Tripartite agreement on vocational education reform

Social partners in Denmark have thrashed out an agreement on improving vocational youth education. Reform is needed to address problems including reduced numbers of young people receiving this type of training, high drop-out rates and a lack of practical training. These have combined to cause concerns over the supply of skilled workers in the future. Improvements to the scheme include a simpler structure, the introduction of more practical courses and extra teaching hours.

Background

In 2011, the Danish Government set a target for higher education in Denmark. It wanted 60% of its youth cohort to go into higher education and 25% to go into extended higher education. It wanted to hit this target by 2020.

Since then, attention has partly shifted to the lower tier in the educational hierarchy – vocational youth education. This lower tier embraces most of the non-academic private sector youth education in the country.

The vocational youth education system has caused concerns because of a reduction in the proportion of young people starting courses, high drop-out rates, low status among young people involved, a lack of practical training places, and problems with the quality of education. There have been problems both in school-based training and ‘on-the-job’ courses.

The government, business, organisations connected with the scheme and trade unions have been worried that there will not be sufficient skilled workers in the future. Fears have also been expressed that a large number of young people would end up without any formal post-15 education (DK1101019Q).

Tripartite agreement reached

The government has been looking at reforming the system for some time, and has held tripartite talks with the social partners. The first talks in June 2012 failed because no common ground could be established on a number of issues. Among the sticking points was whether the reform should include clauses on the quality of the education provided.

In a second round of talks, on 2 October 2013, the government announced a tripartite agreement on a common declaration of intent. Crucially, the government had revised its position and accepted a number of proposals previously rejected.

The declaration includes a number of measures on social partner involvement. It says social partners will take an active role in addressing the challenge to establish a sufficient number of practical training courses. It was also agreed that the Employer’s Contribution to Education (AUB) would increase.

The proposals

The government unveiled its proposal for the reform on the same date as the common declaration was published.

The government plans to spend DKK 3 billion (€0.4 billion as at 19 February 2014) on implementing the reform. The main aims are to increase the quality of vocational youth education and make sure that the proportion of the youth cohort at these schools will increase from 18% to 25%. The key measures of the proposal are:

  • a simpler structure – reducing the number of introductory courses from 12 to 4, with specialised education starting after one year and continuing for the following two years, and including apprenticeships of some form;
  • stronger entry requirements, with a minimum ‘02’ grade in Danish and mathematics needed during the final exam in secondary school, though an agreement on a practical training place or passing of exams arranged at the vocational youth schools themselves will also give access;
  • an increase in teaching time to a minimum of 25 hours per week;
  • improved opportunities to move from vocational youth education to higher education;
  • an extra year in secondary school, for those who need it, which will specialise in preparing students for vocational youth education;
  • matching access to some popular courses with labour market prospects for the skills taught;
  • limited access to the most popular courses if labour market prospects are not considered good enough;
  • a new ‘flex-education’ (maximum two years) for young people under 25 who are not qualified for a standard vocational youth education;
  • new vocational education courses for adults, which should ensure vocational youth education is aimed at young people;
  • targeted courses for the people over the age of 25 who are unskilled and want to acquire skills;
  • more practical training courses designed with the help of the social partners

Social partner reaction

The reaction of the social partners has been almost entirely positive.

Ejler Holst, Secretary of the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO), believes the reforms will improve the quality of vocational youth education in Denmark. He emphasised the positive role played by the social partners. He said the introduction of the new initiatives would be accompanied by other access opportunities so all motivated young people would have access to the schools.

However, there was criticism from Hanne Pontoppidan, Chief Executive of the Education Association (Uddannelsesforbundet), which organises teachers in vocational training. She did not believe there were enough teachers to meet the increased teaching burden and the proposal from the government did not include extra financial resources to meet this demand.

The largest Danish employer organisation, the Confederation of Danish Industry (DI), said there were encouraging signs in the proposal. DI Director Lars Goldschmidt was happy about the stronger educational requirements and the proposed improvements in the quality of the education. But he said he would have liked to have seen more ambitious, higher, demands for access.

The Director of Danish Employers’ Confederation (DA), Jørn Neergaard Larsen, also liked the government’s proposal. But he said he would have preferred to have seen the target for young people in vocational education raised from 25% to 33% to meet the future demand for skilled workers.

Reaction from the political opposition is important since a broad-based agreement in the Danish Parliament would mean a reform more resistant to change. The Leader of the biggest opposition party, Lars Løkke Rasmussen from the Liberal Party (Venstre), described the prospects for a broad political agreement on the reform as ‘good’.

The reaction from education experts, however, has been less enthusiastic.

Torben Pilegård Jensen is a leading youth researcher from the National Institute for the Municipalities’ and the Regions’ Analyses and Research (KORA). He felt that the required grade ‘02’ entry level was too low to provide the required lift in the quality of the education. He said a grade ‘04’ would have been more suitable.

There were misgivings too from Andreas Rasch-Christensen, Head of Research at VIA University College. He said the changes were not the answer to the challenges, such as high drop-out rates, faced by vocational youth education. His view was that the reform should focus on high quality in practical training and a guarantee that all students ‘learn from company experiences’.

Mikkel Mailand, FAOS, University of Copenhagen

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