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Vocational colleges see mounting degree delays and dropouts

The pandemic has impacted the opportunities and motivation for many students to complete their study programmes.

The epidemic has been a blow to internships in the service and tourism industries, which are an integral part of professional studies. Image: Marko Melto / Yle

Difficulties in organising special, often hands-on work arrangements needed in vocational training programmes are leading to delays and breaks in studies for many students.

The number of students who have dropped out of vocational training at Stadin AO - Helsinki Vocational College and Adult Institute - jumped up by several percentage points last year.

The college's student retention target is for 93 percent of those who begin their studies should complete their qualifications. In 2019, 8.4 percent of students decided to drop out before graduating. Last year, in 2020, that figure was up to 12.7 percent. In terms of number of students, that means about 400 more than in the previous year.

Marko Aaltonen, the Rector of Stadin AO Campus 3, says that most of those who decided to drop out were in the 18 to 20 year-old age group.

"The coronavirus has had an impact on the resignation of students despite the support measures provided by the educational institution. We assume that it will also have an impact in the future if the situation persists," says Aaltonen.

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Marko Aaltonen sees evidence of he impact of the epidemic in a lack of hands-on professional training opportunities. Image: Antti Lähteenmäki / Yle

The Riveria Vocational School, which provides vocational education and training in the region of North Karelia has also registered an upswing in the number of students suspending or delaying their studies.

"There were about 150 more students who dropped out in 2020 than in the previous year. What we have found is that most of those leaving are in adult education," explains Rector Esa Karvinen.

Distance learning not for everybody

There are serious concerns within the Ministry of Education and Culture that the longer the normal programmes of vocational training schools have to work with special arrangements, the more students will opt out of their studies.

Internships, which are an integral part of vocational training, can be difficult to implement due to the coronavirus pandemic. This in turn directly affects study motivation.

In addition to training difficulties, other problems can gain extra weight. For example, the lack of in-person support for students who want or need to shift the focus of their studies may more easily lead to a decision to leave school altogether.

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The Ministry of Education and Culture is concerned about students' ability to cope with the prolonged distance learning situation, Mika Tammilehto says. Image: Jouni Immonen / Yle

"It is also quite clear that distance learning is not for everyone," says Mika Tammilehto, Director General of the Department of Upper Secondary Education and Vocational Training at the Ministry of Education and Culture.

The OSAO vocational education consortium which operates in the Oulu and Koillismaa region has not seen a dramatic increase in the number of dropouts since the start of the pandemic. Instead, delays in completing study programmes have risen by 3 percent, according to Rector Jarmo Paloniemi.

He says that in vocational training distance learning works up to a certain limit, but for skill-based learning, for example chef's training, it cannot go on week and week, month after month.

"You can teach, but the student doesn't learn," Paloniemi sums up.

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In many fields, educational institutions are now providing qualifications that normally require on-the-job training. There are concerns this may affect the skills of future workers in the labour market. Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

Growing delays in study schedules have also been noted at the Tampere Region Vocational College in Tredu.

"The number of students suspending studies has risen slightly and degrees are not being not completed at the same pace," says Trudu director Outi Kallionen.

Support and encouragement

As the coronavirus crisis continues, the risks of students experiencing problems continue to increase. Mika Tammilehto says that the long-term effects of distance learning are also worrying.

"The way this time is reflected in learning outcomes will be directly reflected in access to the labour market and postgraduate studies," he points out.

Training has to go on, despite these trying times. So how can vocational schools try to maintain students' enthusiasm for their studies?

"One way is probably providing encouragement and keep up a belief in the future, a future that will need professionals. Maybe not right now today, or not even in the summer, but when the epidemic eases, professionals will be needed," stresses Marko Aaltonen.