Reflections and personal impressions by Jan Cornelis

CIDIC (European Centre for Economic, Academic and Cultural Diplomacy) organized a Diplomatic, economic, academic and cultural mission to Vienna,
15-17 October 2018, on the occasion of the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union

Professor emeritus at VUB
and Academic Attaché of CIDIC

This second part of the reflections on CIDIC’s mission to Vienna is primarily dedicated to a unique educational model “dual VET” in which private and governmental actors are taking up joint responsibilities. The interface between academia, professional education and the creation of a spirit of social entrepreneurship is highlighted in the last section.

THE ECONOMY AND EDUCATION

The delegation was received at the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (WKO). After a short welcome, we dived directly into business. Christian Mandl highlighted the official status of the three Chambers, which act as legal representatives to safeguard professional interests (Economy, Agriculture, Labour). The Chambers are complemented by the Association of Trade Unions, created by private agreement and relying on voluntary membership. Noteworthy is the compulsory membership of the Chambers for well-defined groups. Sections of the civil service are fully delegated to work with them, while they have complete autonomy within the scope of their mandates.

This compulsory membership, the delegation of civil service staff and their statute as public bodies, allow the chambers to take up a prominent societal role, for example, in the dual Vocational Education and Training system − VET. For WKO, in addition to the federal chamber, there are also nine regional chambers. To illustrate the approach followed by WKO, Katrin Roseneder made a presentation on “Kreativwirtschaft Austria”, highlighting in particular its holistic strategy for empowerment, transformation and innovation in the field of Creative Industries.

These introductory talks were very instrumental to our understanding of the VET system, the main purpose of our visit to WKO. Melina Schneider evoked the Austrian dual VET system. The most visible and distinctive characteristic of dual VET is the synergy between two learning venues, namely the company and the vocational school. Germany, Denmark and Austria have established legal frameworks regulating their well-acknowledged dual VET systems. Youth unemployment in these countries is remarkably low compared to other EU member states.

Initially I was very sceptical about the dual VET concept in itself, but I only had a helicopter view of it. I am indeed in favour of an educational system leading to responsible citizens, cosmopolitans, equipped with a rucksack filled with a broad range of skills and insights that keep their lifelong value. What institute could guarantee this more effectively than a school? VET in the school environment, eventually including internships in companies and project work involving various societal actors, is a reality everywhere in Austria.

The responses given by Melina Schneider to several questions from the audience convinced me that the Austrian approach to dual VET is worth investigating for transfer to other contexts and that it might become one of the reference VET models. The “export” of the Austrian dual VET system to other countries is ongoing. Dual VET in Austria is a well-balanced system operated by various actors with different objectives. It forces all the concerned actors to take up a societal responsibility in education, both content-wise and financially. The “occupational concept, i.e. preparing people for specific occupations” is very present in the VET learning methods and outcomes. These outcomes target “skilled workers with flexible qualifications, relevant to the labour market but not narrowly focused on the requirements of individual businesses”.

Austria has a very low youth unemployment rate like Germany and Denmark. Dual VET based on the “learn by doing” paradigm is primarily a demand-driven system, with 80% of the work undertaken in a company and 20% in a vocational school. The shared but distinctive responsibilities of all actors (government: federal state, regions and provinces; interest groups: chambers, trade unions and training companies) are clearly defined. Let us have a closer look at the interactions between the actors: training companies have influence on the content and organization of the vocational training. They interact with the chambers regarding the suitability of the training companies, and on legal questions, training contracts, the professional and pedagogic qualifications of the trainers, and the examinations. With the vocational schools they exchange information about the trainees and the optimization of the content of the training courses. The chambers have the responsibility of accreditation and review of the training companies, the examinations and certification of trainees and instructors, monitoring of the actual training, and advising trainees and instructors. The vocational schools have responsibilities for the vocational and general course materials (which broaden the education beyond the specific vocational training), and learning areas addressing various company processes and complex tasks.

Some orders of magnitude: 10% of all companies in Austria are training companies; there are some 110,000 apprentices, including 33,000 new apprentices/year. Around school year 10 (age category 15-16) some crucial career decisions have to be taken: about 40% of young people sign up for apprenticeship training by opting for the demand-driven dual VET, based on market incentives; another 40% opts for fulltime supply-driven VET offered by vocational schools and the remaining 20% choses the normal upper cycle of secondary education.

