May 27, 2022

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Tracing the historical construction of a vocational training, adult education and lifelong learning policy space in the European Union from 1951 to present

Vocational training, adult education and lifelong learning policy in the EU

Vocational training, adult education and lifelong learning (VTAELL) policy in the European Union (EU) has received considerable attention in the research literature over the past two decades. Examinations of this policy area during this time have reflected the gradual consolidation and, to some extent, convergence of policy attention given to this area of education in the EU. Thus, Moschonas (1998) underscored the limited extent to which the Community initially sought involvement in educational policy via provisions for vocational training, largely due to treaty constraints. However, as Nóvoa and Dejong-Lambert (2003) contend, a broad interpretation of vocational training allowed the EU to intervene in other areas, including higher education. Similarly, Corbett (2005) noted the key role vocational training played in the Community’s construction of educational policy and emphasized the linkages between vocational and higher education created in this process. This particular connection has also been studied from comparative-institutional perspective in the context of internationalization and Europeanization dynamics (Powell and Solga, 2010). Subsequently, a policy shift toward lifelong learning allowed the EU to subsume and converge many educational policies, including adult education and vocational training, under that larger umbrella of policy mechanisms (Dehmel, 2006; Lee et al., 2008).

Noticeable even in this succinct overview is the diversification of terminology both as rhetorical devices for advancing policy (Salajan, 2018), as well as to instrumentalize policy objectives in vocational training and adult education. It has been widely recognized that this policy space suffers from unclear definition and the interchangeability of terms ranging from vocational training to adult education to lifelong learning in policy parlance has further contributed to confusion in determining to what extent these are separate or overlapping policy strands (Milana and Holford, 2014; Nuissl, 2008). Nonetheless, it can be argued that, with the EU’s accruing competences in education, particularly at the initiative of the European Commission (Holford, et al., 2014; Salajan, 2019), a distinct vocational training and adult education space can be discerned (Bonnafous, 2014), part of a broader, long-term process of forging a European educational space (Lawn and Normand, 2015).

The blurred boundaries among the terms identifying an increasingly diversified and metamorphosing educational space have not impeded recent attempts to capture the history of policy development in this area. Although the ambiguity inherent in the use of multiple terms to define a unifying policy domain persists, in recent years, the emergence of this policy space has been examined and documented from various perspectives, primarily on a temporal scale stretching over the past two to three decades (see, for instance, Antunes, 2020; Hinzen, 2011; Jarvis, 2004; Mikulec, 2018; Milana and Klatt, 2019, 2020; Panitsides, 2015; Psifidou, 2014; Volles, 2016). Notwithstanding the value and significance of these contributions to the VTAELL literature, they are only partial and incomplete accounts of the trajectory of policy in this realm. In this context, the purpose of this study is to trace, examine and document the emerging contours of a VTAELL space in the EU via a systematic analysis of the policy framework built over time in this area over more than six decades, from the inception of today’s European Union to the present day. Consequently, the article intends to bridge, build and expand on some of the existing work on this policy domain by providing a more comprehensive, but by no means exhaustive, account of its historical development.

Conceptual and analytical framework

For the purpose of this policy examination, we embedded our analysis in an adapted comparative federalism framework stemming from a broader project analyzing EU and US education policy (Roumell Erichsen & Salajan, 2014) and (Salajan & Roumell, 2016). We adopt the view that the EU represents a form of “network federalism” (Koch, 2007: 169) or “joint federalism” (Glencross, 2009: 27–28) in which governance responsibilities and actions are shared horizontally among institutional actors, in contrast to the vertical arrangement common in other federal-type entities, such as the United States or Canada. Within this overarching frame of reference, we repurposed Mendez and Mendez’s (2010) conception that compound federal-type polities, such as the EU, formulate policy in a given domain via policy framing, dynamics and instruments. More precisely, policy framing is construed as the ideational process through which institutional actors interpret external or internal threats to define a policy issue of importance for the polity they administer. Next, policy dynamics represent the interaction between the aforementioned actors and the roles designated to them in the course of carrying out policy decisions or actions. Finally, policy instruments constitute the concrete devices through which policy is implemented, ranging from discrete behavioral norms to financial provisions necessary to operationalize policy directives.

In order to trace and examine the historical policy evolution in the VTAELL domain, 19 key primary sources were selected from the EU’s legislative record forming the growing overarching legal framework in this realm from 1951 to present. In principle, the documents to be included in the analysis, had to meet two principal criteria, that is, they had to be: (a) binding on, and; (b) enforceable for the institutions and actors tasked with their implementation. Consequently, the EU’s founding treaties and a series of regulations and decisions addressing vocational training, adult education and lifelong learning form the corpus of legal texts for this study. Two Council resolutions (1983 and 2011) were also included in this collection of policy texts and were partly exempted from these criteria because they marked key moments in the Community’s approach to vocational training and adult education or learning. These documents set goals in these areas that subsequent regulations and decisions referenced and translated into actionable policy items. Thus, while they are not binding, the two resolutions contain policy objectives that later became binding, nonetheless, through their enactment in those ensuing regulations and decisions (see Table 1 for the complete list of documents with reference and bibliographic information).

Table 1. Formal EU policy documents on VTAELL selected for analysis.

Table 1. Formal EU policy documents on VTAELL selected for analysis.

