The steps toward excellence in VET: an overview on recent policies

“Making VET a first choice”: this is one of the main goals the recent EU New Skills Agenda (20161) has set for next years. Few months before, the so-called Riga Conclusions (20152) were approved during the EU Latvian Presidency by the Ministers of Education from the European Union Member States, candidate countries, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein, endorsing the new medium-term deliverables for vocational education and training. During this meeting, the ministers, supported by the associations of the European VET schools, aimed at stressing their efforts “in raising the overall quality and status of VET in the context of the Copenhagen process”. What declared in Riga and promoted one year later in the EU Skills Agenda, represents a new crucial step towards a set of new priorities and actions which will affect in particular the VET system at European level.

The context

Many challenges have to be faced in next decades: demographic, socio-economic and technological drivers are leading towards a disruptive change of the world as known so far (World Economic Forum, 2016a3). As pointed out in the Skills Agenda, ageing population will affect the European economic growth, increasing the need for higher productivity and higher skills (also in CEDEFOP, 20164). Global competition is dramatically affecting the local markets and the sustainability of many enterprises; besides, technology is changing habits, consumptions, production, ways of working (industry 4.0, internet of things just to mention few examples): the job of 65% of children starting their primary school today do not yet exist, and will provide goods or services which are not yet requested (WEF, 2016a). Innovation has become one of the key drivers for future sustainability of both the society as a whole and people daily life (Chatzichristou, 20175).

In the recent Human Capital Report 6, the Chairman of the World Economic Forum, Schwab, states: “The Fourth Industrial Revolution will lead to profound shifts across all industries, reshaping production, consumption, transportation and delivery systems, among other factors. At the same time, the very nature of work is changing, in part due to new technologies and their subsequent impact on business models, and in part because of new platforms that allow talent to connect to markets in wholly new ways. Managing these transitions for optimal outcomes for our societies will require visionary leadership and a wide range of new knowledge and skills. The development of relevant talent will determine whether we all partake in the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution or experience its disruptions as bystanders. Much as these new technologies are disrupting labour markets, they also provide the potential to change how we learn throughout our lifetimes, how we educate the next generation and how we re-train those that are facing declining returns to their skills.” (2016b, p. v).

Society, globally, is facing what Van der Loo 7 during the European Business Summit in Brussels on May 2016 defined as a paradigm shift towards a new era called “Anthropocene […]. A material change in frame work conditions – relative to the previous state. It took countless millennia until 1840 for the world population to reach 1 billion. It only took 90 years to double to the 2 billion mark in 1930. The third billion took just 30 years. Since 1960 even this larger number has more than doubled. And with it, much more than merely population, but also resource use, environmental stresses, etc. […] Thus today we are educating our young for jobs that do not yet exist, in order to solve problem we are not yet even aware of. Only few seem to be aware of the exponential reality [Bartlett, 19698] and we seem to think we can tackle 21st century challenges with 20th century education”. It is clear that this challenge is not something affecting only a far future: current data on unemployment reveals more than 20 million unemployed in Europe, including more than 4 million young people. Furthermore almost 7 million jobs can be lost in the following 5 years (WEF, 2016b) with dramatic impacts: unemployment can generate, as direct effect, poverty and, as indirect one, social exclusion. Future job losses and current vacancies are however a signal for the so-called skills mismatch between demand and supply in the job market.

In the Report on “Skill shortages and gaps in European enterprises”, CEDEFOP clearly points out that “A high share of EU firms report difficulties finding the right mix of skills. The 2008 financial and economic crisis has increased unemployment in the EU to unprecedented levels, yet a range of surveys frequently indicate that a significant share of employers have difficulties finding job candidates to fill their vacancies. The latest European Company Survey, in spring 2013, found that about 4 out of 10 (39%) firms in the EU had difficulties finding staff with the right skills”. (20159). Furthermore, the European Commission evaluates that, by 2025, 48.7% of all job openings (including both new and replacement jobs) in the EU will require high qualifications, 39.8% will be for medium qualified and only 11.5% will require low or no qualifications. There is a need for a broader set and higher levels of skills. Already in 2014, seven in ten EU workers needed to have at least a moderate level of ICT skills (use a PC for word-processing, creating documents and/or spreadsheets) to perform their jobs. About half of adult workers considered problem-solving, teamwork and communication skills as very important for doing their jobs.

