious implications for the funding of skill formation in general and workplace learning in particular. As the economy slowly opened up, employers have not taken on trainees because they have restrictions on the number of workers allowed. 

In this context, one imperative is embedding VET within industry sector plans for economic recovery. This would strengthen VET in the long term by ensuring on-going focused engagement on skills needs for growth and/or recovery and partnerships for offering training. It could also address workplace experience – a blockage for some learners to obtain a qualification, and for qualified learners to obtain jobs. Formal VET provision has not been well integrated into holistic thinking about vocational skills development in different sectors. Harnessing the economic recovery plan to ensure that this broader perspective is adopted could also strengthen VET in the long term. 

Another imperative is changing the funding models for colleges to ensure ‘surge capacity’ to deal with unanticipated challenges; current models link funding tightly and narrowly to enrolments. Finally, we need greater flexibility from our qualification system, including short-term adjustments to quality assurance requirements for qualifications and programmes in targeted sectors and to funding mechanisms to ensure targeting of immediate training needs. If adopted, this could introduce much-needed flexibility to the system, which will allow engagement with short-term unanticipated demands in the long term as well as meeting the current needs. Currently curricula are prescribed nationally 100%. Right now, there is an urgent need to customize aspects of these – for example for installation and maintenance of ventillators. Having a balance between national curricula and some allowance for local customization may also improve responsiveness in the long term.

Mexico: New technologies and new didactic approaches are of great importance for the transformation of vocational training

Dr. Rolando López Saldaña, General secretary of Colegio Nacional de Educación Profesional Técnica (CONALEP), Metepec

As in most countries, the Mexican Ministry of Education, following the recommendations of hygiene and health authorities, mandated a total shutdown of all schools, from infant care facilities to universities and research institutes. What in March 2020 appeared as a necessary measure expected to last a few weeks, turned into a prolonged period during which local and federal authorities had to reinvent themselves, modify all processes, and rethink all practices. 

Professional and technical education was no exception. Certain peculiarities contributed to the rapid adaptation to teaching online, developing MOOCS and other self-paced services to support training courses for teachers and workers interested in skills certification.

Despite the pending analysis and evaluation of the academic results, it is already evident that our communities were not only successful in providing high-quality attention to well over 85% of our students, but they did so with creativity, commitment, empathy and, most importantly, by designing innovative teaching practices. These facts account for the unanticipated institutional success in graduation rates; progress and stability for an all-time high proportion of students all over the country. 

The highest priority was to provide all students with on and offline opportunities for fair learning assessment and to provide the graduating class with online vocational orientation and work opportunities in their areas.

Accordingly, an intense programme of online activities was deployed. Worth mentioning are the courses on pedagogical approaches to distance and online teaching, webinars on alternative methods of evaluating student learning, the online vocational orientation for prospective spring graduates, and the organisation of multiple webinars with business leaders, academics, educational authorities and international partners to reflect on VET and collectively engage in developing solutions the areas of training models and employability.

Our findings during the lockdown confirm that the combination of technology and renewed pedagogical approaches is an effective and expedient factor of educational change. Teachers are capable not only of creating their own resources but also of utilising virtual reality and immersive techniques to enhance practice.

The new approach to vocational training will be student-oriented and geared towards the integral development of critical thinking, problem solving and innovation. The idea is to provide learning while also offering sound guidance and strong connections to productive sectors already using the powerful technologies of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Vietnam: The pandemic is accelerating the digital transformation and the development of a more flexible system

Pham Viet Ha, Team Leader at the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) in Hanoi

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted public health in Vietnam less severely than many other countries in the world. Nonetheless, the country faces an economic downturn as the tourism and hospitality sector suffers from travel restrictions and lockdowns. The crisis affects TVET graduates who could not find jobs as well as the families of the workers who lost their jobs and forces many students to drop out of their training to earn their living. 

In late 2020, the Directorate for Vocational Education and Training (DVET) of the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MoLISA) and the GIZ Programme “Reform of TVET in Vietnam” supported 10 partner colleges to work with provincial public bodies and the business sector to offer short-term training courses. Almost 1.000 unemployed graduates and workers participated in two-months training courses, receiving training in industrial occupations, which are more resilient to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. The short-term training courses have been adapted from TVET programmes that follow a modular approach and were piloted within the scope of the Vietnamese-German cooperation since 2017. Many participants have found jobs after the course completion. 

Beyond such short-term support schemes, COVID-19 has increased the awareness about the importance for digital transformation of TVET. To encourage TVET institutes to use digital technologies for offering online teaching, the government provided support and direction to TVET institutes and provincial public bodies. By now, the majority of TVET institutes have made experiences using online platforms and offering distance learning. Thus, COVID-19 has compelled TVET institutes to accelerate the digital transformation and develop a more flexible, open and responsive system to cope with external challenges. Despite these positive developments, social distancing and temporary school closures have led to prolonged training time and costs. The quality of training is also at risk because practical training in the TVET institutes and in enterprises has been severely shortened and the quality of online lessons for theoretical and general subjects is not yet fully guaranteed.

In spite of these challenges, the continuation of this transformation process is likely to remain in the focus. An open, flexible, and inclusive TVET system is a priority for the sustainable development of TVET in Vietnam as it helps the country not only to prepare for the future world of work, but also allows to better react to disruptions such as posed by COVID-19 in the future.