The state of vocational education and training – working life relevance and individual study paths have strengthened, but there is variation in quality and shortcomings in the realisation of equality

Vocational education Johanna Kiesi

The new broad-based legislation referred to as the vocational education and training reform entered into force in 2018. Many of the objectives set for the individualisation and working life relevance of the studies have been achieved with the implementation of the reform. However, there are still shortcomings with regard to the uniform quality of the activities and equal opportunities for students. Development measures are therefore required to improve the opportunities to choose related to the studies, the availability of guidance and support services and the quality of workplace education and training, and to harmonise the implementation and assessment of the demonstrations of knowledge and skills.

During the implementation of the reform, significant changes have taken place in the operating environment: the exceptional circumstances and teaching arrangements resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic between 2020 and 2022 and the extension of compulsory education, which entered into force in 2021. The impact of the pandemic may be reflected in students’ wellbeing for a long time after the pandemic. The increasing global uncertainty may also weaken their sense of security and their wellbeing. To support students’ wellbeing, strong measures will be required both at the national and at the local level in the coming years.

The Finnish Education Evaluation Centre (FINEEC) has published an article examining how the objectives of the vocational education and training reform have been achieved, how students’ equality is realised and what kind of competence vocational education and training (VET) produces.

Individual planning of studies has become established practice in VET, the availability of guidance and support must be improved

The vocational education and training reform was aimed to increase students’ opportunities to have individual study paths. Individual planning and personalisation of studies have indeed become established practice in VET. On the other hand, the opportunities for students to make individual choices related to the content of the studies, the learning environments and the study schedules are realised poorly. Educational institutions need more goal-oriented and student-centred career planning to be able to better support students’ individual study paths and professional growth. Furthermore, the opportunities for students to also choose and complete qualification units from other education providers are currently not realised very well. Therefore, they should also be improved.

The guidance and support services required by the student should be determined in vocational studies. In addition, the reform extended the right to special needs support because of learning difficulties, a disability or an illness to apply to all VET. Students’ guidance and support needs are identified fairly well. However, not all students receive the guidance and support they need at the right time and sufficiently. The availability of guidance and support must therefore be improved and the monitoring of their effectiveness must be developed. Sufficient teaching and guidance staff, the functioning division of work between them and their competence in guidance and support tasks must also be ensured better than currently.

Workplace education and training has increased, but there is a lack of suitable workplaces and room for development in guidance

The aim of the reform has been to increase workplace education and training and improve its quality. As a whole, workplace education and training has increased, but approximately one half of the education providers have problems with finding workplaces that are suitable for acquiring competence. This puts students in a mutually unequal position. New methods should be developed for finding suitable workplaces to enable the working life relevance of education to be realised for all students.

“To enable high-quality implementation of workplace education and training, the competence development of workplace instructors must also be looked after. There is great variation between education providers in how systematically they ensure the competence of workplace instructors. The situation has already been similar for a long time in the 21st century. The guidance and assessment competence of workplace instructors should be ensured more systematically. Educational institutions also have a wealth of good practices that they should disseminate even more efficiently,” stresses Director of Unit Kirsi Hiltunen.

Implementation and assessment of competence demonstrations should be harmonised

Students should demonstrate their competence and it should be assessed in demonstrations carried out at workplaces. However, the completion of demonstrations at workplaces varies a lot between the fields of VET and between qualifications. Especially in vocational upper secondary qualifications, a fairly large number of demonstrations are still organised at educational institutions. Not all demonstrations are planned in cooperation between the different parties, either. Education providers should strengthen their cooperation with working life for the completion of demonstrations at workplaces and ensure that the teacher, the student and the workplace instructor plan the demonstration together.

There are significant differences in the grades received by students depending on the location of the demonstration and the persons assessing it. Grades are better when the demonstration is organised at a workplace and a working life representative participates in assessing it, while they are weaker when competence is demonstrated at an educational institution and it is assessed by representatives of the education provider. As outlined in the objectives of the reform, the teacher and the workplace instructor mainly assess the demonstrations in cooperation. However, approximately one quarter of the demonstrations have been assessed without a working life representative, and working life representatives seldom participate in the assessment of demonstrations carried out at educational institutions. From the point of view of employment, it is important that students have equal opportunities to demonstrate their competence in authentic working life situations and that a working life representative participates in the assessment of competence.

Variation in education providers’ quality management and room for improvement in the effectiveness of national development projects

The vocational education and training reform increased the education providers’ authority, which has further increased the importance of quality management. The majority of the education providers have a working quality management system. However, there is variation between providers in how well quality management works and the differences have not narrowed in the past few years. Suitable support methods are required for providers at the different stages of quality management.

VET has been developed extensively through projects involving central government transfers to local government, among other things. For example, a lot of projects related to training workplace instructors have been funded and implemented, but the competence of workplace instructors is still repeatedly brought up as an enhancement area in evaluations. The monitoring of the impacts of project funding should be enhanced. In addition, the effectiveness of the projects and the implementation of good operating models should be supported.

This article is part of FINEEC’s Policy Brief series, which aims to support discussion and decision-making on education policy and societal issues. The publication series focuses on current evaluation results and recommendations for developing education and training.

Policy Brief article: The state of vocational education and training – working life relevance and individual study paths have strengthened, but there is variation in quality and shortcomings in the realisation of equality

Further information:

Kirsi Hiltunen, Head of Unit, kirsi.hiltunen(at), tel. +358 29 533 5508, Finnish Education Evaluation Centre