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Revisiting I-Europe – Part 3: Back to future (and to open futures)

January 3rd, 2008 by Pekka Kamarainen

Little did I know – when starting my personal blog – that I would get caught in a slow motion picture. I thought it would be a relatively simple thing to cast a quick look back at the issues of 2003 and then zoom back to the present date. As it often happens, these things need more reflection – and time … and energy.

Anyway, here I am, back with the re-examination of some critical issues for the European research in vocational education and training (here referred to as “European VET research”). And, since some time has passed sinsce my previous postings, I need to explain why I am still struggling with the “I-Europe” approach that I was drafting for the common discussions of European VET researchers some time ago.

European VET researchers and open futures

To me the main point of interest in the European cooperation of VET researchers in the years 1995-2000 was the readiness to face new challenges and open futures. In this respect the European projects of that period were looking beyond the boundaries that wasknown on the basis od simple country-specific information. Some projects were looking for new ways to link general qualifications and vocational learning arrangements – without knowing who would prove to be champions and who would need to learn more from others. In a similar way some projects were looking into new ways of developing education and training for VET professionals (in the interface areas of school-based learning and workplace learning). All this required readiness for new solutions and readiness to admit that all the building blocks were not there at the beginning of the projects. Moreover, the common awareness that the starting points were incomplete, gave a push for joint European knowledge development. The participants understood that they were contributing to knowledge enrichment and creative search processes at the level of trans-cultural dialogue. Furtthermore, the participants were eager to leartn from each other within the projects and on common European arenas that brought several projects in dialogue with each other. This, latterly, gave rise to European umbrella-networks (like the “Forum” network) or knowledge sharing infrastructures (like the “REM” and “CEDRA” infrastructures) to support joint knowledge development across European VET research.

From this point of view the current picture of European cooperation has become far more monotonous. Somehow, during the recent years there has been less expectation to find something strikingly new and (as a consequence) less interest to learn from each other.

European framework processes and the loss of open futures

At the same time the perspective towards “the European dimension” or towards “the European added value” has been narrowed down to the policy priorities of the European framework processes. Therefore, there doesn’t seem to be any room for discussion on different cultural perceptions on vocational qualifications – the perspective of “European Qualification Frameworks (EQF)” is already there. In a similar way there is less grounded discussion on pedagogic innovations in VET – the related policy priorities have been shifted to ‘e-learning’ or ‘accreditation of prior and experiential learning’ some time ago. Yet, there is – as there has always been – some interest in research on social inclusion and/or on socio-cultular integration of young people with migrant backgrounds. However, these issues tend to become pocketed to their own special interest areas.

Regarding these developments the “I-Europe” document tried to raise critical awareness of European VET researchers on the fact that

a) the European cooperation in VET could be richer than implementation of intergovernmental agreements on European Qualification Frameworks,

b) that pedagogic cooperation at the European level could be wider than the pedagogic annexes of intergovernmental priority lists,

c) that research and development on the issues ‘intercultural understanding’ and ‘social inclusion’ could go beyond language learning and special schemes for ‘target groups’.

VET research and rediscovering open futures

To me, the present phase of the European integration should require a new conceptual for open futures regarding the development of education, training and the labour markets:

a) The developments in the European labour markets are much more closely linked to global developments and to developments between Europe and border regions. Therefore, there are different movements of capital and labour force that are note easily catered for by European macro-policies on qualification frameworks.

b) The developments in the newer learning environments provide new opportunities for linked and networked learning arrangements. These can influence technical, vocational and work-related learning environments across institutional and organisational boundaries and create new hubs for ‘learning regions’. On the other hand, if previously innovative learning environments become self-satisfied, they may lose their attractivity and become repitive with their alleged ‘innovativeness’.

c) The newer European mobility has brought into picture different contextual images and different challenges for socio-cultural integration. Often the education and training policies tend to tackle these issues with a remedial treatment that is addressed to isolated ‘target groups’ or ‘target organisations’ or ‘target regions’. However, as we look at the newer developments, the consequences of the new European mobility have much wider community-related consequences and a deeper impact on the community-related identities. Therefore, issues like ‘qualifications’, ‘education’ or ‘training’ cannot be brought into picture as stand-alone measures without looking at the social reality in which they are expected to function. And if we are talking of the new movement migrant labour force to the old EU countries or of the new movement of job opportunities to new EU countries (or to the border regions), there are plenty of old and new issues related to the socio-cultural development of old and new migrant communities.

d) Finally, the idea of European cooperation between VET researchers has so far been based on the assumption that they would serve as analysts and interpreters of their own (national) VET systems or VET cultures. At the same time there has been a corollary assumption that European researchers would have a common interest in making a European group picture and in identifying their respective cultures as parts of the ‘whole European house’. However, as things stand now, it appears that the the education and training cultures are becoming more influenced by internationalisation and by trans-national cooperation. Therefore, the role of VET researchers at the national and European level has become somewhat blurred. Thus, the prospects for joint knowledge development are overshadowed by new questions.

European VET research and rethinking “I-Europe”

In the light of the abovethe “I-Europe” document tried to raise some points for an alternative European VET research agenda that would be characterised by a strong “grassroot relevance”. However, as has been indicated, it has been difficult to launch a lively discussion on such a research agenda. In the beginning it seemed to be easy to draft a tentative list of the critical issues (‘integrative’, ‘innovative’, ‘intercultural’ and ‘inclusive’ developments in European VET). However, when going beyond the headings, it appeared that it was no longer that easy to bring common research interests, related research methodologies and potential funding opportunities under a common umbrella. Even if this would have been feasible for some researchers and some countries, there was no real possibility for a wider cooperation arrangement.

Thus, it appeared that the European VET researchers were challenged to find new ways to cooperate with each other while looking for their individual or institute-specific survival strategies. In this respect the draft manifesto of joint research interests was of little help. Yet, in the light of newer (and emerging) European VET-related issues it is worthwile to have a second look how the critical issues of the “I-Europe” approach could be addressed in the present phase of European integration and trans-national cooperation.

I think this is enough for the moment. In the next posting I will discuss the conceptual starting points of European VET research (and the implications for European VET research).

Pekka Kämäräinen

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One Response to “Revisiting I-Europe – Part 3: Back to future (and to open futures)”

  1. Graham Attwell says:

    Pekka…I think this is a very good starting point to rethinking a research agenda for VET in Europe. I particularly like your point on community identities – and of course these identities are themsleves multi – faceted.

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