Afterwards, loaded with a lot of new insights and food for discussion, the delegation crossed the street for a diplomatic get-together at the Belgian Embassy. Our hosts H.E. Mr Ghislain D’hoop (Ambassador of Belgium in Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, based in Vienna), and his wife organized a walking dinner that we will always remember.

INTERFACE BETWEEN THE ECONOMY AND ACADEMIA

The workshop at FH Campus Wien-FHCW (University of Applied Sciences) concentrated on “Higher Education Institutions as innovation drivers: frameworks and success factors”. Arthur Mettinger explained that the academic programmes are profession-oriented rather than discipline-oriented. The financing model of FHCW is diverse: tuition fees and student contributions (12%), third party funding (7%), the federal chancellery and federal ministry of finance (3% per capita), the city of Vienna and the Vienna Hospital Association (18%), the federal ministry of education, science and research (60% per capita). FHWC receives no core funding nor a budget for research. FHCW participates in the competitive government tenders for educational programmes that are designed to meet market demands and respond to missing competencies as identified by the professional world. The start-up service, presented by Heimo Sandtner, is the first contact point for advice and support for entrepreneurial initiatives.

It runs a start-up-corner providing a fully equipped smart factory (comparable to a FabLab described in DW55 and offering free office space. It cannot be compared with the full-fledged technology transfer offices that are now common in Belgian universities. I had the opportunity of moderating a lively panel discussion with representatives of several social enterprises emanating from the FHCW Ecosystem. Since the FHCW does not have its own funds for research, but many (~6700) entrepreneurial students, the focus of the start-up service is on stimulating and advising on social entrepreneurial initiatives (see DW58) that are emerging spontaneously from its student population. A few examples are Conqer, Recycle, Shark-Bike and Liberty.Home.

Shark-Bike (http://www.shark-bike.com/) is a three wheeled, covered electrical bicycle. It consumes (10Wh/km) and has a range of some 150km. “Some years ago during my ERASMUS studies in Denmark, I got a call from a Danish friend and she asked me if I would like to stop by for a glass of wine. It was in the middle of a rainy, windy evening, but why not, so I said yes. I arrived freshly showered by the rain and totally frozen by the wind. At that moment I asked myself: are there no covered bicycles out there? That was the moment, when I had the idea of the SHARK-Bike (Paul Japek, Founder & CEO)”. The business model envisages bike-sharing services. Especially if they are available at train and metro stations, these can become the missing link for a comfortable, ecologic and cheap last mile.

Conqer (http://www.conqer.at) is a lifestyle-travel-app with video clips and an inbound navigation system.

Recycle is a virtual re-trade marketplace for surplus materials from research facilities and the remains of biological material. The value of this network of international subscribers is ecological, reducing animal testing and re-using materials that are sometimes costly to fabricate or difficult to destroy (https://www.fh-campuswien.ac.at/studium/aktuell/news-und-termine/detail/News/recycle-start-up-will-forschung-nachhaltig-machen.html).

Contextflow (http://contextflow.com/) is a spinoff of the Medical University of Vienna, which is developing machine-learning algorithms for the exploitation of large-scale medical imaging data. This is a high technology startup, emanating from long-term university research that was transformed into a marketable ICT product. Clinicians are facing increasing workloads. Some data sets are huge and navigating through them takes so much time that some valuable analyses are not carried out due to their high cost. Radiologists, for example, must choose between longer working hours or decreased time spent evaluating images. About 20% of cases require additional data from many sources, requiring up to 20 minutes, with a questionable rate of success. Contextflow’s (content based) search engines and browsers alleviate this problem.

Lumency

Lumency is a spinoff of VUB on Smart Lighting. CEO and VUB Professor Abdellah Touhafi sketched the ecosystem that provided coaching in the preliminary stages before the company’s incorporation, its financing, establishment, growth path and its scaling up through international embedding. Abdellah Touhafi received the international CIDIC award-2017 in Tallinn − Estonia (DW 55). Best practices were exchanged with the panelists.

At FH Campus Wien, we heard a lot of new ideas accompanied by emerging business plans, and we met numerous talented and enthusiastic social entrepreneurs willing to share their ideas. The pitches of the panelists illustrated the generic quote of David Bornstein: “An idea is like a play. It needs a good producer and a good promoter even if it is a masterpiece. Otherwise the play may never open; or it may open but, for a lack of an audience, close after a week. Similarly, an idea will not move from the fringes to the mainstream simply because it is good; it must be skilfully marketed before it will actually shift people’s perceptions and behaviour.” (How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas).