European policy agenda calls for an increase in the qualification levels of the working population and for overcoming the institutional divide between vocational and general education. In this spirit, common EU instruments such as the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) and European Credit System for Vocational education and Training (ECVET) cover all qualification levels. This research paper, covering 13 countries and six sectors, examines the kind of higher qualifications that are currently offered within vocational education, including their features, governance patterns, and degree of academisation. The paper also discusses wider issues such as parity of esteem between vocational and academic education, and the forms and degree of labour market involvement. Download Vocational education and training at higher qualification levels.


This research paper aims at improving the understanding of vocationally oriented education and training, describing the rationales, characteristics and future development of vocational education and training at higher qualifications levels. The understanding of VET at higher qualifications levels differs among policymakers and sector stakeholders in education and training systems and in the labour market; it also differs within and between countries.
Framework to VET at higher qualification levels

The definition in use did not contribute to greater clarity since terms such as vocation, occupation or profession are sometimes used as synonyms. Given the diverse national education and policy contexts, and the diversity in recent national tertiary level VET developments, it is not possible to formulate a full definition that satisfactorily covers all elements of tertiary level VET practice in Europe. This led to analysis of VET at higher qualifications levels by considering different dimensions such as policy-making and practices, providers and qualifications and the involvement of labour market stakeholders.
A variety of policymaking organisations were identified for VET provision at higher qualification levels. The major policymaker in almost all countries studied is the Ministry of Education (e.g. the Ministry of Education and Culture in Finland, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education in Poland, Ministry of Education in Norway). In some countries, policymaking roles are shared between institutions (e.g. in France the Ministry of Education is responsible for HE and the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Vocational Training is responsible for vocational training; in Denmark the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation is in charge of all HE initiatives and policies above EQF level 5 but the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries also has an important role within agriculture education). Non-ministerial bodies also play an important role in formulating policies. These include sectoral organisations (e.g. the Nursing Board in Norway or the Nursing and Midwifery Council in UK-England), as well as industry associations (e.g. BITKOM in Germany), chambers of commerce and trade unions (e.g. IG Metall in Germany).
There is substantial variety and diversity of VET policies and practices at tertiary/higher education levels in Europe. The national traditions, contexts and trends determine how VET at higher levels is defined, and if it is recognised as a separate policy issue at all. Unlike the situation at the (upper) secondary education level, the countries involved in this study, with the exception of Germany, do not have a dual system consisting of VET and general/academic education at tertiary education levels. The main underlying reason for this is that while general academic education programmes at the (upper) secondary education level do not prepare students for a vocation or profession (but instead prepare them for entrance in tertiary education programmes), in academic/general higher education a large number of programmes prepare their students for a specific profession: law, medicine, engineering, and business administration are examples.
The policy understanding of VET at tertiary levels can be characterised as follows in the 13 involved countries:
(a) dual system: Germany;
(b) integrated system of certification and recognition: Ireland, France, UKEngland;
(c) tertiary VET part of higher education policies:
(i) higher professional education and university education increasingly integrated: Norway;
(ii) higher professional education and university education kept separate: Czech Republic, Denmark, , the Netherlands, Finland;
(d) policy emphasis on academic tertiary education: Greece, Poland;
(e) no explicit focus on VET at tertiary education levels: Portugal, Romania.
In policy practices it is difficult to distinguish between higher professional education programmes (including professional programmes offered by universities) and tertiary level VET programmes and courses, since there is no rational ground for arguing that, for example, university engineering programmes are not regarded as VET, while tertiary ICT programmes either offered by public higher professional education institutions or private providers, are regarded as VET.
The main providers of VET programmes at higher qualifications levels in the countries and segments analysed are public HE institutions. In addition to universities, these include business academies in Denmark in agriculture education, public colleges in Norway in nursing, universities of applied sciences and universities of cooperative education in Germany, polytechnics in Finland, and university based professional institutes in France. There is also considerable private HE (e.g. in Poland in the ICT sector or private colleges in Norway with religious components) or emerging private HE (e.g. Germany and France) in some countries. Other providers include private companies (e.g. in the ICT sector in Germany, finance sector in the Netherlands and Portugal), chambers of commerce and crafts (e.g. Germany) and other non-sector or sector specific non-HE institution providers (e.g. the Netherlands and Portugal in the finance sector). The involvement of labour market stakeholders in education and training provision at higher levels was found to be common in almost all countries. The exceptions were Poland, in which the links between academic and employers are generally weak, although the picture was better in the ICT sector, and Portugal in the case of public HE institutions. Diverse types of interaction between providers of education and training and employers were found:
(a) employer consultation in the curriculum development phase. Examples include L&F and 3F in Denmark (representing employers and employees) and industry committees and consultation bodies in Ireland;
(b) work-based assignments and company based thesis works. Examples are found in Germany and Ireland in innovation and technology management, and in Finland and UK-England in SEN study programmes;
(c) apprenticeships, which are a growing tendency in HE in France, the Netherlands in the framework of the accountant degrees. As for Norway and UK-England in the nursing sector clinical practice is a traditional pattern;
(d) private corporate education and training initiatives which include examples in Germany and Ireland in innovation and technology management, and in Portugal in the finance sector;
(e) courses tailored to company needs, for instance in the Netherlands in the finance sector and Ireland in innovation and technology management;
(f) fully work-based learning in the German IT further education system.
