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28 Nov 2014

Transfer of the Dual System of Vocational Education to Developing Countries – Help or Hindrance for Development? Reflections from an Austrian Perspective By Margarita Langthaler

By Margarita Langthaler, Austrian Research Foundation for International Development.

Austria flag Currently, there is much talk about why youth unemployment rates in Austria, as in other German speaking countries, are substantially lower than in the EU and OECD area. Generally, media and politicians point to the existence of the dual system of vocational education as the main reason for better employment performance. This has generated considerable interest in the dual model, in particular from unemployment-stricken Southern European countries, but also from transition and middle-income countries. As a consequence, the export of this type of vocational education approach has increased significantly in the German speaking region. This thriving dynamic has implications for development cooperation.

The dual system of vocational education generally refers to a model of apprenticeship based on simultaneous company-based training and formal education in vocational schools, whereby, unlike most other forms of combined approaches, the major part of training (usually 80%) takes place in the company. Accomplished apprenticeships lead to qualifications which are widely acknowledged in the labour market. This specific form of vocational education has historically developed out of the medieval system of guilds of craftsmen and is deeply rooted in particular patterns of social organisation of labour based on institutionalised cooperation between public administration, the education system, the private sector, professional associations and interest groups.

While it is true that numbers show a correlation between low youth unemployment rates and the existence of a dual system (according to OECD data for 2012: Austria 8.7%, Switzerland 8.4%, Germany 8.1%, OECD total: 16.3%), there is enough research-based evidence to shed some doubt on the assumed causal relationship. Lassnigg et al, for instance, point to the fact that in Austria, besides other factors, a targeted labour market policy helps to keep youth unemployment rates low.

Notwithstanding these doubts and its obvious social and cultural specificity, export of the dual model is widely recommended by politicians and economic players alike. Traditionally, Austrian foreign economic activities have concentrated on the South and South Eastern European region, and this is true for the export of vocational education as well. However, there is also some interest in a transfer of the model into transition and middle-income countries outside Europe, even though this interest seems to be considerably smaller than in Germany or Switzerland.

Austrian Development Cooperation (ADC) is currently seeking synergies with the educational export activities of private enterprises. It has set up a funding scheme targeting companies which intend to establish an economic activity in a developing country. Frequently, vocational education is part of these “economic partnerships” between ADC and Austrian enterprises.

Although Austria has a long tradition of support to vocational education as part of its development cooperation portfolio, its interventions have been more focused on vocational schools and the systems level than on apprenticeships. However, existing experience, as well as recent evaluations from Switzerland and Germany point to the difficulties attached to a transfer of the dual model due to its social and cultural embeddedness. In particular, the involvement of the private sector, which is a basic and crucial feature of the dual system in German speaking countries, seems to be difficult to establish and to sustain over time. The Swiss evaluation notices that interventions based on the dual system model were most successful in the informal economy. However, employment and income effects of these interventions were negligible. Therefore, it is generally recommended to transfer elements of the dual model (such as the emphasis on practical training), rather than the system as a whole and to apply a strong focus on local contexts. Generally speaking, experiences with the transfer of the dual system cast doubt on both its sustainability on the systems level (which would be a precondition for a positive impact on private sector development) and its effectiveness in terms of poverty reduction, the overarching goal of Austrian Development Cooperation.

From a developmental point of view, the question arises under which conditions a transfer of the dual model (or elements of it) can be supportive to local development. By drawing on its own and our neighbouring countries’ experience, ADC has a lot to contribute to this issue. Hence, in engaging with the enterprises’ vocational education export activities, ADC should ensure that developmental criteria outweigh, or at least balance, purely economic interests.

Margarita Langthaler is a researcher at the Austrian Research Foundation for International Development Her work focus is education in developing countries and development cooperation in the education sector. Email:


Lassnigg, L., Schmitz, K. and Strahm, R. (2013) Austria’s Success on the Youth Labour Market – Not Systemic but Voluntaristic. Lifelong Learning, in: Europe LLinE, Issue 1

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for about 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.


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