Skills seem to be the keystone for the future. As pointed out in the EU Skills Agenda, “Skills are a pathway to employability and prosperity. With the right skills, people are equipped for good-quality jobs and can fulfil their potential as confident, active citizens. In a fast-changing global economy, skills will to a great extent determine competitiveness and the capacity to drive innovation. They are a pull factor for investment and a catalyst in the virtuous circle of job creation and growth. They are key to social cohesion”. And: “Skilled workers are more likely to be employed and are more productive than unskilled ones. Besides the direct impact that knowledge (know what) and competences (know how) has on the work output: skills can affect productivity growth also by promoting the transfer of knowledge and the mobility between universities, research institutes, firms, industries and countries; by developing absorptive capacity so that firms can better innovate or adopt best practices; and by promoting mobility of skilled workers to disseminate innovative ideas and knowledge of processes. In addition to its direct contribution to growth, human capital has indirect effects as well, by stimulating the accumulation of other productive inputs (e.g. physical capital, technology or health) which in turn foster growth”.

Innovation in education and training

The WEF suggests to business and policy-makers the following main longer term focus (2016: 32):

  • Rethinking education systems: current dychotomies including Humanities vs. Science or pure vs. applied training, the “prestige premium attached to tertiary-certified forms of education” vs. the real content of learning are simply outdated.
  • Incentivizing lifelong learning: what is really important in education and training is to consolidate a growth mindset and the attitude to ‘learn-how-to-learn’. At the same time, periods of training on the job should be incentivized by companies and supported by institutions.
  • Cross-industry and public-private collaboration: the stand-alone strategy will not be anymore sustainable due to the complexity of the business environment. Partnerships and coopetition are the new pathway for success, not neglecting education providers and institutions.

So the starting point, as pointed out by the European Political Strategy Centre 10“Engaging younger generations starts at school. In 2010 already, the Council conclusions 11 on “education for sustainable development” called for developing a “whole-school” approach, to harness the motivation and commitment of all pupils and students, to develop their critical thinking and to improve their educational attainment in general. It fundamentally concerns the way we think about our complex world and the way we behave, so that people respond effectively and confidently to current and new challenges. It therefore has implications for education and training at all levels which may go beyond simply including sustainable development as another subject in the curriculum. It requires interdisciplinary learning, new knowledge, skills and attitudes, creative thinking, innovation and a long-term perspective. […] Member States are primarily responsible for content of teaching and education but the Commission can contribute with exchange of best practices at EU level. The synergies between the Sustainable Agenda and the priority areas of the “Education and Training 2020 Framework” could clearly be linked and reinforced. […]“education and training” as the indispensable link to raise awareness, share knowledge and innovative thinking, transform perception and attitudes towards a more integrated systems-thinking, a more sustainable approach, in short: to create a sustainability culture.” (2016)

Henceforth, the innovation of education and training systems becomes crucial. To this extent, the European Commission has identified 3 priorities and 10 actions to pursue in the following years:

  • Improving the quality and relevance of skills formation
  • Making skills and qualifications more visible and comparable
  • Improving skills intelligence and information for better career choices

For each one, some actions have been underlined. Most of them directly affect VET systems and young people training.

The first priority includes first of all the importance of preserving basic skills (1) and promoting resilience (2) in the process of “formal education and training [in order to] equip everyone with a broad range of skills which opens doors to personal fulfilment and development, social inclusion, active citizenship and employment. These include literacy, numeracy, science and foreign languages, as well as transversal skills and key competences such as digital competences, entrepreneurship, critical thinking, problem solving or learning to learn, and financial literacy. […] There is growing evidence of the benefits that higher levels of entrepreneurial attitudes and skills can bring. A mapping exercise of research on the impact of entrepreneurial education, commissioned in 2013 by the Commission shows that entrepreneurship education is successful in fostering the entrepreneurial skills of young people, bringing benefits not only to the individual, but also to the economy and to society at large. […] Entrepreneurial skills have also a more general impact on the employability of young people, contributing to higher employment rates”.

