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Thoughts on reforms in vocational education and training (VET) – Part One: What is at stake in current Finnish debates?

May 23rd, 2015 by Pekka Kamarainen

Given the fact that I am blogging as a Finnish expatriate living outside my home country, it has not been my habit to comment politics in Finland. In some of my recent blogs I have reported on the Finnish pilots linked to our ongoing Learning  Layers (LL) project. An article of the pilots with the video annotation tool AchSo! brought into picture bigger issues of educational policies and of sustainable work. This gave rise to brief comments on the educational background of the pilot (collaboration between school-based vocational education, workplace learning and flexible transition to apprentice training). At the same time the  Sustainability Commitment process initiated by the Ministry of Environment seemed to provide an appropriate working perspective for dissemination of good practice. Now, after the general elections in Finland the negotiations on a three-party government coalition have raised new questions on the future course for developing the Finnish vocational education and training (VET) system. This gives me a reason to write a series of blogs on the past Finnish VET reforms and how they can be mapped to a European group picture. But firstly I need to give a quick view on the current VET policy issue in the coalition talks.

 1. What is being discussed in the coalition talks concerning VET?

Last week the Finnish media reported that one of the hot issues in the coalition talks is the duration of the initial VET programs. Here we have several issues. Firstly, the Finnish – predominantly school-based VET – has been organised as part of the upper secondary education. The duration of three years has been based on two main arguments:

  • Firstly, to open a vocational pathway to higher education (with sufficient general educational content).
  • Secondly, to accommodate an appropriate amount of workplace learning (base on cooperation arrangements between vocational schools and partners enterprises).

Now the news reports tell that there is a pressure to cut the costs of full-time education by cutting the duration of full-time vocational education. Also, there is a wish to promote a quicker transition of young people to working life. In this context the role of apprentice training and work experience placements are being mentioned as necessary measures.

2. How have these news been received in the public?

So far the news have not been based on public documents or statements by politicians. Therefore,  both the news coverage and the public debates have been based on sophisticated guesses. In their first reactions the Trade Union of Education in Finland (representing all teachers in Finland) and the Union of vocational learners in Finland have criticised these plans heavily. They are concerned about the functioning of vocational pathways to higher education as well as of the quality of workplace learning. Altogether, they are concerned of possible short-term rationalisation measures that may have severe negative consequences – whether from the perspective of providing educational opportunities or from the perspective of integrating young people into working life. Alongside these strong reactions there have been some individual remarks that Finland should look at other models and alternative solutions.

It is not my purpose to enter this Finnish debate on my blog (that I am writing in English as an expatriate working abroad). Yet, as a VET researcher who has started his career by comparing European VET reforms and then continued by monitoring European cooperation, I feel the need to look back. Firstly, I want to have a second look at the Finnish reforms that have shaped the current educational frameworks. Secondly, I want to explore, what role apprentice training and integration of school-based and workplace-based learning have played in these reforms. Thirdly, I want to make some comparisons to parallel developments in other European countries. We need to have a picture, how we have come to the current situation – what has been achieved and what may appear as weaknesses. Also, we need to reflect, what may appear as ‘good practice’ in a European comparison and why.

I think this is enough for the moment. I hope that I get my thoughts on paper in due time.

More blogs to come …

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