PhD candidate piques professor’s curiosity

As a researcher at the Dutch Inspectorate of Education, Margriet van der Sluis was fascinated by a recurring question: how to enhance quality control in secondary vocational education? She found her way to Professor Lex Borghans, education economist at Maastricht University (UM). Six years and one PhD later, some answers have come to light and a new Academic Collaborative Centre (ACC) for Education has been launched.

The most common tools to compare pupils with one another in the Dutch education system are uniform tests and exams. Great value is placed on the Cito test in primary education and the final exam results in secondary education. But a comparable tool is lacking in vocational education, according to Van der Sluis. “What makes someone a qualified office manager, builder or healthcare worker? Of course you can establish criteria, but objective measurement is difficult, if only because there are more than 600 vocational education programmes. How do you know as a student or parent which programme is good and which is not? Do you look at the percentage of graduates, the structure of the programme, the way it meets employers’ needs? It’s very difficult to know which aspects are the most important.”

The Enschede native sought answers within the Inspectorate of Education, but in vain. “During a conference on education and research, the penny dropped. I’d have to do the research myself. Doing a PhD seemed like the best option; my boss was willing to support me and promised me study time. The challenge was to find a supervisor who was just as curious as I was.”

Colleague Inge de Wolf pointed her to the Maastricht School of Business and Economics, which she already collaborated with through the Inspectorate. “Economics didn’t sound like the immediately obvious route, but I knew that UM was home to a strong group of education economists. And it seemed like a good idea to do my PhD at a different university from where I’d already studied.”

One week later, sometime in the spring of 2008, Van der Sluis took the train to Maastricht for an initial interview with Professor Lex Borghans. By the time she headed for home, she had a PhD position more or less in the bag. “Indeed, she immediately piqued my curiosity”, Borghans says. “As an education economist, you want to see how the different educational phases build on one another. But vocational education doesn’t get much attention in research. And not without reason. For example, the Netherlands has around 6000 primary schools, all with great similarities and comparable data. This makes primary education ideal for statistical analysis. Vocational education doesn’t have anything like this. What’s more, the vast majority of researchers never come into contact with vocational education, so there’s less affinity with that sector.”

Vignette study
Borghans had to admit he had never investigated the quality of vocational programmes. “That made the topic all the more attractive. After all, a researcher should be open to new questions from society. These inspire you to think about important topics that probably wouldn’t have emerged from academia”, he says. “We had to think about how you can study the quality of a sector when you have very little relevant data. We came up with the idea of a vignette study.”

“This is a type of research where you use vignettes that reflect the different characteristics of a situation”, explains Van der Sluis. “In our study, the vignettes represented vocational training programmes. The respondents had to choose which programme they thought was the best. This approach is used frequently in marketing to shed light on people’s preferences. That was essentially what we wanted to find out, too: Why do pupils choose certain schools? What do teachers see as important? How do employers assess the quality of a vocational training institute?”

The researchers used the vignette method in interviews with over 500 pupils, parents, teachers, employers and policymakers. They then analysed the data and came up with some unexpected conclusions. Borghans: “A number of surprising facts came to light. As far as policymakers and students are concerned, the pass rate of a vocational education programme is a key aspect of its quality. In contrast, employers and teachers place more importance on having a challenging curriculum. What’s more, employers’ appreciation of the students was of great importance for all respondents, yet this is currently not part of the quality system in vocational training.”

The findings provide concrete tools for Van der Sluis and, indirectly, the Inspectorate of Education that employs her. “Even if you can’t always measure quality, on the basis of this research you can think about how you can take measures to promote educational quality. We now know more about how the relevant parties view quality in vocational education, which gives us food for thought.”

The PhD candidate defended her PhD in January. But the fruitful collaboration between UM and the Inspectorate of Education continues with the launch of the new ACC for Education. Borghans: “These collaborative centres are ideally suited to conducting research that has both great academic significance and great relevance for practice.”

This article originally appeared in Maastricht University Magazine.

Lex Borghans (1964) is professor of Labour Economics and Social Policy at Maastricht University.

Margriet van der Sluis (1981) studied Education Sciences in Amsterdam and History of Education in Florence. She has been an analyst and researcher at the Inspectorate of Education in Utrecht since 2006.




Read more about Lex Borghans on the UM Expert Guide.

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