Finished school? What’s next?

By Viktoria Kis

Policy Analyst, OECD Centre for Skills

Key points:

– Many countries offer professional qualifications that lead directly to a job.
– There is a need to build the reputation of these sorts of programmes to those that are more traditionally rooted in academics as well as allow movement of students between different pathways.
– How students move through to the workplace is an important area of policy. We have the opportunity to learn a lot from the different approaches of policy from different countries.

Finished school with a vocational qualification: what’s next?

In the past, entering adulthood with a vocational qualification in hand often meant a lifelong career in a single job – electrician, care worker or technician for example. Today, that piece of paper can increasingly also serve as an entry ticket into higher levels of education and training. The options available include a range of qualifications with a practical and applied focus, alongside discipline-oriented university programmes, like history or physics.

Associate degrees and one or two-year higher vocational qualifications offer a route into jobs that require less than a three or four-year qualification (e.g. paramedics). Many professional qualifications, like professional bachelor degrees and professional examinations, are as demanding as university bachelor’s or even master’s degrees. Achieving parity of esteem between university programmes rooted in an academic discipline and professionally-oriented programmes is a key priority in some countries – as is building bridges between the two.

While professionally-oriented programmes often play an important role in upskilling vocational graduates, they serve a broader population, equipping graduates of general education with occupational skills and sometimes even offering targeted technical skills to university graduates.

Beyond master electricians: business management and cyber security

Higher vocational and professional tertiary programmes are not limited to traditional trades. In the Netherlands, more students study for professional bachelor’s degrees than for the academic equivalents. Programmes range from international business to multimedia design, and are a key route to skilled employment for graduates of the country’s large upper secondary vocational system. In Switzerland, there is a well-respected and used path from apprenticeships through skilled employment into professional examinations. These advanced qualifications go well beyond traditional master craftsman qualifications, they also prepare financial analysts and cyber security specialists. Many countries have established a separate tier of institutions with more focus on applied learning and less emphasis on research than regular universities. These include universities of applied sciences, university colleges and colleges. Other countries offer occupational preparation at tertiary level without neat institutional boundaries or designated “professional bachelor’s’” or “higher vocational” programmes. In many English-speaking countries in particular, universities deliver practically-oriented programmes like culinary arts or food technology alongside discipline-oriented programmes like mathematics or philosophy.

Leading to skilled jobs and successful careers?

In the context of upper secondary education, much research has focused on general vs. vocational programmes; the populations they serve, the outcomes they lead to, whether the short-term benefit of smooth transition into jobs for vocational graduates may be outweighed by weaker long-term prospects. Similar questions arise for post-secondary and tertiary education. Shorter programmes and those with an applied focus are often viewed as a powerful means of opening up tertiary education to learners with a vocational background and those who are first in their families to study beyond secondary education. Programmes rooted in an academic discipline have different approaches to learning from those targeting a specific profession or occupational sector, with different combinations of practical content and theoretical foundations – and perhaps different outcomes in terms of career prospects.

The diversity of country approaches creates a fertile ground for comparative analysis. Relevant data collections are in place, but we are still in the dark because each country decides what to include in “academic” and “professional” – or they may decide not to make such distinctions. Nurse training for example, although presumably relatively similar across countries, is seen as academic in some countries and professional in others. That is hardly solid ground for comparative analysis.

As for all comparative data collections, finding common ground is challenging. But blurry boundaries do not mean that distinctions do not exist. Agreeing on a simple, pragmatic way of distinguishing between tertiary programmes with different orientations would unlock the potential of comparative data. In the new OECD report Pathways to Professions, we are proposing a way forward to resolve many of these challenges, and to make a step change in the quality of data in this area.

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