(Institute for advanced Studies, Vienne)

Two worlds of vocational credentials in Austria: from coexistence to competition to coordination?

The Austrian education and training (ET) system comprises a unique structure that crosses the current typologies of school based vs. work based vs. collective (apprenticeship) systems, given by the following attributes:
– a high proportion of vocational education and training (VET) at upper secondary level, that starts early at age 15;
– a mixed system of apprenticeship and full-time VET schools of about equal strength, with apprenticeship situated on average at the lowest level;
– a comparative strong position of VET in relation to higher education by providing full university access from the upper secondary VET colleges;
– the provision of a comprehensive set of formal qualifications across the whole supply of VET.

The proposed paper will trace the socio-historical development, and analyse the more contemporary development, with special emphasis on politics in relation to the emergent and path-dependent processes in society and economy. The specific issues arising in the current politics of qualifications frameworks will be considered.

The ‘basic qualifications’ in Austria are the qualifications provided by apprenticeship, which are regulated in the form of occupations by the trade regulations (Gewerbeordnung), as opposed to the diplomas from full-time schools which are regulated by school law. Thus, there are two different governance systems in place in apprenticeship and full-time schools, the former lying mainly under the auspices of the social partners, and the latter being integrated more strongly into the political structures of the party system and the parliament.

This system has evolved historically through very different political regimes, with its roots going back to the absolutist Habsburg Monarchy in the late 18th century, through the constitutional monarchy in the 19th century, followed by the very conflict driven first republic, the period of nazi-occupation, up to the social partnership of the consensus driven second republic, which is more recently also experiencing attempts of movements towards neoliberalism and right wing populism.

The basic argument of the paper goes as follows:

– Apprenticeship and full time VET schools have very different roots, which have constituted the two different worlds up to well into the 1980s. The apprenticeship system was rooted in the medieval structures, and constituting occupational and economic structures up to the 1960s, when the first regulation of training has been constituted by a training law (Berufsausbildungsgesetz). Until then it was more or less completely under the power of the trades and enterprises. The beginnings of full time VET schools were established as a public framework in the late 19th century as a part of capitalist economic reform, mainly in some sectors of industry (textile, machinery, etc.), deliberately taking into account the evolving French system of ‘formation’.
– However, capitalist reform has remained always weak in Austria, with the conservative political forces having been always strongly tied to the small trades, fighting against exploitation by big industry and commerce. Thus liberal market reforms have always retained strong regulations of the access to the market by credentials built on apprenticeship. A strong expansion of apprenticeship, in parallel with the establishment and expansion of industries
related to war production has been brought forward ‘from outside’ during the German occupation.
– After 1945, the system of full time VET schools and colleges was established for the first time as a systematic framework, which, however, has not included apprenticeship. Only in the beginning of the 1970s government decisions have been taken to expand the full time VET schools, partly as an attempt to contain the expansion of upper secondary general academic schools. From this time the competition between full time VET and apprenticeship was set into place, mainly driven by the reduction of the proportion of young people who did not choose any alternative at upper secondary level. During the 1980s the gravity centre of VET started to shift from apprenticeship to the upper level VET colleges, and apprenticeship changed from being a selective pathway to being a path where the ‘remaining’ young people applied.
– More recently the overall architecture has become problematic, and new questions about ‘basic qualifications’ are arising, as apprenticeship is tried to be upgraded at a higher level in the competition with full time schools, and mechanisms for the provision of access to higher education have been established (Lehre mit Matura). The qualification framework has for the first time posed the question of the establishment of a formal hierarchy between the different VET pathways, and the actors are quite lost with these questions, trying to solve them through political fights and negotiations.

The contribution will more deeply analyse the development of the positions of the various actors in these developments (employers organisations, trade unions, educationalists, political parties, civil society), and show that the system evolved mainly through the emergent choices of young people, whereby the political governance system has been and still is too fragmented to guide the development in an organised way. In fact, when the competition will increase between VET colleges and apprenticeship, the question about a new ‘basic qualification’ will arise more strongly. There is still a gap between school education and apprenticeship, as access is controlled solely by the training firms, and formal school credentials are not required. A closing of this gap might require a severe upgrading of the competences through compulsory schools, thus possibly shifting the notion of ‘basic qualifications’ in this direction, requiring more strongly the credentials from compulsory schools for progress into VET. Thus the inclusion of a rising proportion of young people into education and training brings the different selective parts of the scattered system closer to each other, and poses new challenges for the political representatives of the different parts of the system.


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