The national qualifications framework (NQF) has not only led to more transparency in the qualifications landscape, but has also triggered several discussions on education policy in Austria. One of them concerns higher vocational education and training (HVET), which is to be made more visible by creating a separate education segment.
Comprehensive changes in the world of work are also changing education requirements. For years, the number of low-skilled jobs has been declining, while the demand for highly qualified specialists has been rising steadily. Skills forecasts such as the Cedefop skills forecast show that this trend is likely to continue.
The need for higher qualifications is therefore undisputed. However, the frequently associated demand for more university graduates only partially reflects the real needs of the economy. There is also particular demand for further and higher education options for employed skilled workers. However, many of these higher-qualifying programmes are offered outside higher education establishments and do therefore not count towards the number of university graduates.
Higher vocational qualifications in the education system
In contrast to other countries, qualifications relevant to the labour market/occupations are obtained largely at upper secondary level in Austria: around 75% of young people attend an initial VET programme that enables them to enter the labour market directly.
Many higher VET programmes are offered outside the higher education sector. They are – with few exceptions – not part of the formal education system. Neither programmes nor qualifications are covered by statistics/indicators that are used for international educational comparisons (such as ISCED). The qualifications are frequently only known by sector and, in contrast to academic degrees, often enjoy lower prestige.
Heterogeneity as a challenge
In contrast to academic tertiary education, with its uniform Europe-wide degree architecture (bachelor-master-PhD), higher-qualifying VET is characterised by a marked heterogeneity. There are many different providers and qualifications. This impairs transparency, understanding and trust in these qualifications. At the same time, the skills associated with these qualifications are of great importance for the economy. To meet company needs, it is necessary to make higher-qualifying VET more comprehensible, better-known and thus more attractive.
A ‘higher vocational education and training’ umbrella label
A separate education segment within the education system, and the establishment of the term ‘higher vocational education and training’ (HVET) as a label should promote the achievement of this goal. To this end, the various programmes must be consolidated, i.e. they must be structured and brought further together by defining connecting elements.
How such a consolidation could take place and how HVET could be established as a label has been the subject of educational policy discourse in Austria for some time. On behalf of the Ministry of Education, ibw prepared an expert report to serve as a basis for further discussions and decisions. In November 2019, the results of this work were discussed at a conference with an audience of experts from Austria and abroad. The discussion received additional impetus from the government programme of the new federal government, which has set itself the goal of strengthening higher-qualifying VET.
Key steps on the way to establishing a label are the clarification of the term ‘higher vocational education and training’ and the discussion of implementation options. Discussions are currently being held on what is specifically understood by HVET, i.e. which qualifications can be included in it. It is necessary to find criteria that take into account the diversity of qualifications and are also sufficiently ‘selective’ to achieve true consolidation.
As an implementation option, the creation of a separate quality assurance law for HVET, including the establishment of an accreditation institution, is being discussed, as is the use of the already existing NQF allocation process. In any case, the aim is to achieve non-bureaucratic solutions which require minimal administration work.