Besides, digital skills (4) are crucial. The demand for digital technology professionals has grown by 4% annually in the last ten years in Europe and the number of unfilled vacancies for ICT professionals is expected to almost double to 756.000 by 2020. Furthermore, almost half the EU population lacks basic digital skills; with around 20% of people having none at all. One of the worst existing skills gap concerns digital skills.

In this context, the EU underlines the importance of VET and the need for a change of mindset in the society (3): VET, often considered a second choice, should improve its attractiveness, increase quality, possibly through a stricter cooperation with enterprises, and encouraging the creation of pathways between secondary VET and tertiary education.

The second priority is focused on the interconnection and comparability of competences (5) between different levels of education at national and international level. On this very point VET providers clearly wait for a recognition of their role in the overall educational system, with a clear integration in the European Quality Framework (EC, 2016b12). This step would be important for an integration of migrants (and viceversa) in the job market (6), recognizing the right level of their skills. Finally, transparency and information. The Commission underlines the importance of skills intelligence (7) in order to help people to identify properly their own skills and to communicate them adequately; this would also help companies in assessing the required skills and selecting properly their personnel, decreasing the brain drain (8) which affect many European countries. Skills intelligence require a wide collaboration among the main actors involved: business, research, education and institutions. This cooperation needs to be sustained at local, national and international levels (9). Furthermore, placement of VET graduates (10) should be constantly monitored as a tool to evaluate the quality of training and encouraging improvements. It could be a great opportunity to showcase their social impact and, consequently, their role for the development; key indicators should be identified properly.

An integrated approach, bottom-up, is essential

The above mentioned priorities in the Skills Agenda, as well as the focus of the WEF, cannot be pursued by the European polity alone. The paradigm shift and the consequent disruptive changes require a collaborative approach including institutions (European, national, regional, local), businesses, VET providers, civil society (families and people themselves). Information are spread; knowledge is a commons. Collaboration means sharing data, forecasts, research in order to co-operate and co-project effectively, including in policy-making. To this extent, decision makers, businesses and VET providers have often operated as monads; a real collaboration should be enforced, where the role played by research institutions become relevant in decoding data coming on companies and schools for effective policy implications (as emerged in REP-sinergy project, in Arcidiacono et al., 201513).

The major implications for the European VET system

According to Riga Conclusions and the Skills Agenda, the pathway to success of VET will go through some crucial steps. The case studies, presented in this output, provides some practices in line with this previsions.

1. More work-based learning in VET

The opportunity for students to have a real experience of job during their training is paramount. A stronger work-based learning cannot neglect the crucial role of school environment: the two case studies, school-enterprise model and patronage, seem to offer a reasonable integration. In fact the effective solution seems to be an integration school-job which can generate a virtuous contamination: school, in strict connection with business, can continuously update its training needs analysis, while companies have a significant training partner. Even better if, as in the Cometa case (and already implemented in several European countries), a real job experience is introduced in the school training, making it more realistic. Business-education partnerships are also the solution the EU proposes. It is worth noting, at the same time, a risk: the role of education and training, in particular in terms of soft skills, cannot be exclusively relegated to the job places. Furthermore, as identified in some countries where work-based learning is quite rooted, a disconnection between professional skills and basic competences (literacy, numeracy, but also financial skills and, more broadly, culture) seems to emerge. In a context where creativity, innovation, beauty can make the difference for the personal and professional success, the importance of basic competences are as important as professional skills. Furthermore, soft skills, crucial, as emerged in the previous sections, require a special support, as emerged in the Cometa tutoring activities.

2. Mobility and Internazionalization

The job market for students is no longer restricted to their own regions or even countries. The opportunity/challenge to find a job abroad is often the only possibility to be employed. To this extent it is very important to increase the experience of mobility since the training period, in order to start building an attitude to working and living in a new context. At the same time, internazionalization concerns schools and VET training centres as organizations: international comparisons of systems and practices can be very helpful in managing the development.

