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Thoughts on reforms in vocational education and training (VET) – Part Two: Looking back at the Finnish reforms in 1990s

May 25th, 2015 by Pekka Kamarainen

In my previous post I informed of a new debate on the future course of the Finnish educational policy that has emerged as a by-product of the ongoing coalition talks after the parliament election in April. The focal issue is seemingly the duration of the initial vocational education and training (VET) programs. Yet, as the first reactions to the news from the coalition talks indicate, there seems to be much more at stake than a seemingly simple decision. With this blog post I try to give a picture on the educational reforms of the 1990s that gave the Finnish educational policy its core principles and the VET system its current frameworks.

1. What were the issues for the educational reforms in the 1990s?

The reform debates of the early 1990s were introduced by critical assessment of the earlier reforms of the 1970s. These earlier reforms had tried to provide a balance between the general (academic) track and the vocational (professional) track in the upper secondary education. In particular the status differences between different vocational/professional education options were to be reduced and the vocational/professional routes were supposed to become more attractive. After a lengthy implementation period  the reality showed a different picture.

The critical reviews by the educational authorities and independent research groups were summarised in 1990 in the following way:

1) The educational demand was characterised by academic drift: In spite of the efforts to create a new balance between the tracks, the educational demand of young people drifted towards the general/academic track and towards university studies. Given the fact that the Finnish universities have taken their students on the basis of domain-specific entrance examinations, this led to increased queueing of candidates for university studies.

2) The transition to vocational/professional options remained status-oriented: In spite of the efforts to reduce the status differences and to promote vocational progression, the educational demand led towards segmentation. The higher vocational (professional) options were overwhelmed by graduates from the general/academic track whilst graduates from vocational schools remained minority.

3) The use of lower vocational education options as transit stations: Parallel to the above mentioned tendencies there was an increase in the enrollment of graduates from the general/academic track to lower vocational education programs. Here, the interest was not necessarily to obtain an additional qualification but, instead, to obtain a domain-speficic transit station (to prepare for entrance examinations of universities or higher vocational education). Due to this increased demand the vocational schools started to develop special options for graduates from the general/academic track. In this way the vocational schools tried to encourage such learners to complete their programs instead of using them as transit stations (and drop the programs if they got an access to ‘higher’ option).

2. What were the structural changes and the guiding principles outlined by the reforms?

The reforms that were outlined via high level conferences, public consultations and a pilot period took the following course:

a) Creation of a non-university sector of higher education: The higher vocational (professional) education had already become post-secondary and recruited mainly graduates of academic track. Several domain-specific institutes had already pushed for decisions to upgrade them as colleges of higher education. Now, the reform opted for upgrading such institutes into HE but at the same time creating merged polytechnics that would cater for the constant development of their departments. Via these mergers and a national accreditation process the newly created polytechnics became eligible for the Bologna process. (Later on, the polytechnics started to use the name ‘universities of applied sciences’.)

b) Separation of the secondary vocational education from the higher vocational education: The above mentioned reform led to an institutional separation between the secondary vocational education (that remained in vocational schools) and the higher level (that was upgraded and integrated into the polytechnics). As a compensatory measure, the reform maintained the vocational progression route from secondary vocational education to polytechnics.

c) Flexible curricular cooperation between ‘academic’ and vocational programs in upper secondary education: Another major feature of the reforms of the 1990s was to enable flexible curricular cooperation between upper secondary schools (‘academic track’) and vocational schools. Instead of integrating them into a common institutional and curricular framework, new cooperation options were opened. Firstly, learners of both type of schools got the opportunity to choose courses from the other type of schools. E.g. ‘academic learners’ with interest in economics could choose commercial subjects from vocational schools. And vice versa, ‘vocational learners’ with interest in continuing to higher education could choose general subjects from the upper secondary schools. One step further was the option of obtaining dual qualifications – the Finnish baccalaureate (Abitur) and the vocational qualification – via a mutually adjusted schedule.

Altogether this reform agenda tried to to solve the problems of the earlier periods in the following way:

  • by redirecting the academically oriented educational demand to both universities and to the newly created polytechnics,
  • by maintaining the vocational progression routes (from vocational schools to polytechnics)
  • by encouraging boundary-crossing curricular cooperation and educational choices between the ‘academic’ and ‘vocational programs in upper secondary education.

In this respect the emphasis was mainly on providing new opportunities for Higher Education, but at the same time trying to enhance the attractiveness of vocational education as well. From this point of view it was important that the vocational programs had the same duration as the general/academic programs.

I think this is enough of the educational reforms and of structural changes of the 1990s. With this quick recollection I tried to reconstruct the political and cultural background of the current debates. However, there is a need to have a closer look at the role of workplace learning and apprentice training in the Finnish VET system as well.

More blogs to come …

 

 

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