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Updating the big picture 1: What is happening with the “European dimension” …?

May 10th, 2008 by Pekka Kamarainen

In my previous posting I have listed a number of questions. With these questions I want to examine, to what extent the recent years have been been characterised by a change in the European cooperation climate in the field of vocational education and training (VET).

What has “European dimension” meant at different points of time?

In particular, I want to make it transparent what has happened to the role of VET research and to the European cooperation culture. However, the main interest in this exercise is not merely to give an interpretation on, what has happened. The key point is to consider, what implications the changing perspectives have had on VET-related knowledge develipment. This leads to the question, how the VET researchers have been involved in the changes and how they can possibly influence the future developments.

From this point of view it is essential to consider the changing views on “European dimension” at different evolutionary stages of European educational cooperation and European research cooperation. To me, the period 1995-2000 and the period after 2000 are characterised by different expectations on European cooperation. Below, I try to give a picture how these different expectations have been shaped by the EU programmes, by the Member States and by researchers and educationalists participating European cooperation.

The period 1995-2000 (the early Leonardo da Vinci and the era of ‘subsidiarity’)

Looking back at this relatively early period of European educational cooperation it strikes me that the involvement of EU in the field of education and training was justified from the perspective of subsidiarity. Thus, the primary task of European cooperation programmes was to support national governments and stakeholders to improve the national education and training systems (or the decentralised VET provisions). Moreover, the representatives of Member States and of Social Partners were making a stong point on their ‘ownership’ or co-participation rights.

At this period the European VET researchers and educationalists joined in European projects as representatives of the national VET cultures (and of related research approaches). To some extent this was linked to advocacy for the relative strengths of one’s own culture – but on the other hand there was genuine openness for self-criticism. This stimulated a climate of learning from each other and of understanding each others’ positions. Of course this was coupled with conceptual difficulties, gaps of understanding and competition between different positions. Yet, the most ambitious projects tried to create European group pictures that made it possible identify cultural clusters in European VET landscape and main strategies in reform approaches. Also, it was possible to identify culturally specific patterns for involving research in VET-related innovations (and to reflect upon the lack of such patterns).

Regarding European cooperation this period was characterised by enabling measures that opened new opportunities to cross traditional boundaries. Regarding European knowledge development this period made it possible raise new questions and to start new forms of cooperation – without certainty, what is to be found at the end of the journey. Yet, there was a positively open expectation on “European added value”.

The period after 2000 (The Lisbon follow-up processes and the era of compatibility)

After Lisbon Summit 2000 the cooperation culture started to change gradually. Whilst the previous period had referred to subsidiarity, the newer period of cooperation was linked to the Lisbon goal-settings for the year 2010. In the field of education and training this was linked to the new educational framework processes (the Bologna process for higher education and the Copenhagen process for VET). In this context the national governments and Social Partners have adopted new roles as godfathers and godmothers of inter-governmental agreements and of follow-up processes.

This has also had an impact on the European educationsal cooperation programmes (which nowadays are under the umbrealla of the integrated LLP programme). In the selection processes for the new cooperation programmes the contribution to Lisbon follow-up and the compatibility with current EU policies play a more significant role than earlier.

Regarding the cooperation activities ths has brought up new priority areas:

– the experts’ work for new European instruments (European Qualification Framework, European Credit Transfer, Europass etc.)

– the piloting with the new instruments and adjusting the institutional patterns to the given frameworks (e.g. the Tuning project in the Higher Education).

Alongside these priority areas there are certain ‘niche areas’ that are clearly beyond the reach of the framework processes (e.g. the projects for specific target groups for VET and Adult Education). Also, for these areas there is a certain expectation on working towards European framework processes or for creating common European instruments.

Changing perspectives on European added vale?

So far I have only given a brief account on the changing boundary conditions for European cooperation and on the different priorities that have been promoted. In what respect can this be called as ‘change of cooperation climate’. I try to give a brief answer with the help of an old slogan.

In the mid-1990s European cooperation was advertised with the slogan: “Learning from Europe – learning for Europe”. To me the first part of the slogan referred to the complementary role of European cooperation and to readiness for mutual learning. The latter part referred to interest in creating mutual awareness and to promote transfer of ideas between different VET cultures.

From 2000 onwards the European cooperation climate can be characterised by a reverse formulation: “Learning for Europe – learning from Europe”. To me the first part refers ti the primacy of European fremework processes and instruments as the common starting point. The latter part refers to the secondary role of national and sectoral VET contexts for making use of the of the common tools and instruments.

It is also possible to make use of lingual analogies. The earlier period of European cooperation can be understood as a phase of emerging ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘multilingualism’ in European VET research and in practical VET-related cooperation. The latter period can be characterised as a phase of emerging ‘mono-culturalism’ and ‘conceptual esperantism’ in European VET research and in practical VET-related cooperation. As a consequence, the earlier heritage of mutual awareness (and learning from each other) has been replaced by positioning vis-à-vis European frameworks (and learning to use common instruments).

What is the nature of ‘European dimension’ after the Lisbon follow-up?

Obviously, the picture that I have given above is only a rough caricature. Of course, the real life is more complex and the real practice in European cooperation is not only guided by the programmatic statements on ‘European dimension’. Yet, the above presented characterisation (of the changes in the European cooperation climate) gives rise to questions like:

  • What kind of policies for European cooperation will be pursued after the Lisbon follow-up?
  • How can the VET researchers contribute to the ‘post-Lisbon’ understanding on ‘European dimension’?

I have some thoughts on this but I would not like to continue this discussion on such an abstract level. Therefore, I prefer to proceed to the other postings that update the big picture of European VET research. We need to discuss issues like ‘interdisciplinarity’, ‘innovations’, ‘contextuality’,’networks’ and ‘e-resources’ in order to clarify where we stand at the moment and which ways we want to follow in the coming times.

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