Conference shows how to combat skills shortage. Ian Nash reports from Turin
Five years of reforms to training policies and action programmes have failed to create the new skills needed to support the burgeoning global economy throughout Europe and the world.
Despite fine words and exhortations, vocational education and training continues to be under-funded as advanced economies stake their futures on higher education. While leading states in the EU have seen most progress, many newer and less well-off European and close-partner countries have barely started to close the skills gaps.
Where poorer countries appeal to the rich for help, they are too often faced with unacceptable political and economic demands to conform. Such demands are reinforced by a mass media that, at best, colludes with the rich nations and, at worst, distorts the truth.
In the views of 250 leading industrialists, educationists, economists and politicians from 40 nations represented at an international conference in Italy, the situation now threatens the stability of the world economy.
A survey of opinions at the European Training Foundation (ETF) conference in Turin - backed by analysis of each country's progress - shows a disturbing pattern. The ETF is the European Union's centre of expertise created to give advice on the future of vocational education and training in all member countries. Few delegates thought policies had worked through to improve people's skills over five years. Nor did they believe that vocational education and training reforms had made a significant impact on social and economic development. Nevertheless, there was much optimism that reforms could make a difference - but only if the rich would allow the poor a more flexible approach.
One of the most startling and paradoxical issues to emerge was that almost everyone thought every other country was doing better than their own. Such impressions serve further to stultify reforms, as countries copy each other rather than innovate.
There are some adventurous programmes in place throughout Europe. In Estonia, 10 per cent of all adult education spending is on information communications technology with universal free entitlement. Paid for by the banks, cynics may see opportunism as financial institutions look to expand electronic banking systems. But wider benefits of improved literacy and greater employability are evident.
In the mid-Nineties, the ETF, EU and World Bank financed small regional programmes for radical restructuring of industrial retraining around St Petersburg. The scheme was so successful that the Russian government asked the foundation to help design a wider national programme.
But evidence discussed at the conference shows that too few initiatives are emerging. In a global economy, there is no room for weak partners. Worse, weaknesses in other countries undermine success elsewhere.
By 2010 the EU wants Europe to be the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world. Next May, "enlargement" will encompass 25 countries, taking the EU population to 500million. Moreover, EU partnerships are growing in eastern Europe, central Asia and the southern and eastern Mediterranean.
A "road map" for the future of vocational education and training in all countries emerged from the conference, aimed as pushing back the boundaries of knowledge. It states: "A solid skills base is crucial to enhance international competitiveness and create the right climate for strong and sustained economic growth. A society where individuals have equal opportunities for the lifelong development of skills and access to the labour market is far more likely to be a just society."
But what action is needed to stop such statements becoming mere platitudes? Doris Pack, EU commissioner, told the conference the EU had a poor track record: "Even in the early years of the EU, the commission was not interested in vocational education and training. It took a fight to get it into documents. And even now there is not enough money, governments don't give enough cash."
One of the greatest obstacles was the media's failure to promote or understand the role of post-school education and training. Further education was never a vote winner. Almost all delegates in Turin testified to the frustrations this created.
Merete Pedersen, a chief adviser to the minister of education in Denmark, said: "We only hear about problems of vocational education and training in the media, never the good things. That is because most journalists do not know that world. They have been to school and university. The complicated world of vocational education and training is not something they understand." Her concerns over the media's negative impact were borne out by a TES survey for the conference (see right).
The consequences (and warnings) are spelled out in Learning Matters, a 60-page discussion document for the conference. "Basic, secondary general and higher education have received far more attention from the beginning."
What happened with vocational education and training in each country depended on the presence of donors and funds, which has created problems of "ownership and sustainability"."
As a result of under-funding, resistance to change, the prescriptive demands of donors and the mistaken belief that everyone else knows best, too many initiatives are poor copies of what other countries have done. The conference's development plans to tackle this.
Peter de Rooij, director of the ETF, said: "Projects must be tailor-made to exploit local potential in the region. What is important also is the need to support countries not with a ready-made curriculum but with the tools, mechanisms for institution building and the technologies. That is where ETF has tried to focus its support."
The conference proposals suggest that the European experience can provide "reference points" for improving the quality of training. They call for more co-ordinated funds from the donor community. They also offer advice on improved public-private partnerships, social dialogue, and investment in education and training and in the role of teachers.
But first governments need to create flexible pathways for learning, track students better after they have left school, tackle the low status and outdated skills of lecturers and trainers, update the curriculum and introduce more reliable data and management information systems.
In fact, the road map reads like a photocopy of demands from the college employers and unions in the UK to our own government.