Platforms of Centres of Vocational Excellence: Building “Skills Ecosystems” for Innovation, Regional Development, Smart Specialisation and Social Inclusion

Understanding change – We live in interesting times

The combined effects of rapid technological change, digitalization, climate change, demographic trends, and new forms of work, call for innovative ideas to ensure that Vocational Education and Training (VET) not only adapts to change (including disruptive events such as the COVID-19), but is also at the forefront of mastering and driving this change. These developments are not only disrupting every aspect of work and life, but also creating opportunities for innovation and employment creation across all sectors. The capacity to innovate is increasingly becoming the key factor driving economic and social development.

VET policy makers are confronted with new challenges in anticipating and responding in due time to the fast changing skill needs of the labour market, and to the expectations of individuals. The “shelf-life” of skills is becoming increasingly short. To address this challenge, VET institutions must become much more flexible and responsive to the need for renewing their offer, companies have to become an active partner in designing and providing opportunities for work-based learning, and individuals have to embrace lifelong learning to maintain their employability, active citizenship and quality of life. The way we teach and learn has to be in tune with these new opportunities and challenges.

Developments in the VET system have been mainly of a gradual and incremental nature, and in most cases driven top-down. Business-as-usual may not be a viable option for the future. The speed and scale of change calls for innovative approaches where VET institutions are empowered to understand, engage and be an active partner in co-creating solutions for local social and economic development. A bottom-up approach where VET institutions are capable of rapidly adapting skills provision to evolving local needs, is essential to raise the attractiveness, relevance and quality in VET. The new paradigm for VET institutions is local in its nature, while the challenges they are facing is increasingly complex and global.

What is Vocational Excellence – empowering people with skills for life

VET Excellence ensures high quality skills and competences that lead to quality employment and career-long opportunities, which meet the needs of an innovative, inclusive and sustainable economy.

The concept of vocational excellence that is proposed is characterised by a holistic learner centred approach in which VET:

  1. Is an integrative part of skills ecosystems, contributing to regional development[1], innovation[2], and smart specialisation strategies[3]
  2. Is part of knowledge triangles, working closely with other education and training sectors, the scientific community, and business
  3. Enables learners to acquire both vocational and key competences[4] through high-quality provision that is underpinned by quality assurance, builds innovative forms of partnerships with the world of work, and is supported by the continuous professional development of teaching and training staff, innovative pedagogies, mobility and internationalisation strategies.

The initiative on platforms of “Centres of Vocational Excellence” – Think global, act local

When discussing innovation, reference is often made to the “knowledge triangle” – a link between businesses, education and research. In this context, education is frequently understood as academic higher education, with VET playing a marginal role, and quite often being neglected. However, VET has an important role to play in the “knowledge triangle”, as well as in “smart specialisation” strategies that lead to sustainable growth, innovation, job creation and social cohesion.

Some EU Member States have launched successful initiatives aiming at Vocational excellence[5], and include VET as part of their innovation strategies. However, these are still rare exceptions, and progress has been uneven throughout Europe.

At a European cooperation level, we are missing an initiative that brings a holistic approach to vocational excellence, which is firmly anchored in the European Pillar of Social Rights, ensuring everyone has the right to quality and inclusive education, training and life-long learning to maintain and acquire skills that enable them to participate fully in society and manage successfully transitions in the labour market.

The VET sector needs a comprehensive initiative that also plays a key role in supporting the implementation of the policy objectives, priorities and actions that have been put in place under the European Skills Agenda. These include the Pact for Skills aimed to mobilise resources and incentivise all relevant stakeholders to take action to upskill and reskill the workforce, by pooling efforts and setting up partnerships supporting green and digital transitions as well as local and regional growth strategies.

The Pact builds on other EU initiatives such as the Blueprint for Sectoral Cooperation on Skills, the European Alliance for Apprenticeships, and the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition, that together with the strong support of the European Social Fund for structural reforms in member states, and Erasmus+ for the mobility of learners and staff, have all played a key role in modernising VET systems in Europe.

These actions all contribute to increase the quality and excellence in VET, but in isolation they do not constitute a comprehensive approach to Vocational Excellence.

This initiative responds to this challenge, and introduces a “European dimension” aimed at fostering “upward convergence” of excellence by supporting the development of Centres of Vocational Excellence, operating at two levels:

National: in a given local context,embedding Centres of Vocational Excellence closely in the local innovation ecosystems, and connecting them at European level.

International: through Platforms of Centres of Vocational Excellence to establish world-class reference points for vocational training by bringing together CoVE`s that share a common interest in specific sectors[6]/ trades (e.g. aeronautics, e-mobility, green technologies, digital, healthcare, etc.) or innovative approaches to tackle societal challenges (e.g. Climate change, Digitalisation, Artificial Intelligence, Sustainable Development Goals, integration of migrants, upskilling people with low qualification levels, etc.)[7].

The platforms will either bring together existing CoVE’s in different countries, or expand the model by linking well-established CoVE’s in one country with partners in other countries, that intend to develop CoVE’s in their local eco-system. Partners from any country in the world, including those outside the Erasmus+ programme countries, can also be eligible for funding, to the extent it is demonstrated that their participation brings an added-value to the CoVE platform.

The transnational collaborative platforms, aim for “upward convergence” of excellence in VET, which would be difficult to establish in isolation in the absence of EU incentives, technical support, and mutual learning opportunities. The platforms will be open for the involvement of countries with well-developed vocational excellence systems, as well as those in the process of developing similar approaches, aimed at exploring the full potential of VET institutions to play a proactive role in support of growth, competitiveness and innovation.

Platforms of Centres of Vocational excellence are not intended to build new VET institutions and infrastructure from scratch (although it may also require this type of investment). Instead they aim to bring together a set of local/regional partners such as Initial and continuing VET providers, tertiary education institutions including universities of applied sciences and polytechnics, research institutions, science parks, companies, chambers and their associations, social partners, sectoral skills councils, Professional/sector associations, national and regional authorities and development agencies, public employment services, etc.

The essential features of Centres of Vocational Excellence – We raise by lifting others

CoVE’s are characterised by adopting a systemic approach through which VET institutions actively contribute to co-create “skills ecosystems“, together with a wide range of other local/regional partners. CoVE´s are expected to go far beyond the simple provision of a quality vocational qualification.

Features that characterise the CoVE´s include a set of some of activities and services that can be broadly grouped under the following 3 clusters:

  1. Teaching and learning,
  2. Cooperation and partnerships, and
  3. Governance and funding.

A mapping study conducted by the European Commission and the European Training Foundation identified 3 key success factors for Vocational Excellence:

  1. Strong and enduring partnerships between stakeholders – VET providers (including VET at tertiary level), higher education institutions, and businesses, engage in reciprocal and mutually beneficial interactions.
  2. Being firmly anchored into the frameworks of regional development, innovation and smart specialisation. Allowing for the identification of synergies between policies and amongst stakeholders, avoiding ad hoc actions, which, though beneficial, by themselves do not realise all the potential benefits.
  3. Integration of activities. CoVEs achieving much more than sum of their parts, in particular, when they build reflexive relationships between activities and research.

EU Support for the platforms of CoVE´s – Upward convergence of VET excellence

In 2019 and 2020, a first set of 12 CoVE pilot projects were supported through Erasmus+ funding, and are now being implemented. They cover a wide variety of sectors related to the digital and green transitions such as Green Innovation, Microelectronics, Advanced manufacturing, Water technologies, as well as the Furniture and wood sector, and Social inclusion.

The initiative will be strongly supported through the new Erasmus+ programme with an indicative budget of €400 million to fund 100 CoVE platforms in the period 2021-2027.

A first call for proposals of the CoVE initiative under Erasmus+ 2021-2027 was published on 25 March 2021. Erasmus+ will fund activities related to the transnational cooperation of these CoVE, notably related to the establishment of the transnational platforms, initial operation, and capacity building (among others). Grants of up to €4 million will be awarded to the best project proposals.

The Erasmus programme funding is available for the full set of activities that characterise the CoVE`s, and where appropriate complemented by investments into infrastructure (for instance Digital technology, machinery, robots, investments in premises or other tangible assets, such as setting-up innovation hubs), which can be supported by other European funds (e.g. Recovery and Resilience Facility, European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) the European Social Fund (ESF+), Horizon Europe, InvestEU, etc.).

The platforms should aim to be self-sustainable in the medium-term, and are encouraged to design their activities also building on the opportunities offered by other EU, national and regional funding sources.

To ensure the success of the initiative as well as the effectiveness of CoVE projects supported by EU funding, we are currently reflecting on the possibility of providing a set of comprehensive support services for the CoVE (CoVE‑SS), as from 2021.

Concluding remarks – Be the change you want to see

The initiative on Centres of Vocational Excellence, aims to support a paradigm shift in the way VET interacts with the economic and social partners in a given local context, closely embedded in the local innovation ecosystems, while working with centres in other countries through international collaborative platforms.

They foster a bottom-up approach to excellence where VET institutions are capable of rapidly adapting skills provision to evolving economic and social needs, providing both initial training of young people as well as continuing up-skilling and re-skilling of adults.

The Erasmus+ call has just been published on 25 March, with applications open until 7 September 2021. The call will be repeated every year with the support of the Erasmus+ programme 2021-2027.

Join Senior Expert in the Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs, and Inclusion at the European Commission, Joao Santos this year at Online Educa Berlin to discuss the impact of VET and to learn more about the European Commission’s vision for Centres of Vocational Excellence.

[1]      Regional Development Policy – Regional development is a broad term but can be seen as a general effort to reduce regional disparities by supporting (employment and wealth-generating) economic activities in regions. See

[2]      An innovation is the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method in business practices, workplace organisation or external relations. See

[3]      Smart Specialisation is a place-based approach characterised by the identification of strategic areas for intervention based both on the analysis of the strengths and potential of the economy and on an Entrepreneurial Discovery Process with wide stakeholder involvement. It is outward-looking and embraces a broad view of innovation including but certainly not limited to technology-driven approaches, supported by effective monitoring mechanisms. See

[4]      As defined in the Council Recommendation of 22 May 2018 on key competences for lifelong learning. See

[5]      For example Katapult in the Netherlands, and Tknika in Spain

[6]      See the industrial ecosystems identified in the  Industrial Strategy for Europe adopted in March 2020 (which will be updated on 27 April 2021 – to be confirmed). See also the European Cluster Collaboration Platform (ECCP).

[7]      The smart specialisation platforms (S3) also have thematic Platforms for Industrial Modernisation, in sectors such as Agri-food, Energy and Blue Growth, which include transnational partnerships in specific priorities within these areas that are shared by regions.

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