Conference on "Policy Transfer in Vocational Skills Development Revisited"

The role of the dual system and of national qualification frameworks in international development cooperation

Date: September 13 & 14, 2012
Place: University of Zurich

The Institute of Education of the University of Zurich in cooperation with the Centre of Development and Cooperation of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (NADEL), the Network for Policy Research, Review and Advice on Education and Training (NORRAG) and the Swiss Forum for Skills Development and International Cooperation (FoBBIZ) organised an international conference to review the role of vocational skills development (VSD) in international development cooperation. In particular, the conference focused on the transfer of globalised VSD models, such as the dual system and national qualification frameworks.

Vocational skills development (VSD) has re-emerged as a key theme in international development cooperation. After close to two decades, during which the focus of governments and many donor agencies has been mainly on increasing access to quality basic education, more attention is again being paid to the transition of youth into labour markets, and thus to vocational skills that have the potential to ease this transition. The challenge for all those involved in planning and implementing such policies is, however, quite substantial, for instance when it comes to creating links between VSD and the world of work or to ensuring that training processes do, in fact, contribute to employability and to productivity increases. In order to address such challenges in developing and transition countries, policy-makers and VSD experts often promote approaches that have emerged in more industrialised countries, where they have, in some cases, represented the core rationales of these countries’ VSD systems for a long time or, in other cases, developed more recently and served to tackle specific challenges in the field of skills development. However, implementation of polices designed along the lines of VSD approaches which have emerged in other contexts is challenging. The main reason for this is that the economic, political, social and cultural conditions that have led to the development of these approaches in the original contexts are quite different from the conditions in the countries to which the policies are supposed to be transferred. Thus, policy transfer often proves to be successful only then when the approaches are not being used as blueprints but are carefully adapted to specific contexts.

Such reflections have been at the core of a debate among policy-makers, academics and practitioners for quite some time. Undoubtedly, the year 2012 is a good moment to revisit these debates, particularly as this year’s Global Monitoring Report on Education for All (GMR EFA) is dedicated to VSD. The specific focus of the Zurich conference proceedings was placed on the transfer of two models that emerged in industrialised countries and have been frequently used for reforming VSD systems in transition and developing countries. The first of these two models was the dual system training model, which represents the core rationale of the VSD systems in a number of Western European countries, in particular Austria, Germany and Switzerland. The key feature of this model is characterised by the fact that those undergoing training mainly work as trainees in enterprises and receive periods of general education as well as less firm-specific skills training at schools that are funded and organised by the public authorities. This approach has been promoted, for many decades until today, particularly by German and Swiss development agencies, mainly as it is being thought to be a highly cost-effective approach to training, that – compared to exclusively school-based training systems – strongly involves representatives from the world of work in training, thus providing trainees with relevant skills. However, experience in transition and developing countries has shown that implementation can be challenging, for instance as employers are often not ready to engage in formal training or as organisational structures in the private sector (e.g. employers’ associations etc.) are lacking.

The second policy approach that was discussed at the conference was that of promoting national qualification frameworks (NQF) in international development cooperation. In contrast to the dual system, this approach has evolved more recently in Anglo-Saxon countries, and is being seen as an instrument for harmonising highly heterogeneous VSD systems but also for facilitating educational mobility across the entire education and training system. Like only few other approaches in the field of VSD, the NQF model has diffused at a enormous pace across the globe, particularly also among transition and developing countries. However, the effects of qualification frameworks have been a matter of intense debate, for instance when it comes to assessing the impact of reforms on the relevance of training programmes for the labour market.

Against this backdrop, the conference discussed the challenges of policy transfer and of implementing reforms designed along the lines global model solutions in different national and local contexts, which also required a look at the underlying motives of stakeholders involved in the transfer process. Most importantly, the conference paid attention to the evidence base for the impact of reform initiatives at the country level. In addition, it also had the objective to contribute to a better understanding of how such models can be adapted to specific national and local contexts in developing and transition countries so that reforms do, indeed, serve the needs and demands of different social groups.

The conference was kindly supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Jacobs Foundation.