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Training students for new jobs: Intermediary function of technical and vocational higher education

Example of collaborative seminar at the Münster University of Applied Sciences. Photo by Sue Rossano

Example of collaborative seminar at the Münster University of Applied Sciences. Photo by Sue Rossano

Sandra Hasanefendic and Hugo Horta

A couple of years ago, I read a sentence that stuck with me ever since: “Our world has changed but our schools have not.” It was one of the sentences from Tony Wagner’s book “The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need–and What We Can Do About It” where he reflects on the inability of American educational systems to provide students with the skills that would make them relevant professionals of the future. Thinking globally, this is not just an American problem, educational systems around the world, even Europe, face similar hurdles. The assumption is that educational systems are not keeping up with the pace of the developments in technology, computerization of jobs, labor markets shifts, and cannot accommodate for growing socio-economic expectations of populations. So the question arises: what can educational systems do to reverse this situation, and how can they better train people thrive and add-value in turbulent and complex labor markets?


The role of technical and vocational  higher education

In a recent article, coauthored with Manuel Heitor, we contribute with one of many possible answers to this burning question through a comparative cross case study analysis of learning practices in technical and vocational higher education institutions in Southern (Portugal) and Western Europe (Netherlands and Germany). Technical and vocational higher education institutions are characterized by its closeness to professional fields, local society and aim to provide labor markets with a highly specialized and professional workforce. They are otherwise known as universities of applied sciences, polytechnics, hogescholen, or fachohschulen, but we settled on the name that would highlight their unique nature and specificity in the aim of the diversification discourse in higher education policy.

The findings of our article highlight an intermediary function of these institutions as providers of innovative training approaches based on collaborative problem based learning and short termed project oriented research (Hasanefendic et al., 2016). It is found that most of these institutions are promoting innovative learning approaches based on learning communities where students learn through discovery in different contexts and combinations, in learning processes jointly participated by industry experts, faculty and students. This approach highlights learning as increasingly research-based and, above all, inclusive of social and economic partners via formal and, most frequently, informal collaborative mechanisms (also see Frederik, Hasanefendic and Sijde, 2017).


Conditioning innovative learning approaches

Our analysis has identified three potential necessary conditions for the development of such intermediary function in technical and vocational higher education: i) the human dimension (it has always been relevant in any educational setting) (see Hasanefendic et al., 2017), particularly the specific role of human intermediaries supporting learning/research methodologies, and particularly problem based learning and experiential approaches; ii) the institutional research context necessary to facilitate highly specialized knowledge, namely, in the form of applied research units that provide a professional context adequate to foster the routines to collaborate with industry at higher levels of specialization; and iii) the external environment and funding conditions, which depend on specific local and national ecosystems and are particularly influenced by the country’s overall funding level for research and development.


Intermediary function as impetus for organizational growth and system diversification

Developing intermediary functions through innovative learning approaches which emphasize collaborative problem based learning activities and short-term project-oriented research can also be used as an impetus for the sustainable growth and modernization of technical and vocational higher education. For instance, emphasizing short-term project-oriented research in short-cycle education can be seen as a way to strengthen the institutional credibility of Portuguese technical and vocational higher education by engaging local external actors in training the labour force. In addition, it may stimulate institutional and programmatic diversification of higher education systems.

Our world may be changing at accelerated rates, but it seems that some educational institutions are trying to keep pace. We highlight that technical and vocational institutions are adapting to labor market turbulences and uncertainty by providing innovative and collaborative training with the objective of educating professionals of the future. Rather than downplaying their change potential with overly bureaucratic governance procedures and absence of funding and structural policies, national governments ought to encourage innovative capabilities of their educational institutions to adapt, adjust and reshuffle their training approaches to better suit the ever-changing needs of modern times.



Sandra Hasanefendic is a double doctoral degree student from the Vrije University in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and ISCTE – Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL) in Portugal. She researches organizational behavior in higher education. Her focus lies on non-university higher education and responses to policy pressures regarding research and innovation in education and training. Sandra also teaches, consults and advises policymakers on issues relevant to advancement of higher education in Portugal and the Netherlands.


Hugo Horta is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Education of the University of Hong Kong. He authored and co-authored publications on higher education diversity, science policy, research productivity and networking, doctoral career trajectories, internationalization of higher education, and academic mobility in international peer-reviewed journals, such as Higher Education, Research in Higher Education, Management Science, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Science and Public Policy, Scientometrics, and Higher Education Policy among others. He is currently Coordinating-editor of Higher Education, a leading journal of higher education studies, and sits in the editorial boards of several journals.



Frederik, H., Hasanefendic, S., & van der Sijde, P. (2017). Professional field in the accreditation process: examining information technology programmes at Dutch Universities of Applied Sciences. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 42 (2), 208-225.

Hasanefendic, S., Birkholz, J. M., Horta, H., & van der Sijde, P. (2017). Individuals in action: bringing about innovation in higher education. European Journal of Higher Education. Online first,

Hasanefendic, S., Heitor, M., & Horta, H. (2016). Training students for new jobs: The role of technical and vocational higher education and implications for science policy in Portugal. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 113 (Part B), 328-340.

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