This corpus of legal texts was subjected to a discourse and content analysis to tease out the policy-makers’ “utterances” (Gee, 2014) and to reach beyond the “information barriers” (Krippendorff, 2018) the enacted policy may pose to the researcher. Concurrently, to build the descriptive historical narrative of policy development and evolution, a process tracing approach was followed, as this “focuses on the unfolding of events or situations over time” allowing the researcher to “characterize key steps in the process, which in turn permits good analysis of change and sequence” (Collier, 2011: 824). In this process, the text of the documents was parsed through an analytical rubric adapted from (Roumell Erichsen & Salajan, 2014), utilizing Mendez and Mendez’s (2010) primary analytical framework in addition to nine policy facets useful in extracting specific policy sub-domain orientations in the broader policy framework on VTAELL (see Table 2 for an example of an analytical rubric used on one of the documents).

Table

Table 2. Partial view of an analytical rubric used for coding the selected legal texts.

Table 2. Partial view of an analytical rubric used for coding the selected legal texts.

Procedurally, the analysis consisted of a dual, independent, and parallel discourse and content analysis of the key documents by the authors, using the developed data analysis rubric in order to filter the policy document language, thus leading to the validation of the narrative themes extracted from the texts. For each primary source, the text was coded along the three-pronged policy analysis framework (i.e. framing, dynamics and instruments) and the vertical policy facets. However, for the purpose of this study, the nine vertical policy facets are excluded as they are not relevant for the documentation of the historical evolution of this policy domain. Therefore, only the overall analytical and narrative summaries of the three-pronged analytical framework were retained here.

Policy development and evolution stages

In tracing the rise of a VTAELL policy space in the EU, we identify three stages in policy development and evolution in this domain, building and expanding on, but also departing to a certain degree from previous periodizations offered in the literature. For instance, Ertl (2003, 2006) considered the legal basis as markers of distinct stages in the historical evolution of vocational education and training (VET) policy, along with guiding principles of economic competitiveness and benchmarking, standard setting and evaluation, as well as the continuity and change of programmatic and policy directions in this area. In turn, Cort (2009) took an institutional discourse approach to trace the evolution of VTAELL contextualizing in the politico-economic environment driving policy objectives at key points during the emergence, consolidation and gradual integration of educational provisions at Community level. In contrast, as noted above, our three-pronged analytical framework reveals both the historical evolution of VTAELL policy and the justification given to an aggregation of competences in this area at EU level, through policy narratives highlighting critical shifts and instruments meant to galvanize action in addressing them. In addition, our periodization updates previous work by analyzing VTAELL policy up to the conclusion of the most recent cycle of the Erasmus+ Program (2013–2020). Consequently, in the first stage, we note that from 1951 to 1986, a gradual policy framework for adult and vocational education is constructed, which can be construed as the policy groundwork stage. Next, from 1986 to 2006, a programmatic operationalization stage takes place, in which a series of Community programs aimed at the implementation of adult and vocational education initiatives are enacted. Finally, from 2006 to present, a consolidation, integration and expansion stage begins, in which integrated programs at the Community level seek to bring together educational policy objectives that interweave adult and vocational education actions with secondary and tertiary education.

1951–1986: Policy groundwork stage

This stage is marked by the inclusion of vocational training stipulations in the initial treaties of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and, subsequently, the European Economic Community (EEC), followed by a series of policies to enact a common vocational education framework and the agencies to oversee its implementation.

Policy framing

As the ECSC’s founding treaty, the Treaty of Rome provided virtually no framing narrative related to any stipulations pertaining to formal or informal adult education or learning, whether it involved educational systems, provisions or processes. Thus, the framing that emerged in the policy formulation pertained mostly to the retraining of workers in times of economic downturn during which the labor market may be adversely affected, thus requiring adjustments mandated by the High Authority (the equivalent of today’s European Commission) for action at Community level (ECSC, 1951). In a similar pattern, the Treaty of Paris of 1957 addressed vocational training for workers, particularly in the context of the common agricultural policy, which at the time of the treaty represented a key policy initiative in the fledgling pan-European polity.

A palpable shift in policy development can be observed with the adoption of the 1963 Council Decision on the creation of a comprehensive framework for vocational training, which would set a long-term vision for vocational training in Europe. This was intended to: serve the needs of various categories of young and adult workers; ensure the flexibility and availability of vocational training courses and programs; and to harmonize vocational training initiatives throughout the Community space. In the context of creating the European Common or Single Market, vocational training was viewed as a crucial mechanism for the professional development of workers at multiple levels across a wide range of economic sectors (European Communities, 1963). Directly as consequence of the 1963 Decision, the 1975 Regulation on establishing the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop) was a concrete attempt at institution-building, specifically intended to regulate, administer and coordinate vocational training at European level. In doing so, the policy invoked the challenges inherent in the development of a common vocational training policy at this level, but suggested that the institute represented a comprehensive solution in bridging vocational training efforts with industry needs (European Communities, 1975).

Another turning point in the EU’s policy focus came in 1983 as part of a Council Resolution intended to impress upon both policy implementers and end-users with vested interests the need to systematically weave and embed considerations of information technologies (IT) in vocational training initiatives. The primary concern was to provide avenues, resources and support to workers in order to mitigate and prevent potential disruptions in their ability to successfully navigate new job requirements resulting from the gradual adoption of IT in production processes (European Communities, 1983). In a policy rhetoric sense, the Resolution followed in the spirit and acted on the vision of the 1963 Decision. That is, in identifying IT as the next “game changer” in labor processes, it reinforced the Decision’s prescience in developing principles for vocational training in response to technical changes that may occur in the Community’s future economic development. As a complementary measure, the 1985 Council Decision on the comparability of vocational training qualifications between the Member States echoed the 1963 Decision’s imperatives. More precisely, it aimed to adapt the Community’s training systems to subsequent waves of technological development, such that vocational training qualifications may exhibit the flexibility to respond to changes in the work environments thus affected (European Communities, 1985). In this initial stage, it may be surmised from the analysis that the Community’s primary goal was to protect itself from adverse shocks to its economic viability by hedging against subsequent losses of qualified workers on the labor market and to forestall potential threats to its competitivity stemming from the advent of new information technologies.

