Thursday 15 September 2016

Career guidance and apprenticeships: new research on vocational education

Guglielmo Ventura, CVER researcher, gives an account of the Centre's first annual conference

In early September, LSE hosted the first annual conference of the Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER). This event proved to be a great opportunity to share insights from research on the economics of vocational education. Numerous researchers from the field came together to present evidence on how vocational education works in different countries and how it can be improved.

As Alison Wolf (King’s College London) remarked in her introductory address, the first CVER conference was particularly timely, not only because it comes after CVER’s research programme is well underway (having launched in March 2015) but also because it coincides with a period of vigorous debate around the future of vocational education in England. An evidence-based approach is much needed to help inform policy.

Vocational education is a broad area and many topics were touched on as the conference unfolded over two days of presentations. Two important themes addressed in our keynote talks and other contributed papers were the role of information and career guidance, and the role of apprenticeships.

The information gap in vocational education and the role of career guidance

Young people entering post-compulsory education often face a complex system. With the sheer amount of options for consideration and little information available, making accurately weighed choices cumbersome for anyone.

Our first keynote speaker, Sarah Turner (University of Virginia), discussed recent evaluations of this issue. Her first example drew on her study (with Caroline Hoxby) of how the lack of appropriate career guidance penalises high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds in the United States. These young people are often less well informed about their options and fail to apply to selective institutions (to which they would be well matched in terms of academic ability).

The study involved sending semi-customised information to some students, presenting detailed information on the application process and on the costs and benefits of attending specific college institutions and courses. Implemented in the context of a randomised controlled trial, the research showed that providing information alone led to an increase in these students enrolling to more selective institutions (where they did just as well as they would have done elsewhere).

These findings are significant in an English context, given the availability of detailed administrative data. But Sarah Turner emphasised that having an impact on behaviour alone is not sufficient to make information interventions worthwhile. One has to be sure that the information provided is genuinely appropriate for the target population.

Sometimes careers information and advice needs to be given to help young people who have unrealistic expectations and who are in danger of dropping out of education altogether if they face disappointment. This is what emerged from research by our second keynote speaker, Eric Maurin (Paris School of Economics). In his randomised intervention (conducted with Dominique Goux and Marc Gurgand), ‘at-risk students’ at the end of middle school were reached with a simple but effective programme of information and careers advice that helped head teachers to direct parents and young people to suitable education options, such as two-year vocational programmes. This resulted in a significant decrease in grade repetition and dropout.

Classroom-based versus work-based vocational education
Apprenticeships were also in the spotlight throughout the conference, with different researchers focusing on the effect of policy interventions. Our final keynote speaker, Stefan Wolter (University of Bern) offered a gripping journey through the world of apprenticeships, drawing on his extensive research experience in the field. In his presentation, he addressed research evidence on why some firms decide to train apprentices while others do not.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, research shows that ‘money matters’ in firms’ decision to train. Employers that incur large training costs can only offer apprenticeships if they are able to reap the potential benefits afterwards. This is influenced by the mobility of apprentices in local labour markets as well as by the costs of hiring relative to the costs of training. These are factors to be borne in mind as the UK government aims to expand the provision of apprenticeships.

Two central ideas came out strongly in the keynote talks and many of the contributed papers. The first is that the lack of good careers information and guidance is one of the barriers preventing more disadvantaged students from getting the best out of the system.

Second, apprenticeships can embed skills that are truly valuable in the labour market; but whether employers offer apprenticeships in sufficient numbers depends on factors influencing their cost-benefit ratios (which can differ widely across contexts).

The CVER conference was a truly stimulating event, and at LSE we would like to thank all contributors for making it such a success.

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