Stays abroad in vocational education and training

Scope, benefits and support requirements

Berthold Hübers, Jan Kröll

International requirements in the world of work are increasing in the wake of globalisation. Periods of time spent abroad are considered to offer a high degree of potential in terms of imparting the necessary competencies in this regard. In light of this, the German Bundestag has set out the objective that, by 2020, at least ten per cent of all persons completing dual VET should have spent part of such training abroad. What is the current state of affairs, who finances mobility, and how is the benefit of such periods spent abroad evaluated? And what are the reasons stated by trainees, companies and schools not taking part in foreign stays? These questions are investigated on the basis of a representative survey, and conclusions are also drawn with regard to the endeavours being undertaken to increase the number and extent of stays abroad.

Significance of periods of time spent abroad

An explicit regulation relating to foreign stays in VET was included within the scope of the reform of the Berufsbildungsgesetz (BBiG) [Vocational Training Act] in 2005. This covered two aspects. The intention was to put existing practice on a secure legal footing whilst also sending out a signal that the duration and number of foreign stays should continue to be extended. Only two years after the new regulation had entered into force, the Innovation in Vocational Education and Training Working Group recommended that the amount of periods spent abroad should be doubled by the year 2015 (cf. BMBF 2007, p. 24). After the Council of the European Union (2011) stipulated an EU benchmark of six per cent mobility by 2020, the German Bundestag went one stage further by setting the national benchmark at ten per cent by 2020 (cf. Deutscher Bundestag 2012).

Three years prior to the expiry of this time frame, the National Agency Education for Europe at BIBB (NA at BIBB) commissioned a study to identify the scope, characteristics and impact of transnational mobility and to determine the support required by stakeholders (cf. Information Box). The alignment of the study is comparable to its predecessor investigation (cf. FRIEDRICH/KÖRBEL 2011) in many respects. 

Mobility Study

The reference group for the study consists of trainees in Sector I “Vocational education and training” in the Integrated Training Reporting System (iABE), who in 2017 were in the final year of their vocational training. They were surveyed alongside the companies providing training and the schools during the period from April to mid-September 2017. The data presented here was acquired via three nationwide target group specific Surveys:

  1. An online questionnaire of trainees in final classes (n = 5,394, of which 563 were mobile)
  2. An online questionnaire of vocational schools or of their directors (n = 137, of which 93 have trainees involved in mobility measures either currently or in the past)
  3. An online questionnaire of companies providing training or of training heads (n = 120, of which 37 have trainees involved in mobility measures either currently or in the past).

All target groups were contacted directly or indirectly via the vocational schools. Various causes (including a high degree of self-selection on the part of the vocational schools) mean that the proportion of trainees with foreign experience identified via the online questionnaire seems to be a significant overestimate. Because of this, a method to extrapolate a fact-based, realistic and externally validatable mobility rate was designed in conjunction with the NA at BIBB. This extrapolation essentially combines the proportion of Erasmus+ funded trainees identified in the study with the actual number of trainees shown to have received financing in accordance with the NA at BIBB.

Although the distribution of the characteristic “federal state in which VET is being completed” was successfully identified via the sampling procedure alone, this deviated slightly from the known distribution of this characteristic in the statistical population. For this reason, specific adapted weightings were calculated for each federal state, and these were then used in the evaluation of the online questionnaire of trainees (cf. NA at BIBB 2018). 

Inventory of mobility

The main objective of the study was to conduct an inventory of transnational mobility in initial VET in the Federal Republic of Germany. An extrapolation (cf. Information Box) conducted on the basis of the statistics collected within the study and using data available to the NA at BIBB produced the following results. 30,785 trainees completed one or more stays abroad during the course of their initial VET. In relative terms, this figure represents 5.3 per cent of persons completing VET in 2017, only just over halfway to achieving the benchmark stated for 2020.

The countries visited by the trainees’ were predominantly in Europe. The United Kingdom was the most popular destination by a considerable distance and accounted for almost one in four training-related stays abroad. The Netherlands and France, two western neighbours of Germany, followed some way behind. A total of 12.2 per cent of destination countries were outside the European Union. The favourite non-European destination was the USA, which attracted one sixth of visits.

With regard to the financing of stays abroad, the central role played by the EU education programme Erasmus+ for mobility in VET is revealed. Nearly one in two (48.6 %) of the trainees surveyed had received funding for at least one stay via the Erasmus+ programme. Around 40 per cent of the internationally mobile trainees had (also) used private means to finance their foreign stays. One third (33.7 %) had even had their costs (partially) covered by the respective company providing training.

More than 85 per cent of the periods spent abroad by trainees were of a duration of no more than one month. Duration of stay is connected with the way in which it is financed. Whereas privately or company-funded foreign stays frequently did not exceed a maximum period of one week, visits that enjoyed public financing tended to extend over significantly longer periods of between three weeks and three months. Within the scope of Erasmus+, for example, funding is only provided for foreign stays from a minimum duration of two weeks.

