Dialogue between science, policy and practice for the implementation of a policy principle

Experiences from pilot projects conducted in the key development area of “Vocational education and training for sustainable development 2015-2019”

Christian Melzig, Barbara Hemkes, Verónica Fernándaz-Caruncho

How can an (educational) policy principle be integrated into company-based training via collaboration between science, practice and policy making? And how can interaction between the various stakeholders be shaped? On the basis of experiences gained from pilot projects conducted in the key development area of “Vocational education and training for sustainable development 2015-2019”, constellations of stakeholders and cooperation are traced along the route from the idea of educational innovation all the way to transfer into VET practice.

The idea – education as an objective and vehicle for sustainable development

The United Nations’ Agenda 2030 represents an ambitious catalogue of tasks which has been agreed with the aim of fostering global sustainable development. It defines 17 goals including aspects such as sufficient supply of food and the strengthening of institutions for peace and justice. In order to achieve these sustainable development targets, the resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 1 September 20151 accords a major role to education. “Inclusive and equitable quality education”, which itself is one of the goals, is also a cross-cutting task across all of the objectives. The goals are considered to be universal, and each country has committed to making its contribution. The Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF) [Federal Ministry of Education and Research] has initiated a process to establish “Education for Sustainable Development” (ESD) in Germany within the scope of the Global Action Programme. In the resulting National Action Plan, VET is accorded a particular role with regard to being a sustainable way of conducting business because of its company-based localisation (cf. Information Box).

VET for sustainable development (BBNE) …

… is based on the assumption that the world of work is an important area in which sustainable development can be shaped. Qualified workers form an indispensable source of innovation potential for the alignment of companies to sustainability principles. Professional work is a key to the development and implementation of necessary innovations in manufacturing, the craft trades and services and therefore to successful long-term transformation. VET for sustainable development is seen as a lifelong process and as a central element within a form of education that enables an individual to deal in a responsible way with current and future challenges in occupational, social and private situations (cf. DUK 2014).

Against this background, the BMBF made funding available for a new phase of the main pilot project focus of “VET for sustainable development”. In order to facilitate moving “from the project to the structure” (DUK 2014), implementation of the policy principle at companies and transfer of pilot project results to superordinate VET structures were both declared as aims.

Supporting pilot projects, including provision of evaluation research, is one of BIBB’s statutory remits (pursuant to the Berufsbildungsgesetz (BBiG) [Vocational Training Act], § 90 Section 3 Clause 1d). The purpose of pilot projects is to develop and test innovative solutions for the practice and theory of VET.
They are suitable for the examination of complex requirements because they are based on cooperation between practice and science. The process of promoting a pilot project may be sub-divided into four phases, during which the main (educational) policy principle is interpreted and implemented.

  1. Firstly, BIBB and the BMBF develop a funding guideline based on previous findings relating to VET for sustainable development. This states the innovation and cooperation requirements.
  2. The second stage involves submission of realisation proposals from interested network partners from the fields of academic research and practice.
  3. Once approval has been given, the partners use the pilot project as a vehicle for developing specific measures within training practice. These are then used to identify potential models.
  4. Finally, the transfer of results at various levels once more generates impetuses for the policy principle via dissemination, selections and modifications.

Constellations of pilot projects

One important selection criterion for the funding of pilot projects was respective evidence that a promising partnership was in place between relevant stakeholders from the areas of science, policy and practice. This needed to be demonstrated in the form of a joint project application including agreed goals and work packages. A partnership is deemed to be likely to lead to success if the pilot project network is integrated into a comprehensive structure of strategic stakeholders from practice and policy making (cf. Figure).

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Cooperation with companies is indispensable when conducting pilot projects. They assist in the development and testing of innovative training practice measures in their capacity as associate partners. As of October 2018, there are already over 160 such “practice partners” participating in a total of 18 pilot projects. In most cases, they do not receive any separate funding and commit to projects because of their interest in the topic. Over 60 “strategy partners” are also currently involved, including competent bodies, employer associations and trade unions. Discussions and reflections on project objectives, activities and outcomes take place with these partners, for example with regard to their assessments of the relevance of the “products” developed in the pilot project and of transfer options.

