Work-based learning under pressure - in brief

Work-based learning is an essential part of vocational education. However, the current labour market shortage is leading to a lack of placements and threatening the quality of work-based training. The Dutch Education Council therefore recommends that vocational training providers and employers make conscious and judicious use of work-based learning, working together to determine which educational activities should take place within a workplace setting and identify where alternatives might also work well. It is also vital to safeguard the quality of work-based learning by drawing up a framework of national standards.

Studenten in een werkplaats
Beeld: ©Onderwijsraad

Background: Work-based learning under pressure

More than a quarter of students in the Netherlands are in vocational education: practical education, part-time or dual course at senior secondary vocational colleges or universities of applied sciences, or vocational education at university. An essential component in all these forms of vocational education is that students receive training both in both an educational and a workplace setting.

There are major shortages on the Dutch labour market, and demand for skilled workers and professionals is growing. In some sectors this is leading to a lack of work-based learning placements and putting the quality of existing placements under pressure. Companies and organisations have insufficient capacity to supervise students on work placements. There is a growing risk of abuse of internships, for example allowing students to perform tasks unsupervised or treating them as full, often unpaid, employees, so that the focus shifts away from learning on the job. All this impedes their preparation for the world of work, and subsequently the proper performance of their work or profession. There is also a risk of them incurring delays in their studies, abandoning their studies early or dropping out from school. The knock-on effect is an even greater shortage of well-trained workers and professionals.

The Dutch Minister of Education asked the Education Council to compile a report on what is needed to be able to offer good vocational education and training in a time of labour market scarcity.

Advice: Make purposeful and judicious use of work-based learning

The Education Council believes that work-based learning is an essential component of vocational education and training. The Council advises that it be deployed purposefully and judiciously.

An essential element of vocational education and training (VET) is that part of it is delivered in the workplace, under the responsibility of the VET provider. This can take various forms, such as internships, workplace learning, work placements, practice-based learning, etc.. Providing education and training in both the educational and workplace setting are indispensable and closely interwoven elements of vocational education and training. Both classroom and work-based learning, and the relationship between them, must be of consistently high quality, even at a time when labour market shortages mean there is a lack of training places and practical training opportunities.

Recommendation 1: Develop new forms of work-based learning

The Education Council recommends that VET providers look critically at which education and training activities definitely need to take place in the workplace, and those for which this is not essential. It is up to VET providers and employers to find alternatives where possible which reduce or eliminate the burden on the scarce capacity in terms of work placements and practical supervision.

One alternative could be to make greater use of workplace simulations, in which students learn to perform activities and acquire skills as they would do in a genuine workplace setting. Another option might be to use the school building as a practical facility or allow students to carry out practical assignments suggested by a company. Vocational education and training providers, education establishments and companies and organisations offering placements can all learn from each other here. The Council also recommends building on alternatives which were developed during the Covid pandemic, for example having work-based learning placements filled by several students simultaneously, or spreading internships better across the academic year.

Recommendation 2: Work together to assure quality

The Education Council recommends that VET providers, employers and government work together to assure that quality of work-based learning. This can be achieved by agreeing a framework of national quality standards, for example to ensure that the student’s activities during the practice-based part of their training matches the phase of their VET programme and their learning objectives, and ensuring good-quality, coordinated supervision by the college and the placement provider. The national standards should be based on what is currently working well in the field. They can then be translated into practice at local level, adapted to the specific situation.

As well as quality standards, a number of conditions also need to be set for work placements. Specifically, these concern the accessibility of placements, good supervision of students and combating internship discrimination. The Council also advocates a minimum internship payment for students.

VET providers, employers and government need to work together to oversee the quality of work-based learning. VET providers are responsible for the quality of teaching, including the portion which takes place during a work placement. Employers have a responsibility to offer sufficient good-quality placements. And government must ensure that VET providers and employers fulfil their respective responsibilities. The Education Council recommends that work-based learning placements that form part of higher education programmes be explicitly included in the external supervision remit of independent review committees and the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO).

Beeld: ©Onderwijsraad