European Training Foundation: Foundation for Good - Madlen Serban

Madlen Serban, director of the European Training Foundation, explains to CEO how integrating vocational education and training policies with the employment sector can help guide countries in transition towards sustainable growth.

The European Training Foundation (ETF) aims to help countries neighbouring the EU get the most out of their workforce by reforming vocational education and training policies to become more integrated with labour markets. Acting as a facilitative body, the ETF was formed to improve the strategies of its 29 partner countries, which include Croatia, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Ukraine, by providing advice and support to policy makers.

Madlen Serban, who has been director of the ETF since July 2009, hopes to improve the organisation's visibility throughout her term, but acknowledges the challenges she will face in the process. "We must manage our priorities and work effectively with few resources and limited flexibility," she says. "We are not policy analysts, we are supportive facilitators and if policy gaps are identified, we discuss these with the stakeholders and decision-makers in the specific partner country."

Before joining the ETF, Serban was director of the National Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training in Romania, a role which cemented her understanding of the processes operating in the ETF's partner countries. She has also worked as an expert and evaluator for international organisations including UNESCO, OECD and the World Bank.

"We are not policy analysts, we are supportive facilitators and if policy gaps are identified, we discuss these with the stakeholders and decision-makers in the specific partner country."

Last year Serban launched the Torino Process, which marks the beginning of a new approach to policy analysis. "I wanted our partner countries to be capable of addressing policy analysis in a knowledgeable manner," she explains. "And this means evidence-based policy."

During the Torino Process, the ETF maps and analyses a country's existing policies in the field of vocational education and training with a view to integrating these policies with labour markets. "Although vocational education and training is part of the education sector, it also needs to be coordinated with the labour market," Serban remarks. "In this way, it can contribute to sustainable development.

"It's about competitiveness, and it's about social and territorial cohesion. This systemic thinking, which involves the coordination of key stakeholders such as government and civil society representatives, needs to be applied to our partner countries."

Following thorough mapping and analysis, nations are supported in the processes of formulation and implementation. "Some countries tend to stop at the level of writing a paper, but do not follow through with implementation," Serban notes. "We need to know whether decision-makers can transfer evidence into solid policy."

Advice and support

The ETF also advises its partner countries on how to monitor the results of implementation. "They must be able to check the added value and impact of the policy and subsequently update their review processes," Serban says.

"We support them throughout the whole cycle." And many countries surrounding the EU boast exemplary policies, in some areas. "We have countries where the cooperation is very good at school or university level," Serban explains. "We also have good examples of employers and trade unions working together to improve the development of their human resources."

However, there are few nations that demonstrate coherent, multilevel governance with clear roles for all parties involved. "Often, people do not know how to perform their roles properly," Serban acknowledges. "So we have to empower them in this respect. This is why capacity building will become crucial over the next 12 months."

As an advisory body funded from the operational budgets of the EU's external relations programmes, the ETF is able to recommend courses of action to various EU bodies, making any investment they make as effective as possible.

Advice and project cycle support are provided to the European Commission's Directorates General for Education and Culture, External Relations, Employment, Enterprise, Enlargement and the EuropeAid Cooperation Office. "They can then make decisions on financial assistance in a more documented, better-informed way," Serban remarks, adding that the ETF will continue to provide detailed input.

For Serban, the ETF is set apart from other similar agencies by the commitment of its employees to improving education policies in the EU's partner countries. "The content of our work is quite special," she concludes, "but the uniqueness comes from the value we place on providing resources to these countries."