The way in which the project partners come together and their specific composition are crucial in terms of determining how the (educational) policy principle relating to VET for sustainable development is interpreted and what approaches to integration into practice are realised. Companies in particular frequently display an initial reticence and need to be persuaded of the merits of VET for sustainable development and of cooperation. Stakeholders from the field of science act as the main translators in this regard by identifying specific benefits for the company policy. They then follow up by interpreting and operationalising the policy principles. This means that very different kinds of partnership emerge within a main funding focus. They may be seeking to make training attractive regionally or to exert an effect within a sector or professional association. Motivations may also vary considerably. Some companies feel intrinsically committed to the idea of sustainability whereas other tend to react to growing demands which originate externally, such as statutory regulations or customer wishes.

It takes time and personal commitment on the part of the stakeholders in order to establish effective partnerships. This process is by no means at an end once a project application has been agreed. The more concentrated the joint work and existing experience is, the greater the need will be to reflect upon and modify objectives, modes of cooperation and further planning processes.

Forms of cooperation between practice and research

Cooperation between project partners may be structured in very different ways. In the VET for sustainable development main funding focus, it is possible to identify a number of models which can strengthen cooperation and succeed in overcoming hurdles such as different terminologies or time scales adopted by stakeholders from research and practice (cf. HEMKES et al. 2017). According to SCHLÖMER (2017, p. 5), the ideal concept for successful cooperation is if research and practice establish a “common social system”. From a system theory perspective, the “research system” then melds with the “practice system” to form a “field of research and practice”. Both parties relate their activities and communication to each other, contribute their respective characteristics and make these mutually comprehensible and utilisable so that action patterns are able to be repeated and stabilised. In the VET for sustainable development pilot project “GEKONAWI – business model and competence development for sustainable practices in retail, wholesale and foreign trade”, company-based training is organised in such a way so as to deliver a vital contribution in terms of sustainable development to securing a firm’s existence, future and commercial activity and the occupational biographies of staff. For this purpose, developments in practice are evaluated by research associates via an iterative process. Results are used to undertake a joint revision of measures, which are then once more piloted in practice to derive research models (for more detail, cf. SCHLÖMER et al. 2017).

In order to bring together the two “systems” within a single research and development strand, the VET for sustainable development pilot project “KoProNa– concepts for the professionalisation of training staff for sustainable occupational development”, a targeted approach was taken to establishing interfaces between the universities conducting the project and the participating companies. These are viewed by both sides as being reliable benchmarks. In the Erfurt-based sub-project of KoProNa, this interface function is assumed by the Head of Initial and Continuing Training at the Allgemeiner Arbeitgeberverband Thüringen [Thuringia Employers’ Association] and of the Verband der Metall- und Elektro-Industrie Thüringen [Thuringia Association of the Metal and Electrical Industries]. This ensures immediate transfer to (association) policy. In the sub-project in Ostwestfalen-Lippe, a similar function is exercised by the GILDE Business Development Agency. Whilst projects are still at the design concept stage, these interfaces can help to translate ideas for both sides via presentations and discussions at joint events or via subsequent transfer activities. They are also able to gather and address needs, ideas and problems, arrange contacts or initiate cooperation agreements (cf. FLORSCHÜTZ/MÜLLER/REIßLAND 2017, pp. 5 ff.)

A further form of cooperation is aligned to experiences gained from design-oriented research conducted by the Fraunhofer-Institut für Arbeitswirtschaft und Organisation (IAO) [Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering]. In this case, project staff from the field of academic research undergo targeted training at research institutions to learn about the needs of practice (cf. GANZ 2017, p. 13). This is a perspective which is particularly lacking amongst young researchers following their training at a university or university of applied sciences. Raising awareness of how to work with companies or other stakeholders from the area of practice can help to impart their point of view and create a rapport. If research associates were able to empathise more effectively with practice and thus create a greater balance between the respective vested interests, reciprocal learning processes could then possibly be shaped in an even more productive way (cf. ibid., p. 15). However, this requires researchers to have the courage to allow themselves to become involved in productive processes within flexible practice contexts.

Transfer of results

Particular success is enjoyed by pilot projects which plan transfer from the very outset rather than subordinating it to the development of innovations. For this purpose, it is crucial that policy stakeholders are integrated from the beginning. In the pilot project “ANLIN – training promotes sustainable venues in industry”, for example organisational and human resources measures in the chemical and metal working industry are systematically linked with project activities to ensure that the shaping of sustainable learning venues is directly integrated in the participating industrial training networks and at the associated partner companies (cf. MASSA et al. 2017). Since the early design concept phases, representatives from sector associations and initiatives, from the field of (vocational) education policy and from further key expert and decision-making bodies have been involved via regional and nationwide and advisory councils. These representatives then foster the pilot project within their networks in turn. The model developed in ANLIN is now attracting a strong degree of demand and has been incorporated into the “Chemie3” initiative.