Subjective evaluation of the benefit of periods spent abroad

Trainees taking part in such international mobility measures stated that their most important motivational factor for participation in a stay abroad was the opportunity to pursue personal growth. The study confirms that this expectation was generally fulfilled.

The three survey groups of trainees, vocational schools and companies were surveyed at the same time on the dimensions of knowledge, skills, competencies and occupational opportunities.

It is noticeable that the companies and schools evaluate the impacts in a similar way to the trainees. Consensus prevails between all participants in this regard. Nevertheless, one conspicuous aspect is that vocational schools consistently give the most positive assessment. They are followed by the companies in this regard, which in turn conspicuous aspect is that vocational schools consistently give the most positive assessment.
They are followed by the companies in this regard, which in turn arrive at a judgement that is generally more affirmative than that of trainees.

Respondents identify that the greatest development take place in the areas of personal competencies and knowledge. Personal competencies, which the respondents believe are particularly fostered by a stay abroad, include competence, the willingness to assume responsibility, motivation and the ability to work autonomously. In respect of knowledge, a growth in language abilities and in familiarity with the country and its people was emphasised in particular. Occupational skills, such as cooperation with international teams and partners, were also improved in most cases, albeit not as consistently as the characteristics stated above when viewed in the round.

Apart from these individual characteristics, the young people were also asked to provide an overall assessment of the benefit of their period spent abroad. As Figure 1 shows, more than three quarters (77.2 %) believed that total benefits were high or even very high. Only a small number of trainees 6.5 %) felt that their experiences had brought (very) little benefit.

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Figure 1: Overall benefit of a period spent abroad from the point of view of the trainees (proportions in per cent)

Benefits perceived are influenced by the nature of the foreign stay and by the sources of financing involved. On a scale from 1 (very high) to 5 (very low), practical placements, including placements combined with school attendance (as long as the former aspect predominates) are more likely to receive a positive assessment. The average value (AV) in such cases is between 1.7 and 1.8 (as opposed to an overall average value of 2.0). By way of contrast, measures which (primarily) involve school attendance and installation visits and trade fair participations are viewed as being slightly less useful (AV = 2.2). Involvement in financing by public funding programmes and foundations generally exerts a positive influence on perceived benefits. The sample size permits a particular consideration of the Erasmus+ programme to be undertaken. On average, the benefit delivered by periods spent abroad under the auspices of this funding programme receives a significantly higher evaluation than stays abroad not involving such a financing source (AV 1.7 as opposed to 2.2). Very short stays of periods up to and including three days (MW = 2.7) continue to be viewed as less useful than foreign stays of up to and including seven days. In turn, the latter are perceived as being less beneficial than longer trips of up to one month in duration (AV = 1.7, 1.8 and 1.9 respectively).

Support requirements and funding opportunities

Figure 2: Support requirements to make foreign stays easier from the point of view of the trainees (average values)
Figure 2: Support requirements to make foreign stays easier from the point of view of the trainees (average values)

Trainees, companies and schools never involved in mobility measures were also surveyed alongside stakeholders who have participated in international activities. The aim was that the former should evaluate the benefits of a period spent abroad even if they had not yet gathered any experience of their own in this regard. The trainees surveyed took a fundamentally positive view of mobility within the scope of training. Only six per cent of trainees not involved in mobility expected that such measures would bring no benefits. Slightly more than half (54.2 %) of companies not previously involved in mobility measures also expressed fundamental interest in realising stays abroad. The same view was articulated by just under two thirds (63.7 %) of schools which had thus far remained inactive in this respect. A fundamental interest in mobility thus exists amongst all stakeholders involved.

This means that potential to increase mobility rate is also in place and makes it all the more interesting to learn what has previously discouraged these groups from taking part in or supporting mobility periods abroad.
The main reason for the trainees was the feeling of being well qualified also without periods abroad (50.2) and for many trainees periods abroad within the scope of training were too expensive (49.7 %). There were also frequent complaints of a lack of support (40.2 %).

The study identified the support requirements for the three survey groups, and these are described below (cf. Figures 2 and 3). It is noticeable that all the support measures suggested in the questionnaire were considered to be important or even very important.

In line with the reasons for immobility stated above, trainees indicate that the most relevant factors are more financial support (AV = 1.8) and larger provision of programmes to organise mobility (AV = 1.9) (cf. Figure 2). They also wish to have more extensive information services and better coordination between the learning venues in respect of periods spent abroad (AV = 2.0 in each case). Trainees accord the lowest ranking, albeit still with an AV of 2.2, to the inclusion of periods spent abroad in training regulations or skeleton curricula and to the opportunity to acquire additional qualifications and high quality certificates. 

Figure 2: Support requirements to make foreign stays easier from the point of view of the trainees (average values)
Figure 3: Support requirements to make foreign stays easier from the point of view of the vocational schools and companies (average values)

Despite the small sample size, the school directors and company representatives surveys provide valuable indications (cf. Figure 3). They cite a lack of financial support and inadequate communication of existing funding programmes as reasons why they have not thus far assisted their trainees to take part in foreign stays.

