Switzerland on its own path
A comparison of vocational education and training systems in Europe reveals significant differences. Only a handful of countries have a strong dual VET system like Switzerland. Various economic, cultural and political developments in the 19th and 20th centuries led to the creation of different systems. Depending on the system, each country is faced with different challenges and conflicting interests, as a look at the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom shows.
By Miriam Hänni and Irene Kriesi
One to two days a week at a vocational school, three to four days at a host company and regular attendance of branch courses: this is the standard model in Switzerland for nearly two-thirds of young people starting their dual VET programme. According to the latest trend report of the Swiss Observatory for Vocational Education and Training OBS SFUVET, the Swiss standard model is quite unique at international level.
For instance, VET is much more widespread in Switzerland than in many European countries, where young people are more likely to attend either general education (see chart below, horizontal axis) or school-based VET (vertical axis).
In the group of countries that attribute high importance to general education (left side of the chart), there are different forms of VET: in Sweden and France, for example, VET is mostly school-based, while countries such as Ireland and Denmark mainly have dual VET.
On the other end of the spectrum, in the group of countries with strong VET systems (right-hand side of the chart), it is school-based VET that predominates, for example Finland or the Netherlands. Only Switzerland combines a high proportion of VET enrolment with a high proportion of dual VET.
Three different types of systems established themselves
Until the 18th century, vocational education and training was organised in guilds and limited to skilled trades that were learned exclusively at the workplace. Following the decline of the guild system, the various European countries developed differently economically, politically and culturally in the 19th and 20th centuries. Accordingly, three different types of VET systems established themselves, each based on different perceptions of how the state and businesses should organise, fund and manage vocational education and training.1,2
In collective VET systems, a collaborative partnership exists between the public sector, private sector and professional organisations, which all work together to organise and fund vocational education and training. These systems also feature dual VET as the main form of training. Vocational qualifications are occupation-specific, standardised and nationally recognised. Typical examples of collective VET systems are Switzerland, Germany and Austria. While the Netherlands also has a collective VET system, the predominant form of training is school-based.
In state-centered VET systems, training is mostly school-based and it is the state that manages and funds the system. Typical examples of this are France and Sweden. Upon completion of their training, learners receive nationally recognised qualifications that entitle them to pursue more advanced training options.
In market-driven VET systems, businesses are the main driver of training and there is limited state regulation. Vocational education and training takes place at various learning locations and does not lead to any generally recognised qualifications. Compared to the first two VET systems, learners in market-driven VET systems bear a larger share of the cost of tuition and course-related costs. Typical examples of this are the United Kingdom and the United States.
Netherlands: four main occupational fields
The example of the Netherlands shows that it is possible for collective VET systems to differ from the standard prototypes found in Switzerland and Germany. As in Switzerland, around two-thirds of young adults in the Netherlands complete a VET programme leading to a nationally standardised qualification. The collaborative, collective involvement of unions and employers in vocational education and training also ensures that the content of training is aligned with the needs of the labour market. Unlike Switzerland, however, the Netherlands chose to prioritise school-based VET as the predominant form of training. Moreover, with the Dutch VET system, VET programmes are not specific to individual occupations. Instead, there are four broadly defined occupational fields: Green/Agriculture, Technology, Business and Health/Social.
The vocational qualifications awarded in these individual occupational fields qualify graduates to work in a wide range of different occupations. As such, they are no more occupation-specific than other forms of education and training.3 Although this means that training content is less precisely aligned with the specific needs of the occupations within the given occupational field, this approach offers greater flexibility to qualification holders. Their vocational qualification ultimately opens up good employment prospects in a variety of different occupations. In addition, holders of these vocational qualifications are able to pursue more advanced training afterwards. Like in Switzerland, the VET system in the Netherlands has to contend with the challenge of integrating both low-performing and high-performing learners in VET programmes.4
France: VET system enjoys much less prestige
France is a typical example of a country with a state-centered VET system. Around one-third of young people complete an upper-secondary level VET programme. State and regional authorities manage vocational education and training, which is predominantly school-based. Businesses and social partners play a subordinate role compared to collective VET systems. They only act in a consultative capacity, for example, to provide input on skills requirements. They also sit on examination boards and pay a tax specifically intended to help fund vocational education and training. The VET system offers learners two levels of VET programme leading to nationally recognised upper-secondary level qualifications. The first is a two-year programme for the certificat d’aptitude professionnelle (CAP) and the second is a three-year programme for the baccalauréat professionnel (BAC Pro). These two VET programmes cover 180 and 100 occupations respectively. Access to tertiary education is also possible.