Policy dynamics

In addressing the need to retrain workers for potential changes in the labor market, the Treaty on ECSC invested the High Authority with the power to allocate financial resources to this end. With the creation of the EEC, a number of institutions were redesigned and the range of actors involved in policy-making increased. The High Authority was reformed into a Commission, which retained and expanded its oversight prerogatives as the executive arm of the EEC. Consequently, in delineating the responsibilities for the formulation of policy in the area of vocational training, the EEC Treaty identified the Commission as the initiator of such policy, according to which the Council of Ministers, in consultation with the Economic and Social Committee, was mandated to enact the principles of the emerging policy in this domain.

This relationship was further nuanced, particularly beginning with the 1963 Decision which stipulated that the Member States, with the Commission’s support, were to draw national vocational training plans that may lend themselves to the harmonization of program development, instructional design and instructor training in such a way that vocational training across Member States attained a high degree of compatibility. In turn, the Commission was tasked with the evaluation of these undertakings at Member State level and with bringing to the attention of the Member States its interpretation of the results of this process. Subsequently, the establishment of Cedefop as an independent European agency introduced a new institutional actor in vocational training policy, the primary function of which was to assist the Commission in coordinating, disseminating and exchanging information and research on vocational training at Community level (European Communities, 1975).

With the Community’s focus shifting toward the incorporation of information technologies in vocational training, the Commission was tasked with the responsibility to implement, at the request and with the cooperation of the Member States, “demonstration projects” meant to promote sharing of expertise, to act as a facilitator among the Member States in the exchange of IT professional developers, and to encourage workers to take an active role in introducing information technologies in their places of employment (European Communities, 1983). In a similar fashion and partly as a consequence of the new IT paradigm, the Commission was to work in cooperation with the Member States to facilitate the process of convergence of training qualifications, and to establish channels of communication and dissemination of information through designated agencies in the respective Member States (European Communities, 1985). Therefore, the Advisory Committee set up by the 1985 Council Decision and Cedefop were entrusted with carrying out the next stage in the consolidation of the 1963 common policy by coordinating the appropriate processes, actions and activities meant to ensure the comparability of training qualifications, and in developing comparable lists of job descriptions transferrable across the Member States.

Policy instruments

The power bestowed upon the High Authority to monitor the conditions under which the financing of workers’ retraining occurred stems from internal articles of the ECSC founding Treaty. While the Treaty on ECSC provided vague references to sources of financing for vocational (re)training, the Treaty on EEC was unambiguous in identifying the financial instrument for this purpose in the newly instituted European Social Fund (EEC, 1957). This was expressly placed at the disposal of the Member States, though any initiative related to vocational training could only be co-financed via the Fund, with the Member States providing half the funds required in this regard.

Although an official document of the EEC, the 1963 Council Decision did not formulate a specific vocational policy program. Rather, it is a blueprint for future vocational training policies, taking its authority from the Treaty on EEC to further expand and operationalize the letter of the Treaty into palpable action at Community and Member State levels. Even though it constitutes a foundational policy document for vocational training, it made no specific references to the financing sources for future policy actions or initiatives, presumably leaving such concerns to be determined during the formulation of specific policy programs. As the next logical step in the vocational training policy formulation, Cedefop acquired its mandate from the EEC Treaty and the aforementioned 1963 Council Decision. Apart from the legislation in which the Center’s creation was embedded, Cedefop itself was to generate the instruments it needed in implementing the common policy. Thus, the Center published research and dissemination documentation, including a “Community vocational training bulletin” (European Communities, 1975: 2), which served as an operational instrument in delivering the scope of vocational training policies at European level.

Charting a political direction in the consideration of IT in vocational training, the 1983 Resolution was limited in its power as a legal instrument, but it drew on several prior instruments to make its case for action in this regard, such as the EEC Treaty and a couple of prior resolutions or communications addressing the emergence of micro- and information technologies in socio-economic dynamics. Partly in response to the IT revolution identified in the 1983 Resolution, the 1985 Council Decision relied on a string of legal and functional-administrative instruments to accomplish the convergence of vocational training qualifications in the Member States. Apart from the legacy references to the EEC Treaty and the 1963 Decision, such instruments consist of several opinions formulated separately by the Advisory Council, the European Parliament and the Economic Social Committee, and of a number of Council resolutions (European Communities, 1985), which provided the 1985 Resolution with the legal prerogative and framework to carry out its political intent.

1986–2006: Programmatic operationalization stage

This stage is characterized by the rollout of Community programs for separate educational domains, ranging from higher education to vocational education. It marks the EU’s drive for developing cooperation models in education by incentivizing and promoting collaboration among institutional actors in education and public or industrial sectors.

Policy framing

Continuing to operationalize the 1963 Council Decision, the COMETT Program of 1986 invoked collaboration between higher education and industry premised on the need to address technology developments as a factor influencing economic and social change. The Council Decision establishing it framed vocational training needs within the broader “importance of strengthening the technological base and competitiveness of industry” (European Communities, 1986: 17), while at the same time calling for the judicious utilization of human resources in the context of the university-industry collaborative pact. In a similar vein, the Erasmus Programme’s rhetorical narrative centers on the benefits it could bring to the Community as a whole, through the expansion of inter-university cooperation, which could lead to enhancing the quality of training across Europe by harnessing the intellectual potential honed through exchanges of students from across the Member States (European Communities, 1987a). A human capital view of the Community’s economic development is supplemented and reinforced by the declared intent to place the emerging expertise of future professionals benefiting from the program’s mobilities in the service of accelerating and consolidating the development of the Single Market and securing the Community’s competitiveness in the world economy.