Nevertheless, it also became clear that the project partnerships cannot manage all intended transfer directions from pilot projects on their own (cf. KASTRUP et al. 2014, pp. 174 ff.). Temporal transfer, i.e. the firm establishment of results in the companies involved, is mostly effectively achieved of itself. Regional transfer, which involves transferring results to similar companies, is also easily achievable via the guidelines, check lists and practical instructions drawn up, although distribution partners with a firm presence in the regions or sectors are required. Lateral transfer seeks to transmit results into other action areas. The six pilot projects dealing with the development and measurement of sustainability-oriented competences in commercial occupations were, for example, able to establish links with German and international competence research via publications and conferences at an academic level. Vertical transfer, where the aim is regulatory implementation of results in superordinate structures, is, however, proving to be difficult to achieve at a project level. For this reason, further measures to be instigated via the BMBF or BIBB are needed to feed in project outcomes at the macro level of educational policy and to render these results utilisable for the ongoing development of the (educational) policy principle. Advisory councils for the whole of the main funding focus and series of publications are available for this purpose. Consideration needs to be accorded to connecting up further transfer phases to the development and testing phases in the pilot projects.

Transfer required in two regards

Pilot projects can help to establish (educational) policy principles such as VET for sustainable development within training practice. This does not, however, merely occur in a top-down way. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on a bottom-up process which facilitates the use of specific interests and areas of potential as a starting point. This creates a basic for development of the policy principle and for connecting up with existing academic research discourses in VET. This requires two things to take place. Firstly, the aims, activities and transfer services in the pilot projects need to be aligned to perceived benefits in company practice. Secondly, stakeholders from the fields of practice, academic research and policy making must cooperate on the basis of objectives, interests and allocated roles that are agreed in advance. As experiences from the pilot projects show, the way in which cooperation is specifically structured can vary considerably. Although there are models from which project consortia can take their bearings, it is extremely difficult to derive patent recipes. Projects should therefore be accorded the necessary (protected) space and time to find interested partners, to negotiate their joint work and to reflect on and correct this work.

Work in the pilot projects is associated with multifarious reformulations and adaptations of action options. This leads to highly differing interpretations of the policy principle of VET for sustainable development. For this reason, double translation and transfer is needed in both directions – from the main educational policy principle (macro level) to company practice (micro level) and from innovations in practice back to the policy level. The pilot projects also reveal that this is scarcely achievable by stakeholders in practice and science alone. There is an impending risk that project results represent isolated solutions that exert only a limited effect outside their context. The early integration into the pilot projects of strategic partners (at the meso level) who are effective enough to shape transfer has been shown to be a useful approach. Lastly, the BMBF and BIBB are under an obligation at the programme level to communicate and implement the innovations created in the pilot projects for the realisation and further development of the policy principle.

  • 1 Cf. www.un.org/depts/german/gv-69/band3/ar69315.pdf (retrieved: 08.10.2018)


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MASSA, F. u. a.: Nachhaltigkeit in der Berufsbildung – Erste Erfahrungen mit dem Modellversuch ANLIN. In: Die Berufsbildende Schule 69 (2017) 7/8, S. 265-271

SCHLÖMER, T.: Fast beste Freunde – wie Wissenschaft und Praxis zueinander finden. Workshop zur Gestaltungsorientierten Forschung am 22. Juni 2017 des BIBB. Bonn 2017 – URL: www2.bibb.de/bibbtools/dokumente/pdf/a33_Vortrag_Schloemer_170620.pdf (retrieved: 08.10.2018)

SCHLÖMER, T. u. a.: Geschäftsmodell- und Kompetenzentwicklung für nachhaltiges Wirtschaften: Ein partizipativer Modellansatz des betrieblichen Ausbildens. In: bwp@ (2017) 32 – URL: www.bwpat.de/ausgabe/32/schloemer-etal  (retrieved: 08.10.2018)

Research Associate in the “Innovative Further Training, Permeability, Pilot Projects” Division at BIBB

Head of the “Innovative Further Training, Permeability, Pilot Projects” Division at BIBB

Research Associate in the “Innovative Further Training, Permeability, Pilot Projects” Division at BIBB

Translation from the German original (published in BWP 6/2018): Martin Kelsey,
GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin