Middlesex's pioneering Institute for Work-Based Learning makes it possible for employees to gain a degree while still working full-time.
You might imagine that Spanish and German bricklayers learn the trade in much the same way: perhaps a basic qualification, followed by plenty of on-the-job experience on a building site. But as a recent report for the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop) reveals, EU states lay down very different rules and guidance on how bricklayers must be trained. The Spanish model is chiefly school-based. German training is state-led, and involves a mixture of company-based work and part-time study. It can take more than two years to even alter a training regulation - too long to respond to changing labour market needs, according to a member of Germany's Federal Institute for vocational training, who spoke to the report's researchers.
Across the rest of the EU, approaches to vocational training (VET) vary even more widely - and with them the mechanisms through which training bodies learn what employers and the market wants. Trade unions and sector skills councils play a big role in deciding what training workers need. If they fail to explain to educational institutions what's required, or the institutions don't listen, everyone becomes frustrated. For instance, should a bricklayer be given the skills to do any bricklaying job, as German regulations require, or just the one where she happens to be doing her apprenticeship? In their report for Cedefop, Middlesex University's Professor of Work-Based Learning Carol Costley and her fellow researchers were asked to examine the structures 15 different states have adopted to try to ensure that training programmes and qualifications meet the needs of both the market and the individual.
They found four models of feedback mechanism. In the first, which predominates in England, government has adopted a fairly hands-off relationship with educational and training institutions, signalling rather than steering their activity. At the other extreme is the statist model, where the government steers both the labour market and the institutions that train workers. Yet others, like France, have 'participatory' models where social partners are involved in shaping training qualifications. Sweden, for instance, is in the process of moving from a statist to a participatory system.
Identifying these typologies matters because they play such a crucial role in helping young people find jobs. With youth unemployment so high in many parts of Europe, and fiscal austerity having an impact on governments' ability to co-ordinate training, the Cedefop study helps states identify different ways of organising and improving vocational education. "Everything is changing. Because of the recession, countries are rethinking their VET systems," says Prof Costley.
Middlesex's Institute of Work-Based Learning, where Prof Costley is Head of Research, has been at the forefront of creating new vocational qualifications - particularly apprenticeships. The Institute works directly with companies like Halifax, Asda, Marks & Spencer and the Post Office to accredit employees for work-based projects they undertake. "Let's say we're working with a supermarket, and they want all their middle managers to gain a diploma," explains Prof Costley. "We tell them what skills and abilities are needed, and suggest where to get the training. The diploma is of interest to the employee, and the employer wants to incentivize them. Quite often when the employee has gone through this process, they feel better about themselves."
Employers want their staff to be able to think critically, in the way a university qualification teaches them to do, but they can't afford for them to be away from the workplace for long periods. The apprenticeships pioneered by the IWBL offer a way to overcome the problem. Middlesex is one of only two universities funded to develop degree-level Higher Apprenticeships. In 2013, Asda announced that its staff would be able to gain a BA (Hons) degree in distribution or retail operations at Middlesex, while keeping their salaried job at the store. EasyJet has also launched a BSc in professional aviation and pilot practice through the university, making its trainee pilots eligible for government funding.
Prof Costley is now embarking on another EU-funded project alongside researchers in Brandenburg, who are interested in how the British apprenticeship schemes could influence German training provision.