The main university entrance qualification in France, however, is the hugely popular baccalauréat général. As a result, the French VET system enjoys much less social prestige.4
United Kingdom: lack of standardisation in market-driven VET system
In market-driven VET systems such as the one found in the UK, the state plays a much lesser role than in state-centered and collective VET systems. VET is considered as a form of continuing education for young adults. At upper secondary level, around 45% of learners complete a VET programme. School-based VET can be found in the course offerings of general education schools as well as in broadly designed VET programmes at vocational schools. Companies also offer in-house training that is highly relevant to the needs of a specific occupation.
There are full-time and part-time programmes and courses. The level of training differs markedly among the various options. The British VET system is highly fragmented due to the lack of nationally standardised vocational qualifications, the heterogeneity of training providers and the diverse forms of training. Unlike the other two types of VET system, there are no institutional safeguards in place to ensure that qualification holders can pursue more advanced forms of training at tertiary level. Everything depends on the admission requirements of the respective tertiary-level institution. The lack of standardisation within the VET system in the UK makes it difficult to align VET training content with the actual needs of the labour market. This state of affairs also makes it harder to convince employers to become more actively involved in the VET system.4
Advantages and disadvantages of each VET system
National education systems should enable young people to pursue post-compulsory education. They should also provide knowledge and skills that help young people to quickly integrate into the labour market and sustainably adapt to technological and economic change through lifelong learning.
Only a limited amount of research has been done to determine the extent to which the differently structured VET systems reach these objectives. Most studies compare dual VET with school-based VET. The findings from such studies relate to different countries and show firstly that collective VET systems that prioritise dual VET are highly effective in integrating less academically minded young people into upper secondary education and enabling them to obtain a vocational qualification.5 In addition, the high proportion of workplace training in dual VET programmes facilitates rapid entry into the labour market, which leads to low youth unemployment. However, this lead on the labour market is often transitory and no longer discernible after a few years.6 In market-driven VET systems, the advantages of having a high proportion of workplace training are less obvious. Due to the lack of standardisation, potential employers find it much more difficult to assess the value of vocational qualifications.7
Compared to dual VET, school-based VET systems tends to impart more transferable skills, such as reading, mathematics, problem-solving, planning, IT and communication skills. As a result, they enable qualification holders to more readily adapt to the changing needs of the labour market and to pursue more advanced levels of education and training.8
Overall, research shows that education systems always have to reconcile conflicting objectives. In Switzerland, this relates in particular to the area of tension between the short-term objective of labour market integration and long-term objective of career development. On the one hand, the aim of VET is to integrate young people into the labour market as quickly and as fully as possible. On the other hand, they also need general knowledge and basic skills in order to pursue lifelong learning, which in turn allows them to continuously adapt to changing labour market conditions over the course of their working lives.
- Dr. Miriam Hänni, Senior Researcher, Swiss Observatory for Vocational Education and Training, SFUVET
- Prof. Dr. Irene Kriesi, Co-Head of the Research Field ‘Strategic Planning of VET’, SFUVET
1Busemeyer, M., & Trampusch, C. (Hrsg.) (2012). The Political Economy of Collective Skill Formation. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
2Cedefop (2004). Von der Divergenz zur Konvergenz. Zur Geschichte der Berufsbildung in Europa. Europäische Zeitschrift für Berufsbildung, 32, 6–17.
3Forster, A. G., & Bol, T. (2018). Vocational Education and Employment over the Life Course Using a New Measure of Occupational Specificity. Social Science Research, 70, 176–197.
4Cedefop (2022). Vocational Education and Training in Europe. https://www.cedefop.europa.eu/en/tools/vet-in-europe/systems (letzter Zugriff am 20.4.2023).
5Birkelund, J. F., & van de Werfhorst, H. G. (2022). Long-term Labor Market Returns to Upper Secondary School Track Choice: Leveraging Idiosyncratic Variation in Peers’ Choices. Social Science Research, 102.
6Choi, S. J., Jeong, J. C., & Kim, S. N. (2019). Impact of Vocational Education and Training on Adult Skills and Employment: An Applied Multilevel Analysis. International Journal of Educational Development, 66, 129–138.
7Di Stasio, V., & van de Werfhorst, H. G. (2016). Why Does Education Matter to Employers in Different Institutional Contexts? A Vignette Study in England and the Netherlands. Social Forces, 95(1), 77–106.
8Chuan, A., & Ibsen, C. L. (2022). Skills for the Future? A Life Cycle Perspective on Systems of Vocational Education and Training. ILR Review, 75(3), 638–664.