There are a number of countries in which there is resistance towards opening up more extensive interaction with labour market players (e.g. the case of universities in Poland, in Romania it mostly exists in theory) or where interaction hardly exists such as in the Czech Republic and Portugal. Qualifications, degrees and study programmes tend to be delivered at EQF levels 6 and 7 in the form of classical Bachelor and Master qualifications, although in Norway there are also EQF level 8 PhD degrees in nursing science.
There is also an increase in other degrees (e.g. professional Bachelor degrees in Denmark and France, professional Master courses in France). There are also different types of HE degrees. For instance, the diploma courses, foundation courses and postgraduate certificates in UK-England. Further, there are specific non-HE certificates (e.g. a certificate at EQF level 6 in the finance sector in Portugal, and strategic and operative professional qualifications in the IT sector in Germany). The discussion on academically and vocationally oriented degrees in education and training systems is still vivid in Europe, with some strong divisions between the two. For instance, in Denmark professional Bachelor degrees are not equal to the traditional Bachelor degrees, and therefore do not provide progression to formal Master courses. There have been efforts to improve this situation with the new EUX exam to bridge the gap between vocational and academic worlds. Also, in Germany, steps have been taken to reduce the divide between VET and academically oriented HE by recognising parts of ICT further training in university ICT studies. There is a tendency towards a vocationalisation of HE as in development of the vocational Bachelor qualifications in France, and combining theoretical studies with vocational/on-the-job training in Germany. The opposite tendency, academisation, can be detected in other countries, e.g. in Norway nursing education is becoming part of HE and there is an expected evolution of specialisation courses into Master programmes, and in UK-England there will be a degree requirement for all nurses from 2013. The emergence of private sector providers at higher levels can also be identified in some countries, including Germany, Ireland and France. Quality assurance is provided in different forms in the various countries. There are independent sectoral quality assurance bodies that approve study programmes (e.g. CTI in France for engineering courses) and agencies for the quality assurance in HE (e.g. NOKUT in Norway, HETAC in Ireland for non university organisations, State Accreditation Committee in Poland, Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in UK-England, etc.). Other types semipublic entities also participate in this process by reviewing existing and approving new programmes (e.g. vocational committee in Denmark), as well as other professional bodies (e.g. the Nursing and Midwifery Council in that also does the registration of nurses, or the Royal Dutch Institution of Registered Accountants staging examinations in the Netherlands in the case of the officially recognised finance degrees). Other organisations include chambers of commerce and industry through student examinations (e.g. in Germany in case of some further education programmes), independent accreditation agencies (in the case of state-recognised Bachelor and Master programmes in Germany) and universities that have self-accreditation power (e.g. in Ireland).
A new approach to parity of esteem

The first set of dimensions had to be contrasted with existing definitions and deeper analysis of characteristics of qualifications offered at higher levels. The research paper suggests a new approach to parity of esteem between VET at higher qualification levels and traditional HE which is much inspired by the learning outcomes approach to qualifications, the value of professional experience in degree awards and the criteria of employability of graduates. Important to parity of esteem between VET and HE are the national legal frameworks and regulations, and the level of autonomy of universities in determining the entrance requirements for their degree programmes. If all countries are committed to realising parity of esteem between VET and HE qualifications, one of the conditions required to be fulfilled is the updating of national or regional laws to determine entrance requirements for university programmes.
Professional experience is highly valued and required in VET at higher levels in some countries. These include Norway, in which some continuous specialisation courses require professional experience in addition to a Bachelor degree, or in Portugal, for finance sector courses in the private sector provided by private companies. In Ireland, most public HE institutions in innovation and technology management programmes require some years of work experience, which in specific cases can be considered to replace other qualifications if the candidate does not match all the admission requirements. In nursing in UKEngland, prior learning, both practical and theoretical, can be used to reduce study time by as much as one of the three years of the programme and each university evaluates prior learning individually. In two out of the three education programmes analysed for France, professional experience is considered and evaluated individually at the enrolment stage. This is so in one of the study programmes in Denmark.