Companies view greater provision of information (AV = 2.1) and financial support (AV = 2.3) as suitable support measures that would facilitate periods spent abroad. In addition, the companies believe that provision of clearly defined additional qualifications (AV = 2.2) and appropriate certification or documentation of these additional qualifications (AV = 2.3) would be helpful.

They agree with the schools that the requirements made of periods spent abroad, in particular with regard to learning contents, should be precisely formulated (AV = 2.2 and 2.0 respectively). However, the most important aspect from the perspective of the vocational schools is external support in the search for foreign partners (AV = 1.6). Further measures that the schools believe would be conducive are the inclusion of periods spent abroad in training regulations or skeleton curricula and the according of increased significance to foreign stays by providers (AV = 1.9 in each case). Vocational schools thus mainly perceive that stronger institutionalisation of periods spent abroad represents a suitable pathway for the fostering of such measures. Their views differ from those of the companies in this regard. Although the latter believe that inclusion of foreign stays in regulatory instruments is important, an average value of 2.7 indicates that they do not deem this to be quite as relevant.

Assessments are furthermore very close in respect of the high quality documentation of competencies acquired abroad in the form of certificates or reports (AV = 2.1). This is also something which is desired by the companies (see above) in order to structure participation in foreign stays by trainees in a more attractive manner.

Firmly establishing periods spent abroad as an option

The initial conclusion which may be drawn is that transnational mobility in VET has risen from three per cent to 5.3 per cent since the predecessor study published in 2011 (cf. FRIEDRICH/KÖRBEL 2011). Despite this positive development, particular endeavours will be necessary over the coming years in order to bring even more significant increases with a view to achieving the ten per cent objective. All survey groups are fundamentally open to periods spent abroad within the scope of training, and the attendant benefits are even recognised by those parties not active in such measures. For this reason, the focus does not need to be placed on promoting the benefits of foreign stays to the same extent as was necessary a few years ago. The outcomes of the study suggest that further measures aimed at reaching all participants should be developed. Four main areas can be identified on the basis of the support needs expressed by the respondents:

  • More information
  • Better financial support
  • More practical assistance
  • Firm establishment within training programmes.

The first three points relate to demands regarding the quantitative and qualitative development of existing instruments with which we are already familiar. Much is already being done within the various programmes and projects, but these efforts are obviously still insufficient.

The fourth aspect, which makes reference to the level of regulatory instruments, is a new element. Trainees and companies wish to have high quality certificates and clearly defined additional qualifications, and schools desire such components to be firmly established in the training regulations and skeleton curricula. Although the regulatory instruments afford the necessary leeway to plan periods spent abroad, this facility is not being used. There is, for example, no occupation in which nationally standardised learning outcomes which could be acquired within the scope of a foreign stay have been defined. Neither is there any occupation in which uniform additional qualifications have been created for trainees to choose from. Action therefore needs to be taken given the fact that over 30,000 stays abroad took place in 2017 and in light of the increase in such measures that is both foreseeable and desirable. Companies, schools and trainees all wish to avail themselves of this international option. It could be enshrined within the training regulations for the relevant occupations as a high quality and uniform standard via optional additional or elective qualifications. Companies which send their trainees abroad could make use of this opportunity. Those who have no need to do so would not be impeded with regard to their capacity to provide training. The support requirements for trainees, companies and schools identified in the study indicate that such options could be used in the training regulations and that the organisation of periods spent abroad could be made easier. The outcome could be that the number, quality and visibility of foreign stays could be increased, thus enhancing the attractiveness of VET in overall Terms.


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DEUTSCHER BUNDESTAG: Das deutsche Berufsbildungssystem – Versicherung gegen Jugendarbeitslosigkeit und Fachkräftemangel, Drucksache 17/10986. Berlin 2012
http://dipbt.bundestag.de/dip21/btd/17/109/1710986.pdf (retrieved: 17.07.2018)

EUROPÄISCHER RAT: Schlussfolgerungen zu einer Benchmark für die Lernmobilität. 2011
https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/DE/ALL/?uri=CELEX%3A52011XG1220%2806%29 (retrieved: 17.07.2018)

FRIEDRICH, W.: KÖRBEL, M.: Verdeckte Mobilität in der Berufsbildung. Bonn 2011

NATIONAL AGENCY EDUCATION FOR EUROPE AT BIBB (Ed.): Transitional Mobility in Initial Vocational Education and Training in Germany in 2017. Bonn 2018
www.na-bibb.de/studyonmobility (retrieved: 06.08.2018)

Head of the Mobility and Internationalisation of Vocational Education and Training Team at the National Agency Education for Europe at BIBB

Project Head and Partner of uzbonn GmbH (Survey Centre Bonn)

Translation from the German original (published in BWP 4-2018): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin