What UK vocational education can learn from Switzerland - RSA

If the UK wants a quality vocational education system, it should take inspiration from Switzerland

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  • Picture of Atif Shafique
    Associate Director, Public Services and Communities (Sabbatical)
  • Adult education
  • Skills
  • Vocational education
  • Public services
  • Social mobility

Switzerland is one of the few countries in the world where vocational education and training (VET) is held in equal esteem to academic education. In its quest to tackle the productivity crisis and elevate the nation’s skills, the UK would do well to learn from the Swiss.

Despite historically low levels of unemployment, the British economy has serious structural problems. Productivity and wage growth in the decade since the 2008 recession have been at their lowest levels for over two hundred years, while in-work poverty has become a regrettable feature of our labour market.

The ‘earnings premium’ of university education has fallen, seen for example in the scale of under-employment and under-utilisation among graduates. Indeed, a quarter of graduates are in jobs that don’t require a degree. The economy is failing to utilise the full talents of its workforce, while at the same time skills shortages persist in key sectors. The extent of regional inequalities adds another layer of complexity, especially as it has contributed to low skill, low wage equilibriums in many of the UK’s former industrial heartlands.

The scale of these challenges has sparked policymakers’ interest in the potential of vocational and technical education to build a more dynamic and inclusive economy. However, vocational education in the UK has struggled as a result of constant policy change, a lack of a long term vision, insufficient funding (exacerbated by very substantial funding cuts to further education since 2010)  and poor employer engagement. If you take a systems perspective, the institutions, incentive structures and enabling conditions necessary for quality and excellence haven’t been effectively nurtured or embedded. Instead we have had a highly fragmented landscape where pockets of excellent practice remain isolated. It is therefore no surprise that general or academic education is held in higher esteem by learners and parents.

The apprenticeship levy, industrial strategy and forthcoming T-Levels (in England) are signalling a desire by government to address some of these shortcomings, while the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments are pursuing a series of interesting reforms. Skills competitions such as WorldSkills are also emerging as highly promising platforms for elevating technical and vocational education and skills.

Switzerland - high quality, high status vocational education

Despite its small size, Switzerland is an economic powerhouse. It ranks first in the Global Innovation Index and third in World Economic Forum’s Human Capital index. Similarly to the UK, it has a liberalised economy, and yet unlike Britain, Switzerland’s economy is one of the most inclusive in the world.

Switzerland’s vocational and technical education and skills system is widely cited as a key driver of its economic success, especially as it plays a critical role in preparing people for work and supporting them throughout their working lives.

Two thirds of people choose to go down the vocational route, typically at age 15 or 16. This usually involves signing a 3 or 4 year apprenticeship contract. Under Switzerland’s “dual system”, apprentices typically spend 3 to 4 days learning on and off-the-job at a host company (for which they receive a salary) and 1 to 2 days in general education. Pedagogically, the aim is not just to build technical skills but also to develop people’s capacities as active citizens.

40 percent of companies in Switzerland offer at least one apprenticeship, and employers play a central role in the system. The country also has high quality professional education and lifelong adult learning. As a result, Switzerland has some of the lowest levels of unemployment (especially youth unemployment) in the world, alongside a high standard of living.

UK policymakers can’t of course just import the Swiss system - the historical, institutional and economic context isn’t the same. Yet there are policy lessons and design principles that Britain would do well to consider.

As part of a project in partnership with WorldSkills UK and the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL), the RSA is exploring global innovation in skills and what the UK can learn from other countries. The aim is to develop a set of design principles that can support innovation and practical reform in Britain. In the remainder of this blog, I highlight three design principles that might inspire change in the UK, based on what I found when I visited Switzerland earlier this year.

Principle 1 - No dead ends

A key feature of the Swiss system is the degree of flexibility and the wealth of opportunities it offers learners (youth and adult alike) through the course of their lives, irrespective of their circumstances. In the UK young people may find themselves in high stakes situations leading to dead end choices, resulting in failing or dropping out of education. The scarring effect this has on their adult working lives can be significant.

Permeability. In Switzerland, education and training is “permeable”. A young person may initially pursue a vocational route through a federal VET diploma, but then take a bridging course to move into tertiary education at a university of applied sciences. Alternatively, they may decide to build on their professional experience to pursue an advanced diploma as part of the country’s excellent professional education and training system for adult workers. If instead they pursue general (academic) education at high school and wish to switch to a vocational route, that too is possible. Significant investment into career guidance support - which is highly professional and systemic in Switzerland - ensures that people are aware of the opportunities and pathways available to them.

Case management. And for those that struggle or experience social difficulties? There are no dead ends for them either. If a 3 or 4 year federal VET diploma is deemed too challenging initially, they are offered the option of a 2-year federal certificate, which can then lead to a VET diploma and enable them to pursue mainstream, high value vocational or academic pathways. Switzerland has a well-established “case management” system for those struggling with difficulties in their lives. At-risk individuals are provided with a caseworker that coordinates the full-range of educational, labour market and social services to ensure holistic, individualised support is provided to enable them to participate fully in education and work. This includes high quality individual tutoring. The case management system has also been extended to adults. The case management model is based on similar principles to innovative and successful work programmes such as Greater Manchester’s “Working Well”, but is much more systematically applied.