In this context, the 1989 Council Decision on developing an action program for the vocational training of young people sets as a strategic mission the infusion of training initiatives with a European dimension in order to facilitate exchanges of expertise across the Member States and elimination of any obstacles in the freedom of movement, with the overarching goal of consolidating the internal market. It also linked to and echoed the 1963 and 1986 Decisions indicating a concern with the societal changes stemming from new technological developments which the vocational training policy was meant to address (European Communities, 1987b). Building on these programmatic initiatives, the Eurotecnet Programme continued to emphasize the importance of technological change and, specifically, the new information technologies in adapting and adjusting the provision of vocational training in this regard. Thus, the language of the document appears to support innovative approaches to vocational training, and designated the new information technologies both as a catalyst for renewal in approaches to as well as a mode of delivery for vocational training (European Communities, 1989).

Immediately following Eurotecnet, the Force Programme introduced the term “continuing vocational training” in policy language, which it defined as “any vocational training in which a worker in the European Community is engaged over his or her working life” (European Communities, 1990: 1). It then placed continuing vocational training at the core of the Community’s drive to complete the Single Market, to which other related objectives were linked. It confers continuing vocational training a significant social dimension, by emphasizing the importance of training for the viability, adaptability and transferability of qualifications and skills in an era marked by change derived from the advent of new information technologies. Next, the Petra Programme reinforced and expanded its consideration of social matters related to vocational training. It reiterated previous Decisions’ focus on the provision of vocational training as a contributor to the completion of European Community’s Single Market, but it explicitly outlined stipulations targeted to addressing flexibility and coherence in vocational training, particularly in terms of equal opportunities for access to Community programmes for young people not enrolled in university studies, equal gender access, support for transnational projects in this area and incentivizing the private sector to invest in the programme (European Communities, 1991).

In keeping with the vision of the 1963 Decision, the Leonardo Da Vinci Programme highlighted the necessity for improvement of vocational training across the Community. The immediate purpose was improving workers’ qualifications and skills, while the overall purposes was a long-term vision to spur economic growth, social cohesion and competitiveness across Europe (European Communities, 1994). In what later became a common pattern, Leondardo Da Vinci was the first instrument related to vocational training that introduced the term lifelong learning in policy parlance, setting the stage for the conceptualization of this term throughout policy rhetoric as also eventually connoting or even subsuming adult education. Another novelty in policy narrative on vocational training was the partial reliance on modalities for delivering training at a distance, some of which included the utilization of multimedia systems.

The Socrates Programme may be viewed as an indicator of the Community’s continuous and gradually expanding role in education over time. Cooperation among Member States in the field of education, through exchanges of students in various disciplines, as well as through means of delivery based on distance and open education, was invoked as a facilitator in the emergence of “economies of scale” in Europe, with the long-term view of securing predictable growth, employment opportunities and competitiveness. It envisioned an improvement of the quality of education by aiming to foster the rise of a “spirit of European citizenship” by “drawing on the cultural heritage of each Member State,” by cultivating a heightened “understanding and solidarity” of peoples across the European Union as well as encouraging an “intercultural dimension in education” (European Communities, 1995: 11). The program, therefore, represented an expansive and concerted effort at the Community level to bring together several strands of policy intents in education, including higher education, school education and vocational education, coalescing into a multifaceted policy action aimed at creating a substantial presence of the Community in facilitating interchanges and cooperation in education between Member States.

Coming soon after the conclusion of the first Socrates Programme, the second stage of the Leonardo Da Vinci Programme shifted its interpretation of lifelong learning by couching it in tandem with vocational training, as vehicles for engendering and encouraging employability, adaptability and entrepreneurship. Concurrently, in invoking the advent of the “learning society,” the narrative prescribed the “acquisition of new knowledge” and learning at “every opportunity,” along with facilitated mobility of labor across Europe, as key attributes of a competitive Union (European Communities, 1999: 33). Although not explicitly stated, this contextualization implied a focus on the individual as human capital, equipped with free agency in the labor market, particularly one defined by technological change. In turn, the second installment of the Socrates Programme remained true to the spirit and letter of its previous iteration, consistently advocating for the emergence and consolidation of a “European dimension” in the EU’s conglomeration of educational systems (European Communities, 2000: 1). Having been re-enacted at almost the same time as the second phase of the Da Vinci Programme, both programmes displayed virtually the same preambles in setting up their legal framework and drew on nearly identical legal documents to frame their scope and intent as aiding in the development of a larger aim in promoting lifelong learning as the next phase in the process of reforming education across the EU (European Communities, 2000).

Policy dynamics

In this stage, the Commett Programme emerged from the Council’s and Commission’s work on addressing social and technological challenges to industry and from exchanges of views on joint action between the Council and the Community’s Ministers of Education, while the Commission acted as the “guardian” of the actions contained in the programme. Furthermore, the Commission had the prerogative on deciding the continuation of the programme, but, under certain conditions, the Member States could intervene by referring such matters to the Council. Subsequently, in establishing the Erasmus Programme, the Community relied on the Commission’s experience with a decade of pilot funding for university cooperation to persuade the Member States of the utility and long-term value of the programme. In the process, the Commission was entrusted with drafting and presenting formal reports to the Parliament, the Council, the Education Committee and, notably, to the Advisory Committee on Vocational Training, which continued to highlight the importance accorded to vocational training at Community level, even in a programme aimed primarily at higher education.

