Many employers the world over have been complaining about education systems failing to produce the graduates they need. The British Council's Ivana Aleksic discusses, using the example of economies in the Western Balkans, how much of a say on education employers should have.
Education systems are everywhere under pressure to ensure that what they teach matches what the labour market needs. Buzzwords in today’s education reforms include 'employability', 'entrepreneurial learning', and 'workplace learning', to name a few. Beyond those buzzwords, the situation is more complex and varies from country to country, and from qualification to qualification. In the Western Balkans, although much of the clamour for more market-relevant education pretends to be about 'increased competitiveness', it is more a matter of economic survival.
Getting education right is a matter of economic survival
Private sector employers in the Western Balkans are still considered as something of a newcomer. Until the early 1990s, most of the countries in the region had one dominant employer – the state. According to the World Bank’s Back to Work report from 2014, public employment still accounted for 60-90 per cent of total employment in 1989. Over the last couple of decades, however, public employment dropped drastically – in Albania, for instance, it dropped by over 70 per cent, comparable to other transition economies outside the region, such as Poland and Georgia.
The economic crisis of 2008 and its aftermath did not help strengthen a young private sector. With more than 90 per cent of all employers represented by small and medium enterprises, the transition economies in this region were particularly vulnerable, and lots of businesses performed badly or had to close. Youth unemployment continues to be extremely high in this part of the world, with many barriers to labour market entry.
Employers do need to get involved in education
With this background in mind, there's no question that employers need to get involved in education, and it’s already happening to a degree. The question is how employers ought to influence education, and to what extent. At the moment, when employers in the region attempt to influence education and training, they are doing it on their own, for limited (self-interested) purposes and with no guarantee that the skills they give employees will be useful in the long term. Even if, for example, firms issue certificates, it is highly unlikely that those will be recognised by the industry as a whole. Employers' contributions to education and training are at the moment only an addition to formal education, but they need to permeate it.
So, there has to be systemic reform. In all countries that are ahead in this area, including the UK, Germany, Austria, and other EU member states, governments and other national authorities are behind a whole infrastructure that invites employers to help develop professional standards, qualification standards, accreditation rules and procedures, and so on.
There are both small and large companies trying to contribute to this process in the Western Balkans, but these efforts are, by definition, piecemeal, simply because there are no complete legal and institutional frameworks in place. Some of the countries have managed to establish employer-led bodies similar to the UK sector skills councils. These bodies are already involved in shaping education reforms, such as is the case in Montenegro. Others have had little or no experience. For instance, Serbia piloted the introduction of skills councils in four sectors back in 2012, but did not succeed in sustaining this form of collaboration with employers, while Bosnia and Herzegovina is only at the start of these discussions. In Macedonia, the law on national qualifications envisages the establishment of skills councils where employers will be represented, although implementation is still to come.
A related discussion took place at the British Council in London on 18 January 2016, bringing together leading UK organisations working in this field, and ministers of education and higher education from Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.