This research paper discusses national definitions and conceptions of vocational education and training (VET) in European Union Member States, Iceland and Norway and describes how these definitions and conceptions have changed over the past two decades.
Between September and November 2016, Cedefop invited national VET experts to respond to a questionnaire covering the way national VET systems are understood, in the form of official definitions and overall conceptions. The outcomes of the survey demonstrate the significant diversity of European VET systems, essentially showing that all national VET systems have their particular characteristics and that we can speak of 30 (or more) genuinely national approaches to VET. This variety is also reflected in the national terms used for VET with their particular shadings of VET systems.
Despite the variety, VET is largely perceived by the experts consulted as occupations-specific education and training geared towards securing supply of skilled labour; it is also generally seen as inferior to general or academic education. In most countries, VET predominantly addresses young people, provides qualifications at the middle level of education (ISCED-11 levels 3 and 4), is financed by education budgets and coordinated by central governments. Reflecting this combination of diversity and convergence, four patterns of how VET is understood became visible: work-based or dual initial training (e.g. Denmark, Germany or Austria); initial vocational education (e.g. Bulgaria, Spain, Malta or Romania); further training (e.g. Ireland and UK-England); and as (part of) lifelong learning (e.g. France or Finland).
These patterns of national VET conceptions have been stable, despite considerable reforms in the past two decades. Many country experts reported major reforms in this period but, at the same time, underlined that they have not (yet) changed the overall conception of VET. This makes it difficult to arrive at a consistent European picture of VET development. Nevertheless, we can say for sure that some European countries, but not yet all, have bid farewell to vocational education and training conceived as dead-end initial training for skilled workers, clearly separated from general education. The past two decades have witnessed remarkable diversification of VET in terms of providers, levels and target groups, increased horizontal and vertical permeability, renewed emphasis on work-based elements, coalescence of initial and continuing VET, and hybridisation of systems and programmes. In relation to the four patterns identified, we have reason to assume there are two main trajectories of current VET conceptions:
(a) strengthening of VET points in the direction of VET as work-based training (illustrated by Austria, Denmark or Germany), and expanding to new parts of the education and training system, in particular higher education;
(b) diversification of VET points in the direction of VET as (part of) lifelong learning (illustrated by France or Finland).
These are not exclusive developments and countries do not move either in
one or the other direction. On the contrary, both developments can be observed simultaneously. Consequently, convergence of conceptions (and systems) may take place, but only modestly.
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