In turn, in its efforts to operationalize the 1987 action programme providing vocational training to young people across the Community, the Commission took the leading role in steering supporting mechanisms and activities via a European network of training initiatives for young people, exchanges of training professionals, and dissemination of results on vocational education with social partners through review, consultation and dialog. This trend continued throughout the Eurotecnet Programme, in which the Commission again took the steering role in implementing, monitoring and evaluating its objectives. Through a common framework of guidelines and Community measures, the Member States could avail themselves of a network of “transnational innovatory projects” (European Communities, 1989: 30) intended to disseminate information, share expertise, exchange of research results and enhance cooperation on basic and continuing vocational training among multiple social partners.

Thereafter, the explicit coupling of the Force Programme with previous or concurrent programmes such as Eurotecnet and Comett (European Communities, 1990), further underscored the increasing policy web constructed around vocational training, which denotes the Community’s consistent, persistent, methodical and strategic drive to consolidate actions in this policy domain. The interaction among the various actors relied on a common framework of guidelines and transnational measures, aimed at promoting a European dimension in the provision of continuing vocational training, at ensuring equal access and opportunities for all categories of workers, at fostering cooperation between industry, public sector and training systems. Following these developments, the Petra, then the Leonardo Da Vinci programmes were premised on the creation of transnational projects and networks, overwhelmingly favoring and promoting the participation of individuals, institutional and social partners in extensive training networks and exchanges of expertise occurring at Member States level with the active and substantial support of the Community institutions, spearheaded primarily by the European Commission (European Communities, 1991, 1994).

Later, the alignment of the Socrates Programme with actions in other Community programmes was a task shared by the Commission and the Member States, particularly in the case of Leonardo Da Vinci, as another sign of the importance conferred to vocational training in the overall scheme of the programme (European Communities, 1995). In an established pattern customary to Community programs, the dynamics in the second iteration of the Da Vinci programme replicated to a certain extent the various institutional actors’ interactions outlined in previous programmes. A priority in the policy narrative was the fostering of the European dimension and transnational cooperation in the Community’s measures related to vocational training and lifelong learning (European Communities, 1999). In this context, the Community level lent its support to Member States in the creation of a European educational space for vocational training and lifelong learning. At the same time, the Member States were tasked with the distribution of appropriate measures and actions commonly agreed through the programme via national channels to the local agencies responsible for vocational training activities.

Finally, within the scope of the second installment of the Socrates Programme, a distinct action was reserved for adult education via its sub-programme Grundtvig, as an acknowledgment of the various actions as interrelated strands in the crystallization of a holistic approach to education policy and reform in Europe. It also recognized the importance adult education played as one of the components in supporting the development of a lifelong learning characteristic to European education. The implementation dynamics mirrored the process established in Socrates I, with the Commission serving as the lead coordinator of the programme, tasked with monitoring and evaluating its results. In a similar fashion to the previous iteration of Socrates, the Member States were responsible for taking the necessary measures to translate the initiatives of the program at national level, yet they would also cooperate with the Commission on the dissemination of results.

Policy instruments

Although firmly rooted in the Community’s treaties and the 1963 Decision, the Commett program was bound by a series of other instruments that conferred it a specific context and precedent in addressing the technological developments that occurred in the EEC since its inception. Several Council resolutions highlighting the role of information technology in education, and a number of programmes such as Esprit, Biotechnology and Brite, explicitly designed to stimulate and enhance the Community’s scientific cooperation, form the legal foundation upon which Commett could act in enhancing collaboration between universities and industry in the provision of vocational training suited to the new technological developments. The document set apart ECU 45 million for the implementation of the programme and provided guidelines for annual reporting procedures as well as for the submission of final reports between European institutions, in light of which the Council could determine the budgetary allocation for the programme.

In an expected pattern of policy development at the Community level, the Erasmus Programme was embedded in preceding policy instruments, including the EU Treaty, the Commett Programme, Parliament resolutions related to cooperation among higher education establishments and recognition of academic credentials, as well as to Article 128 of the Treaty conferring the Community limited prerogatives on vocational training. Within this nexus of policy priorities aimed at university cooperation and student mobilities, a notable policy item weaves a link to vocational training. The document made an explicit reference to the 1963 vocational policy Decision in an apparent, yet distinct, attempt to connect vocational training to the Erasmus Programme, so that individuals seeking vocational training may avail themselves of increased opportunities to receive such training in the course of future cooperation and mobilities that may include vocational training provisions. In turn, vocational training was offered as a point of justification for the creation of the Erasmus Programme, since the Community, prior to the adoption of this programme, had been lacking formal jurisdiction in promoting higher education initiatives, as the Treaty had confined the role of the Community in educational policy to matters related to vocational training. The Community financial envelope for the programme contained ECU 85 million for a period of 3 years, signaling the significance the Community placed in its ambitious goals to spur cooperation and exchange in European higher education.

