Europeans want more vocational (not higher) education…

Defying received wisdom, most Europeans would prefer an expansion of technical and vocational education and training (TVET, VET or just vocational), rather than further expansion of higher education. Do they think we have ‘enough’ higher education now?

The massive expansion of higher education

All Western countries have witnessed a massive expansion of higher education enrollment in recent decades. As figure 1 below shows, more and more children are undertaking tertiary level education, i.e. short-cycle tertiary education (typically HNC or HND in the UK, bachelors or masters programmes, at universities and further education colleges (at International Standard Classification of Education [ISCED] 2011 levels 5A-5B). This is great news and has been welcomed by policy-makers, scholars, and other observers.

And for good reasons. Many things we desire are connected to higher education, for instance, it contributes to economic growth and innovation. Higher educated citizens are less likely to be unemployed. They earn more, are more satisfied with their jobs and lives, and they participate more in elections and communities. In short, higher education has many valuable economic, social, and political effects.

Fig. 1: higher education enrollment in 21 European countries

National and European policymakers have played a vital role in this process. The EU’s Lisbon Strategy and Bologna Reforms, aimed at transforming Europe into the world’s “most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy”, called for a massive expansion of higher education. Similarly, the OECD has for many years urged countries to increase higher education provision. 

This higher education-focused discourse has become increasingly influential over time. Today’s children are always reminded by their parents, teachers, and politicians that if they want to make it in life, they need to go to university.

The dark side of higher education expansion

At the same time, this recent ‘massification’ of higher education has several potential drawbacks. One common concern is that the expansion of academic higher education contributes to the erosion of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) systems. This is particularly true for countries that traditionally have a strong focus on vocational training, such as Austria, Denmark, and Germany.

Why is this worrisome? Some social scientists have repeatedly pointed out that vocational training systems have several advantages over academic higher education. To give but four examples, youth unemployment is much lower in countries with strong (employer-based) TVET systems. This is because the school-to-work transition is smoother in vocational-focused systems, in particular making it easier for children from less-privileged backgrounds. 

Second, wage inequality is lower in countries with larger shares of TVET students, as the salaries of vocational students are closer to those of higher education students. Third, in some countries (e.g. Italy and France) there is simply no labour market demand for more higher education graduates and the enrollment expansion simply leads to more people being ‘over-educated’ or ‘under-employed’. And finally, vocational training systems are the heart of a specific type of capitalism, the coordinated market economy – one with a proactive industrial strategy. In the medium- to long-term, undermining vocational training may erode the basis of these countries’ production systems, leading to lower growth, higher unemployment, and more inequality.

But what do voters want?

So far, these concerns have mainly remained a scholarly or technocratic debate, without much prominence in the political sphere. The prevailing discourse is still focused on higher education. Politicians have mostly experienced and talk about higher education, searching for ways to expand enrollment or to make universities more efficient.

But what do citizens want when it comes to education policy? Do voters agree with this trend? Here at the University of Konstanz, new research by Marius Busemeyer and myself, funded by the European Research Council, shows that, surprisingly, voters, in fact, seem to disagree with most politicians.

Most Europeans want more spending on vocational training

We conducted a large public opinion survey in 2014. The survey is representative of the populations of the eight countries (e.g. in terms of gender, age, income, education, geographical distribution, etc.) and was conducted by professional survey firm (TNS Infratest) using computer-assisted telephone interviews (CATI), applying random digit dialling (RDD). True wonks can see here for further methodological details.

We asked 8,905 citizens, across eight European countries, which part of the education system should receive more public funding: early years, schools, technical and vocational education and training, or higher education.

Most voters mentioned schools or vocational training; much lower shares chose higher education or early years (see Figure 2). A surprisingly large share of voters wants governments to spend more on vocational training rather than on higher education. Put differently, only minorities of people in all eight countries want governments to prioritise spending on higher education.

Fig. 2: spending priorities for different education sectors

Most Europeans want students to do apprenticeships rather than go to university

We also asked our 8,905 respondents what kind of education they would recommend to ‘an average high school student’. Should these kids attend universities, school-based vocational training, or firm-based vocational training? We considered also asking about their own children but didn’t have the capacity this time around (as ever, more research needed!)

Defying the prevailing trend towards academic higher education, large majorities in all eight countries chose vocational training (see Figure 3). Most citizens think that, rather than attend higher academic institutions, most school-leavers should start vocational training. So put another way, in all countries in our sample, only small minorities recommended higher education.

Fig. 3: recommendations for ‘average’ pupils

What should we do?

Across the globe, higher education is expanding, and appearing to do in a way that is at the expense of vocational training. Social scientists have pointed at many benefits, but also at several downsides of this trend. Our research shows that citizens across Europe, in fact, want policymakers to focus more on vocational training. What should we do with this finding, where should we head from here?

To be sure, I would not recommend that governments revise recent policies and make their universities much more exclusive again. The expansion and ‘democratisation’ of higher education has had many more benefits than shortcomings.

However, I strongly believe that policy-makers and societies at large should place much more emphasis on the value of vocational training. Here are four suggestions:

  • As a society, we should stop regarding academic higher education as a ‘better’ option than vocational training.
  • As parents and educators, we should arouse children’s curiosity about human craftsmanship and about vocational skills and jobs.
  • As citizens, we should encourage our children, neighbours, and friends to value hand-made objects.
  • As policy-makers, researchers and advisors, we should modernise vocational training, to fit today’s knowledge economies.

On the demand side, public campaigns could and should give these aims impetus. The World Skills programme is a great example. With PISA-like competitions among apprentices, they aim to raise the visibility of vocational training and jobs. In another example, Sweden currently ran a big pro-TVET campaign on YouTube called ‘DinTalang’. It features several short, witty sketch videos presenting vocationally-skilled young people in a favourable light over purely academic training. These videos have been viewed and shared thousands of times and might play a part in helping to slow down the decline of vocational training.

On the supply side, TVET programs need constantly updating, to appeal to successive cohorts of students and to stay on top of the latest content. This is particularly important in our post-industrial societies, as historically the apprenticeship system was tightly connected to manual, industrial work. A second challenge will be to adapt apprenticeship programs to constant technological change, such as automation and the use of artificial intelligence.

Besides updating traditional TVET programs, blended TVET/academic approaches should be considered and explored as a viable option. Some German Länder, for example, are currently exploring “dual study” programs, with students spending time both in firm-based training as well as in higher education. Perhaps next time we could ask how citizens would view such programmes?

We need fresh evidence-based thinking about vocational education and how it is viewed. Let’s not forget the virtues of vocational skills by only focusing on the virtues of higher education.

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