Vocational education as innovation source
Most European countries attribute some role to vocational education in their innovation strategies, but these roles differ throughout Europe. This can be concluded from a Neth-ER quick scan of eight European countries on the role of vocational education in their innovation policy, commissioned by the Dutch STEM coalition; Platform Bèta Techniek. The diversity of ideas about the role of vocational education in the innovation chain offers a great opportunity of mutual learning and cooperation.
Diversity in European VET
One idea about the role of vocational education is that good vocational education is an essential prerequisite for an innovative economy. Good examples are the Danish and German approaches in their innovation strategy. In Denmark; A Nation of Solutions, the former Danish government outlined three main pillars for their innovation strategy. One of them is that ‘education is to increase the innovation capacity’. One of the policies which has to realise this is the setting up of societal innovation partnerships. These are public-private partnerships (PPPs) between universities, companies and regional governments that aim to tackle a specific societal challenge. In the German High Tech Strategy of 2015 it is stated that ‘vocational and academic training are of equal value’. Another example of this kind of idea comes from the Estonian innovation strategy which is strongly tied to the lifelong learning strategy of Estonia. This illustrates the goal of the Estonian government to upgrade the skills of its people in order to develop a more innovative economy. In both France and Finland education is mostly described as provider of a skilled labour force and as a system that should work in service of the economy. France, for example, is working hard on bringing its academic field closer to the market. For example by encouraging the formation of PPPs to execute projects financed by the National Research Agency. The quick scan performed by Neth-ER shows that throughout Europe there are roughly two other kinds of ideas about the role of vocational education in innovation.
Innovation without vocational education
The second idea is that vocational education has no or a very small role to play in innovation and this idea was found in both Austria and Norway. In both these countries the only education that plays a significant role in their innovation strategy is academic education. In Austria’s Research and Technology Report 2015 the government itself even concludes it should do more to foster the relationship between vocational education and the private sector, because there is a need for specific training and professional development. Norway mostly relies on its highly educated population to improve its innovation capabilities. Therefore, the innovation strategy is almost exclusively aimed at improving the academic contribution to the innovation capabilities of the Norwegian economy.
Vocational education as innovator
The third idea is that vocational education has an active role to play in the innovation chain. This idea can, for example, be found in the policy in the Netherlands to set up PPPs between vocational educational institutes, regional governments and companies which should foster innovation. These PPPs are called Centres for Innovative Craftsmanship (for vocational education up to EQF level 4) and Centres of Expertise (for vocational education up to EQF level 6). They were set up based on the believe that vocational education is more than a prerequisite for innovation, it is as an important part of the innovation chain. This is reflected in the three aims of the centres:
- increasing the number of students entering the initial vocational education and improve its quality;
- directly enhancing the innovation capacity of the companies involved;
- improve the mobility and flexibility of the current employees of the companies involved.
In the first aim the role that France and Finland attribute to vocational education, namely that it should provide skilled workers, is reflected. The third aim reflects the lifelong learning role that vocational education has in, for example, Estonia. The second aim is not commonly found in other European countries but it is an integral part of the Dutch centres. The inclusion of this aim is an immediate consequence of the rationale about the role of vocational education in the innovation chain that underlies the policy in the Netherlands.
Different rationale, same goals
In the United Kingdom, however, there is a centre that also fulfils all the aims of the Centres in the Netherlands, even though the underlying rationale of the British policy is similar to that of other European countries rather than the rationale underlying the Dutch policy. The centre concerned, the Advanced Manufacturing Training Centre (ATMC), is part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, which again is part of the national Catapult network. Catapults were set up by the British government to accelerate the process of bringing early stage innovations to the market. These are specialised centres that bring together educational/research institutes and companies to work together on validating knowledge. The High Manufacturing Catapult develops new manufacturing technologies, based on innovative ideas developed in research institutes, in seven innovation centres across the UK. One of those centres is the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry, which is a physical centre with high tech facilities where companies and researchers work together to develop new manufacturing technologies. It thus fulfils the second aim of the Dutch centres. The AMTC was set up because the new manufacturing technologies developed by the MTC are worthless if there is no skilled labour force to operate them. The AMTC provides state of the art training and education for both students and employees to ensure that they can work with the new manufacturing technologies. This means the training centre fulfils the first and the third aim of the Dutch centres. This means that the MTC brings together the same policy aims as the Dutch Centres. However, the vocational education provided clearly has the role of supplying skilled workers and thus it is not seen as directly contributing to the innovation capabilities of the companies involved. Therefore, even though the policy aims fulfilled by the MTC are similar to those of the Dutch centres, the rationale behind it is different.
Mutual learning and cooperation
The quick scan shows that vocational education plays a role in the innovation strategies of most European countries but that the role which it plays can be very different. The Dutch STEM Coalition commissioned the quick scan explicitly with the aim to find lessons that the Netherlands could learn from other European countries and the quick scan shows that there is much to learn from indeed. For example the AMTC with its role similar to the Dutch Centres. Based on this quick scan I would encourage other European countries to also look for opportunities to learn from each other. The diversity in Europe, shown by the quick scan, is bound to offer useful lessons for all and thus is an invitation for cooperation.
Gosse Vuijk, policy advisor Neth-ER
Website Platform Bèta Techniek: About the National Platform Science & Technology
Website Centres of Expertise and Centres of Innovative Craftsmanship (Dutch): Publiek Privaat Samenwerken
Website Innovate UK: The Catapult Programme
Website High Value Manufacturing Catapult
Website Manufacturing Technology Centre
Website MTC: Advanced Manufacturing Training Centre
Strategy German government: High Tech Strategy 2015
Strategy Danish government: Denmark; A Nation of Solutions
Report Austrian government: Research and Technology Report 2015