Like its predecessor programmes, the Eurotecnet Programme was anchored in the 1963 Decision, but added to an increasingly complex policy web governing vocational training in the EEC. The Community allocated funding in the amount of ECU 7.5 million to the Eurotecnet Programme for the first 3 years of its operation, with annual appropriations decided jointly by the Commission, Parliament and Council. Similarly, the Force Programme continued to invoke the 1963 Decision, to which it contributed another instrument in the construction of the Community’s overall vocational training policy. It also made references to a series of Council and Parliament resolutions calling for the acknowledgment of vocational training as central to the emergence of the Single Market and to the reinforcement of the latter’s social dimension. As with preceding programmes, Force was allocated ECU 24 million from the Community budget for its first 2 years of operation, with annual appropriations decided jointly by the Parliament, Council and the Commission. The Petra Programme continued to reference the 1963 Decision but, notably, the Decision establishing it also made references to the Community Charter on the social rights of workers, from which the larger context on the social dimension was derived. The financial instruments devoted to the program totaled ECU 177.4 million allocated from the Community’s general budget, with express distribution of funds and ceilings for specific actions under the programme.

As a policy instrument, the Leonardo Da Vinci Programme was to some extent embedded in actions tested or introduced in previous programme such as Comett, Force, Eurotecnet and Petra, the policy instruments which served both as contextual and referential legal basis for Leonardo Da Vinci and were specifically mentioned in the programme’s narrative. The instrument conferred the programme the name Leonardo Da Vinci, which constituted a mark of distinction for vocational training programmes for more than a decade. Significantly, the Socrates Programme drew its legal powers through repeated references to the EU Treaty, citing several articles related to the general shared responsibilities between the Community and Member States level and to specific provisions for education. Notably, it brought into discussion Article 127 (1) related explicitly to the implementation of vocational training policies. The policy document also referenced the Erasmus and Leonardo Da Vinci programmes in clearly reinforcing the basis of the Socrates Programme to extend its scope in addressing both higher and vocational education (European Communities, 1995). The importance of the Socrates Programme for supporting the variety of actions aimed at infusing the Community’s education with a European dimension, in its generic and encompassing meaning, was underscored by the financial package allocated for its implementation and operationalization for 5 years: ECU 850 million.

The reauthorization of the Leondardo Da Vinci Programme was informed by a similar legislative framework, but, expectedly, on an expanded budgetary footing. If the previous Da Vinci Programme was given a 4-year duration, the second iteration was granted a 7-year lifeline, in keeping with the Union’s normative approach on establishing budgetary cycles and oversight. Importantly, the financial envelope dedicated to the program amounted to €1150 million for the 7 years of the program. Lastly, in keeping with its rhetorical goal of promoting lifelong learning stated in the first iteration of the programme, the second iteration of the Socrates Programme also made an explicit reference to a communication from the Commission espousing the benefits of a “Europe of knowledge,” (European Communities, 2000: 2), thus firmly anchoring the programme through pre-existing instruments in the evolving narrative on lifelong learning as a policy priority. Within this context, as an added benefit of Socrates actions, it aimed to contribute to the improvement of another European instrument, the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) in existence for less than a decade. The significance of the Socrates Programme for the set of policy goals it contained and which were embraced by the Community was underlined by the budgetary allocation of €1850 million, substantially higher than in the initial phase, although for a 7-year time horizon.

2006-present: Consolidation, integration and expansion stage

The current stage represents a shift in the operationalization of VTAELL policy via more expansive, integrated Community programs. These also include feedback mechanisms that inform the further fine-tuning of policy formulation.

Policy framing

Reaffirming its embrace and commitment to enhancing its ability to cope with the challenges of the emerging knowledge society, the Lifelong Learning Programme (LLP) was meant to contribute to strengthening and raising the prestige of Europe’s educational landscape. It also aimed at consolidating its socially responsible economic objectives to reduce or eliminate unemployment and creating a competitive Europe in the global economy (European Union, 2006). Important in this context was the explicit argument made by the policy drafters that the integration of primary, secondary, higher, vocational, and adult education represented the most appropriate, sweeping and coherent approach for accomplishing the aforementioned goals. Thus, lifelong learning became a common rhetorical thread that ran across these educational domains lending them a unified sense of purpose, thereby justifying and undergirding the envisioned emergence of a European area for lifelong learning. To a considerable extent then, lifelong learning became a goal in itself, as the various levels and types of educational and training systems were seen as vehicles for its strategic promotion, implementation and dissemination for an array of purposes meant to address complex, interrelated socio-economic issues. Given the direction and intentionality encapsulated in its pluralistic aims, lifelong learning was thus presented as a driver for increasing transnational cooperation and mobility, both in academic and vocational domains, while at the same time contributing to forging a sense of cohesion, European citizenship, respect for diversity, advocacy for human rights and inclusion.

Meanwhile, acting primarily as a political call to action, the 2011 Council Resolution on a Renewed European Agenda for Adult Learning contained exhortations for incentivizing adult learners’ participation in up- or re-skilling their qualifications and competences to cope with unemployment in a European labor market still reeling from the after-effects of the 2008 economic crisis. It justified this stance as a matter of concern further aggravated by the trend noted in the narrative through factual evidence that participation in adult learning and training had marked a decline in the preceding 5 years. Concurrently, the Resolution built up adult learning as a crucial contributor to competitiveness, productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship. It further proposed a shift in focus on policy development in adult learning based on learning outcomes “in which the autonomous learner is central, regardless of where he/she learns. . .” (European Union, 2011: 2) and urged an emphasis on the provision of opportunities for engagement in adult learning for the acquisition of a range of skills (e.g. basic, numeracy, literacy, etc.) meeting the needs of varying categories of individuals, from young to adult and old age, from disabled or disadvantaged groups, in an inclusive manner.