The introduction of qualifications frameworks represents a shift to learning outcomes, including at the highest levels, in the sense that the skills, competences and knowledge levels of graduates are made explicit in each programme’s description and organisation. In this way students will understand the expected learning outcomes. Further, society at large, including potential employers of the students, can obtain an insight into their expected capabilities. The analysis shows that there is a generally positive attitude towards the shift to learning outcomes. In practice, however, the process is still in an early stage and not all stakeholders had the same positive expectations towards the alignment to the EQF and the use of learning outcomes; examples are the Danish agriculture education case study and trade union opinions of deprofessionalisation in Germany. The use of the learning outcomes approach is still in its early stages in most countries. Stakeholders have generally positive expectations, although this is not always the case (e.g. in the Danish agro-food case study the expectations were
not positive). In Germany and UK-England the need for public discussion on implementing the learning outcomes approach and the involvement of a variety of educational institutions and social actors was considered important. There are a number of different trends with regard to education providers’ implementation of the required reforms. Many involve deeper institutional reforms and take this as an opportunity to improve their systems and activities, while some have addressed the changes in a more superficial way. In some cases, the reforms are reduced to ‘mere cosmetic surgery’ (Reichert, 2010). It is early to say whether the new approach will bring the desired benefits. The next 5 to 10 years will determine whether learning outcomes will actually be used in a meaningful way in educational practices as well as by employers. It can thus be recommended to set up a European monitoring database to follow and assess further developments with respect to the use of learning outcomes in VET activities at EQF levels 6 to 8.
The issue of parity of esteem between VET at EQF levels 6 to 8 and traditional HE is complex and to some extent controversial. In the German case, EQF implementation led initially to a system in which the VET qualifications were positioned lower than the HE qualifications. Under pressure from private sector representatives in the latest proposal, some VET qualifications were then upgraded to the level of HE qualifications. However, at the same time, education pillars were introduced in the German QF system, implying that, a Meister level qualification (which is at the same level of a Bachelor qualification) does not give access to a university Master programme.
In Denmark or Finland, VET (and even higher professional education) Bachelor degrees do not give direct access to university Master programmes. If this tendency of educational pillars in NQFs is implemented in more countries, then the notion of parity of esteem between VET and HE would be mostly an illusion. However, there are also positive experiences. In the Irish system, in which there is an NQF developed, some convergence between VET at EQF levels 6 to 8 and traditional HE can be observed due to the use of a learning outcomes approach. The shift, however, seems to be more in the vocational direction responding to the increasing need to demonstrate practical skills.
While scepticism prevails over whether the shift to learning outcomes would positively impact the parity of esteem between vocationally oriented and academically oriented study programmes at higher qualification levels, there is some conviction that the shift to learning outcomes will actually increase the value of vocationally oriented programmes in comparison with academically oriented ones. As most countries are still in the implementation phase of this approach, there is little evidence on its actual impact on VET developments at EQF levels 6 to 8, including the question of parity of esteem.
Taking the issue forward

Vocational education and training, and professional higher education, are very dynamic in Europe. New VET programme providers at EQF levels 6 to 8, and traditional HE institutions providing higher professional education programmes, are central to the European efforts on employability and economic growth. The last five to ten years have shown important developments in both types of programme. The impression is that traditional HE is not adapting rapidly enough to the (changing) needs of the labour market (e.g. the Czech Republic, Poland, Portugal, and Romania), and especially the needs of the private sector. VET can fill part of the gap left by traditional HE institutions. However, this requires rapid development of new fields, including ICT. The situation in more traditional vocational/professional fields such as nursing, teaching, and agriculture is more balanced in the sense that the relationship between VET /professional higher education providers and the labour market is more stable, and based on common understandings and agreements between employers and providers. The analysis undertaken led to four main proposals for research and policy initiatives:
(a) to set up European level coordination of VET policies and practices for tertiary education. The coordination should be both vertical and horizontal and relate to current development of joint activities between the Bologna and Copenhagen processes;
(b) to develop a widely accepted understanding of VET at EQF levels 6 to 8; it is important to create more transparency of qualifications, which itself calls for a need to clarify the specific nature of VET at tertiary education levels. The questions to be answered for this include:
  (i) how and where is VET at higher levels different from the established higher professional education programmes?
  (ii) how do the targeted skills, competences and knowledge levels of VET of higher level graduates differ from the targeted skills, competences and knowledge levels of traditional higher education graduates?
  (iii) if there are important differences in the targeted skills, competences and knowledge in traditional academic higher education and tertiary level VET, what do these mean for the possibilities to achieve parity of esteem of qualifications and learning outcomes?
  (iv) if the differences are considered to be limited, or of limited relevance from the perspective of the development of effective knowledge policies that include tertiary level VET, what is the rationale for treating tertiary level VET as a separate policy area?
(c) to develop regulatory and funding frameworks for VET at higher levels and professional higher education that relate to the dynamics of education and training. Further, such frameworks should stimulate sector transparency, so that the equal treatment of all vocational and professional fields is prevented. More mature fields such as nursing and agriculture need different frameworks from rapidly developing fields such as ICT;
(d) to share successful examples and practices for VET and labour market interaction in Europe. These practices should be shared between countries and their potentials examined for adoption and adaptation to other national education environments where such mechanisms are scarce or nonexistent, or even to those where cooperation models already exist.
See also The eight types of strategic action lines in the current progress towards ECVET implementation.