3. Adult learning

Another element for the success of VET is to be ready for a change of mindset in our society: lifelong learning is essential in a continuously changing environment.

4. Non-formal and informal learning

Already in 2012 the European Council14 has promoted the recognition of prior learning in terms of not only formal, but also non-formal or informal learning. Informal learning is, to some extent, unintentional for the learner, as a result of daily activities related to work, family or leisure (travels, cultural activities, sport, etc.). Non-formal learning is structured and intentional, supported by trainers or tutors (in-company training, courses attended beyond the formal educational pathway, etc.), although competences and skills are not formally recognized. The value of these alternative forms of learning are more and more important, according to the European institutions (EACEA, 2016 15). In particular in terms of soft skills, daily life, extracurricular activities can offer a complementary but essential contribution to the whole human development of students.

5. Supporting teachers and trainers

Although the educational systems require a paradigm shift towards new approaches, it is crucial to prepare teachers and trainers to change their teaching methodologies, to learn how to update their knowledge and to develop a growth mindset attitude. Teachers, namely for VET organizations, often have a concrete experience in the various sectors of their specialization, although all these competences need to be regularly updated with the continuous changes of the market (Hiim, 201516). To this extent it is essential to help educators in a regular activity of connection with the reality-in-change and in a lifelong learning and training based on their own practice. At the same time, this new approach requires not only to modify the pedagogic models in training future teachers, but, above all, a new environmental setting of the education and training organizations: a proactive approach to research and development of new contents, new didactic methodologies, new assessment tools, is essential, as well as training teachers in main qualitative and quantitative research methodologies. Examples given by the School-Enterprise model, where teachers and trainers daily face market demands, new technology changes in companies, as well as the Cometa Research Centre to support teacher-researchers’ activity are very interesting.

Remarks on Cometa experience

Cometa already shows some elements in line with the EU policy:

  • Going beyond formal training, introducing innovative solutions aware not only of the professional skills but above all of soft skills. The importance of tutoring, counselling and mentoring is essential for the development of non-cognitive skills and a “learn-to-learn” attitude and a growth mindset.
  • Cooperation among institutions is already a key driver for innovation and success in VET: private, public, social initiatives. Most of the training activities in Cometa VET School (including training needs assessment), and their effectiveness in terms of students’ upskilling, is radically based in the cooperation among actors, trans-sectoral, intersectoral, and trans-institutional.
  • Excellence in VET cannot be only for someone. It is worth-noting that Cometa, since its beginning, has been dealing with special categories of young people including dropouts, potentially dropouts, youngsters of underprivileged groups. The real excellence concerns the discover of the human and professional value of people, notwithstanding their problems and disabilities. This appears to be the road to a future social inclusion, for everybody.


Arcidiacono, F., Baucal, A., Buđevac, N. (2015). Research-Based Design For Teacher Education And Practices: Reflections On Key Barriers In Collaboration Between Researcher and Teacher Communities REP-synergy project. ECER 2016, Dublin.

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Chatzichristou, S. (2017). What will you be when you grow up?. Skills Panorama. Available at

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European Council (2010). Council conclusions on education for sustainable development. Available at

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Hiim, H. (2015). Educational Action Research and the Development of Professional Teacher Knowledge. Action Research for Democracy. Gunnarsson, E., Hansen, H. P., Nielsen, B. Steen (Eds.). Pp 147-161. London: Routledge.

Van der Loo, H. (2016). Paradigm Shift For An Exponential Era. Speech at the European Business Summit (May 7th 2016). Available at

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Published by Paolo Nardi

Dr Paolo Nardi is International Affairs and Research Officer at Cometa VET Centre (Italy) and Coordinator of the UNESCO-UNEVOC Centre for Italy. Co-opted Board Member of VETNET (association of researchers in VET). Fellow at PlusValue. Board Member of the Journal Economics and Policy of Energy and the Environment. Degree in Public Administration and International Institutions and PhD in International Law and Economics at Università Bocconi; MA in Public Policy at Brunel University London. His research interests shifted from human geography (namely: non profit, social innovation and community development) to education and training, namely innovations in pedagogy and life skills.

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