As the EU’s latest comprehensive programme in education, Erasmus+ echoed and echoed LLP’s policy goal of embedding lifelong learning as the centerpiece rhetorical tool for driving educational actions at European level, but went further in identifying the need to enhance cooperation and collaboration and, by extension, coordination among the EU’s educational initiatives. In consolidating all existing EU-level educational programs under the heading Erasmus+, the EU signaled a marked orientation toward and support for cooperation across all educational sub-programmes via intensified exchanges, mobilities and transnational initiatives or projects. In seeking to foster this enhanced cooperation among educational sectors through exchanges of expertise, training opportunities/programs and individual mobilities, the rhetorical ploy remained centered around the need to create a more competitive Europe, to bring about lifelong learning for all, and to build a strong knowledge-based economy with sustainable and inclusive growth (European Union, 2013). In sum, European cooperation is premised on bridging the worlds of VET and adult education within the realm of higher education, with lifelong learning being deemed as the conceptual conduit through which common interests in education and labor can be further merged for the overarching goal of socio-economic development.

Policy dynamics

While the LLP’s sub-programmes had previously acted as stand-alone actions with clearly defined distribution of responsibilities and jurisdictions among actors, these interactions were retained but under the overall umbrella of the multi-part LLP program. The overriding principle enshrined in the historical process of policy formulation in the VTAELL domain was that the LLP supported and supplemented Member States’ efforts to implement actions for which they were responsible as defined within the framework of the program. Although the LLP tackled the specific guidelines for each sub-programme it contained, of interest in this analysis are the Leonardo Da Vinci and Grundtvig programmes dedicated to vocational and adult education, the former having functioned in its previous iterations as a standalone programme and the latter as a sub-component of the larger multilateral Socrates Programme (with Socrates itself now absorbed into the LLP). As an indicator of the EU’s intent to reinforce the cross-sectoral applicability of vocational and adult training, both Leonardo Da Vinci and Grundvig were accessible to higher education institutions as conduits for and facilitators of training initiatives. Conversely, vocational and adult learning actions were also embedded in the sub-programmes aimed at primary-secondary education (Comenius) and higher education (Erasmus).

Even constrained to a power of recommendation, the 2011 Resolution on adult education nonetheless contained priorities that could shape the formulation of policy actions folded into Community programs by drawing on the involvement of various stakeholders. At a systemic level, it encouraged a closer involvement of higher education institutions in providing opportunities for adult learners to acquire knowledge and skills via alternative forms of learning, whether formal, informal, or non-formal settings. Complementarily, it suggested the development of “lifelong guidance systems” (European Union, 2011: 3) designed to validate formal and informal competences aligned with the requisites and criteria inherent in the European Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning (EQF). The Resolution invited the Member States to manage the interactions among national ministries, social partners and industries under their jurisdiction for a coherent interfacing between adult learning and socio-economic policies. At EU level, it invited the Commission to support the Member States, to ensure coherence and coordination of adult learning policy with other policy initiatives and programs in education, as well as to disseminate information across the EU through established networks dedicated to adult learning and VET (e.g. Eurydice and Cedefop).

In a slight departure from LLP’s configuration, the Erasmus+ Programme’s retained but reorganized the previous sub-programmes and was compartmentalized into three main fields (i.e. education and training, youth, and sport), each of which structured along four specific actions consistently and recurrently distributed across the three fields (i.e. learning mobility of individuals, cooperation for innovation and the exchange of good practices, and support for policy reform). A notable and novel development in the formulation of EU’s educational programmes was the introduction of an explicit action related to policy reform. This was intended to inform involved stakeholders of EU-level educational policy, to better disseminate and coordinate policy actions across EU-level institutions for the targeted field, as well as to act as a mechanism for the evaluation of policy implementation serving as a feedback-loop permeating through the horizontal and vertical layers of policy actors across the EU institutional landscape. Of immediate interest in this analysis are the actions in the Education and Training field, which incorporated the VET and adult learning sectors (via the Leonardo da Vinci and Grundtvig legacy sub-programmes grandfathered into the Erasmus+ framework). Thus, learning mobility at all educational levels was envisioned, with equal importance assigned to vocational education involving training at partner institutions in various Member States. As in LLP, the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of Erasmus+ was a matter of cooperation between the Commission and the Member States, as were efforts to communicate and disseminate information both across the EU institutional terrain, and to beneficiaries and national agencies involved in the Programme.

Policy instruments

In establishing its legal standing, the LLP was framed in the web of the EU Treaties and the Decisions that created the preceding programmes, including Leonardo Da Vinci, Socrates, eLearning, Erasmus Mundus, but also making a reference to the Bologna Declaration to underline the process of bringing about the European Area of Higher Education. Additional instruments that informed and reinforced the LLPs legitimacy were several Commission Communications and Council Resolutions, the most pertinent of which advocated for the expansion of lifelong learning through Community programmes in education and training (European Union, 2006). Several regulations established the financial basis for funding the programme and, consequently, the Decision allocated €6.97 billion to the LLP while at the same time endorsing consistency and complementarity with the Education and Training 2010 Work Programme. Finally, in highlighting the importance of vocational training in facilitating the focus of the LLP, the decision mandated the Commission to enlist the assistance of Cedefop, expressely created through the 1975 Regulation as a solid testament to the continuity of vocational training as a constant policy focus in the educational agenda at Community level.

The 2011 Resolution drew on several “softer” instruments, such as other resolutions and conclusions on adult and lifelong learning, as well as a decision on guidelines for employment policies in the Member States. One relevant document that was recurrently referenced related to the education and training strategy (ET2020), which provided much of the impetus for priorities regarding the provision of adult learning opportunities outlined in the narrative (European Union, 2011). Since the Resolution called on the Commission to supply the financial means for the agenda to be implemented, it suggested the allocation of funding instruments embedded in concurrent programmes, such as the LLP, particularly the sub-programmes Grundtvig and Leonardo da Vinci, and structural funds for this purpose.