Lifelong learning. The principle of no dead ends extends to adult workers as well. The system enables them to switch between occupations and re-train relatively seamlessly. Professional education and continuing education help to promote lifelong learning. Older workers who may not want to or have the time to undertake apprenticeship training also have opportunities to have prior learning and skills retrospectively recognised. This can enable them to be admitted directly to the final examination of a VET programme, or they can receive validation of non-formal or informal learning (VNIL). Specialist courses outside of the formal skills system also allow them to find routes back into the labour market.

Principle 2 - Business leadership through collective governance

Despite the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, debates about what an “employer-led” skills system should look like in the UK rather curiously continue to depict businesses as relatively passive actors that, at most, define what skills they need and leave it to educational institutions and training providers to do the rest.

In Switzerland, businesses have real skin in the game, and the industry associations that represent them provide important lessons for how the UK might do better than past initiatives such as sector skills councils. Employers in Switzerland provide the majority of funding in the VET system and through their industry associations play a critical role in ensuring the skills system is adaptable to the needs of the labour market.

This partly reflects Switzerland’s historical context and political culture: the complexity of its political system and the historic difficulty of making major decisions created a high degree of ‘self-regulation’ in the private sector, which contributed to businesses’ greater sense of responsibility for stewarding skills development. There is also a clear economic rationale, with cost-benefit analyses showing that apprenticeships provide a net productive benefit to companies. In addition, they develop the talent that an economy as dynamic as Switzerland’s requires.

It is crucial to recognise that business leadership is exercised through collective governance, with a strong role for local actors. One phrase I heard repeatedly during my visit was “One mission - three partners.” The federal government provides strategic management and development, ensuring quality; the professional organisations - including industry associations, companies and also social partners - develop and update the training content and occupation standards, as well as provide apprenticeship places; and the cantons (local government) implement the system and coordinate support for young people. A series of “commissions” ensure that the different actors work together to reform and improve the system. This sophisticated system coordination maintains long term stability while also allowing change and reform. As one of the people I spoke to put it, “the system changes slowly, but all the time.”

A key feature of governance - which is especially noteworthy as the debate on devolution shapes up in the UK - is the prominent role of cantons in Switzerland. Not only do they have the ability to raise taxes and make spending decisions, but they also play a critical coordination and implementation role. The degree of local flexibility and powers is surely something to take into account when shaping the future of VET in the UK.

Principle 3 - High esteem and status

There is no doubt that a major barrier to promoting vocational and technical education is the relatively low esteem it is held in relative to the conventional A-Level and university pathway. There is a challenge in shifting perceptions and attitudes. However, it is also clear that elevating the status of vocational education has to go hand-in-hand with substantial investment into developing a world-class VET system. Perceptions are influenced by the perceived (and objective) value of qualifications, particularly in terms of career earnings and opportunities.

In Switzerland vocational education is regarded as highly as general education. In large part this is because it is considered (and treated as) a central priority by decision makers and industry leaders, whereas in countries like the UK the impression is that VET is “second chance” provision for those that aren’t quite capable of making it to university. Social mobility suffers as a result and we end up in a situation where our education and skills system creates “winners and losers”. A fascinating piece of recent research found that in countries with less developed vocational education systems - such as the UK - education acts a “positional good”, or a vehicle for projecting and protecting status and privilege, which can undermine social mobility. In contrast, in countries such as Switzerland with highly developed vocational systems, there is far less of this status effect because pathways into good careers are widely distributed and accessible.

Institutions and businesses in Switzerland, however, are not complacent in ensuring a parity of esteem between vocational and general education. Apprenticeships not only provide young people with training and development, they also help to establish their identity as professionals - company apprentices are treated as equals. Skills competitions - SwissSkills, EuroSkills and WorldSkills - are also used as a way of strengthening the status and brand of VET, as well as nudging people into directions that address skills shortages.

What the UK can learn

The design principles presented in this blog are by no means exhaustive; we’ll be testing a larger set (based on global research) with UK stakeholders later this month. What they show, however, is that despite the different contexts, there’s a lot that Britain can learn from places such as Switzerland. There is no reason why we can’t work harder to prevent dead ends; there is every opportunity for employers and social partners to demonstrate collective leadership; and with enough political and societal will (and crucially, investment) the status of vocational education can be lifted further. Our forthcoming report will explore how this might happen.

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  • Very interested in this issue. While the UK has an internationally competitive foundation for skills through its education system, the UK underperforms when it comes to technical skills. The UK suffers from underinvestment by both business and government relative to international counterparts and work needs to be done to address the culture of failure to create genuine parity of esteem between academic and vocational and technical pathways in the UK.

  • Excellent blog which articulates very clearly the 'blind spot' which the UK has in relation to the comparative status between the so called vocational and academic educational pathways. The 3 tier model between federal, local (canton) and business is a no-brainer but one which we, in the UK, appear unable to accept as, within this context, the logical approach to meeting the needs of society.

    I look forward to reading your forthcoming report.