Erasmus+ emerged from and retained an uninterrupted link with the previous generation of educational programmes, such as the LLP, Erasmus Mundus, Youth in Action, thus conferring continuity to and merging Community policy development processes in this realm. In an indication of the ever-increasing importance accorded to the formalization of VTAELL policy, the document made specific references to several pre-existing instruments that contextualize, frame and direct the transferability and compatibility of vocational training qualifications, such as the European Credit System for Vocational Education and Training (ECVET) and the European Quality Assurance Reference Framework for Vocational Education and Training (EQAVET). Similarly, a framework that may be considered to be crossing the border between higher education and VET, the EQF, was referenced in building the contextual legal framework for vocational education. Not least, the document also made a reference to the 2011 Council resolution on the European Agenda for Adult Learning, from which it set out long-term objectives for creating opportunities for adult learning and developing sustainable avenues for incorporating adult learning more systematically in Europe’s educational and training systems. In a significant indication of the importance and weight placed by the Community on the scope and objectives of Erasmus+, the funding allocated to the program amounted to €14.8 billion, more than double the funding extended to LLP. Not surprisingly, 77.5% of this budgetary allocation was reserved to the overall Education and Training field, of which the equivalent of 17% and 3.9% of the total program budget was allocated to VET and adult education, respectively.

Summary and conclusion

As Lee and Jan (2018) noted in their handling of post-2000 lifelong learning policy development among international organizations (e.g. UNESCO, OECD, EU, and the World Bank), only a limited body of research documents explicates the evolution of the development of VTAELL policies in the European Union. Above, the historical development of a more systematic framework for VTAELL policy in the EU is detailed in terms of policy framing, dynamics, and instrumentation as expressions of the network or joint federalism the EU polity represents. Delving into the key policy documents issued by EU governance, the narrative presented the emergence of formal policies, and the eventual convergence of the mosaic of established programmes under the vision of a collaborative lifelong learning system: the creation of a European VTAELL policy space. As such, this article has attempted to piece together in a more holistic fashion the multiple strands in this policy space that have been examined to a certain extent separately in valuable contributions noted earlier on: vocational training (Psifidou, 2014), adult education (Antunes, 2020; Mikulec, 2018; Milana and Klatt, 2019, 2020; Panitsides, 2015) or lifelong learning (Hinzen, 2011; Jarvis, 2004; Volles, 2016).

What is clear is that there is progress toward an intentional European, and increasingly coordinated, effort toward a common strategic framework of VTAELL objectives. With the increasing emphasis on interoperability, compatibility, and mutually recognized qualifications, not to mention greater coordination between educational sectors within Member States, the continuing policy developments in response to rapidly shifting social and economic conditions signal a concerted effort to build compatible systems in support of European learning opportunities across the lifespan and the nonformal-to-formal learning continuum. While the framing and justifications for these efforts have regularly been couched in human capital and economic development terms—especially in terms of systems-level response to technological innovations—each of the initiatives also address the need for social and economic inclusion and societal cohesion, as well as the preservation and sharing of the many cultural variations within the European space. In response to the criticisms of the neoliberal ideological bias within the EU policies, the resulting programs have increasingly introduced discursive references to democratic, inclusive liberalism and European social cohesion: both economic efficiencies and social equity are envisioned to work in tandem.

The programmes work to promote clearer links between schooling, training, learning, and work; establish flexible pathways and bridges between educational sectors to facilitate learning and earning mobility; and to incentivize individuals, organizations, employers, and Member States to invest more in lifelong learning. As the policy initiatives have converged over time under the auspices of lifelong learning, the lines and distinctions between secondary, adult, vocational, workforce, higher, and informal education and learning seem to have been blurred. While some may conceive of these developments as a threat to specific educational sectors, it could also be argued that the initiatives are an attempt at forging a more coordinated and comprehensive system of lifelong learning in Europe. Thus, the emergence of European VTAELL policy emphasizes the development of integrated education systems through cooperation and partnership between the wide variety of parties and stakeholders involved, including multiple layers of government ministries, social partners, institutions of adult and vocational education, higher education, and business and industry.

The EU has worked over several decades to produce prototypes for the area of VTAELL policy. What remains is the task of evaluating to what extent these policies and programmes have actually worked toward their professed aims, and whether these programmes improve social and economic access and equity. Do the programmes, in reality, contribute to lifelong learning, employability and adaptability, active citizenship, improved quality of life, personal fulfillment, and increasing social inclusion? Can VTAELL policies strengthen individuals’ and countries’ ability to transform their functionings, freedoms, and potentialities into meaningful and fulfilling lives and cohesive societies? In a world that seems to be dictated by international competition and strict economic rationalism, is “lifelong learning” merely a pliable term that can be handily employed where needed, yet somehow still perpetuate a system where some human capital is worth investing in, and the rest become redundant; where some are accepted as productive citizens and the rest sidelined? Despite such ongoing concerns, the convergence and cross-referencing of EU’s VTAELL policy across education sectors and in Member States validates the importance of formal, non-formal, and informal adult learning lifelong and lifewide. The policy scaffolding established by the EU as a sui-generis, still evolving federal-type compound polity, facilitates cross-referencing, replication, networking, and interoperability and coordination toward a shared European vision of VTAELL embodied in the policy space it has constructed in this domain over time.

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