Roots of vocational training
Vocational training has a far more co-operative tradition than tertiary education. In vocational training, there was no clear differentiation between theoretical and practical education. Apprentices were employed by a company and learned their trade from experienced workers in practical training. This is still practised in many European countries, e.g. Austria and Germany . Today, this practical training is usually complemented with formal vocational training at special vocational schools.
In some professions requiring tertiary education, this traditional principle of dual education is still standard practice: medical doctors go through clinical rotation, and in many countries (e.g. Austria), lawyers are required to undergo an internship at a court before they are granted the right to practice their profession.
Co-operation via placements and internships
Concerning placements and internships which are less regulated, co-operation between academia and business is widely practised. The World Association for Cooperative & Work-Integrated Education (WACE), a professional association dedicated to promoting co-operative & work-integrated education, lists a total of 913 institutions they co-operated with in 52 countries worldwide .
This type of co-operation allows students to experience the work environment they will later work in. However, the quality of this experience differs widely, depending on the company that offers the internship, the position the student takes and the ability of the student to integrate into this environment. Usually, there is no educational structure at the site of the placement, and academic supervision accompanying these internships is rare.
A particular type of internships involves placements where students write reports or theses which are required academic output of their curricula. In these cases, co-operation between business and academia is closer: business usually defines the problems students have to address in these reports and theses. Assessment of the quality of these products usually remains with the academic teachers. The usability of the results evaluated by the business side may or may not become a factor in this academic assessment. This type of placements usually involves a certain amount of academic supervision and co-operation between the academic and business supervisors. This co-operation is not only beneficial to education but also enriches research as business and industrial problems are jointly researched by academia and business experts.
Although internships and placements are most valuable for student’s experience and research co-operation, they lack comprehensive integration into the educational structure of academic curricula. Responsibility for as well as planning of educational aspects of internships and placements are not often shared between academia and business; usually, business takes responsibility for the student’s work for the company while academia evaluates the quality of output according to their own standards only.
Co-operative learning formats on the curricular level (dual studies)
Based on the tradition of co-operative education in vocational training, there is a type of curriculum that combines theoretical education and practical training, usually performed in a company. Examples for these curricular-level co-operative learning formats are particularly described in North America and Europe. Dual study models in tertiary education emerged in Germany in the 1970s . Awareness of these models had some ups and downs over time . This led to a lack of a clear or consistent definition of dual tertiary education approaches . However, terms like work-integrated learning (internships, service-learning, clinical placements), sandwich education (interspersed education in Great Britain and Canada) or learning factories  exemplify the development towards a similar goal but with heterogeneous designs.
In Europe, dual programmes in the course of tertiary education are seen as possible drivers for employability . In the German-speaking part of Europe, this type of co-operative education and training approach is more clearly defined than in the English-speaking part where definitions are less clear which allows a more flexible application of specific education programmes and thus more adaptability in designing specific learning formats.
In Austria, the first dual tertiary education programme was developed at the University of Applied Sciences FH Joanneum. The goal was to find an alternative to traditional education programmes to solve ever more complex demands of the industrial sector . ‘The integration of work place experience has become an important element of diversification of higher education’ . The Austrian dual study programmes have since grown to curricula at six Universities of Applied Sciences (Fachhochschulen) with over 250 business partners .
Organisational set-up for co-operative education formats on the curricular level differs considerably. Haas differentiates them by three criteria :
Role of business
Type of rotation
Salary and legal issues
Role of business
Companies interact differently with universities that provide dual education curricula. An intensive level of interaction can usually be recognised within the German dual learning concepts in the course of which companies select and send students to university or comparable tertiary education institutions thus playing a major role in the process. In the USA and Canada, companies offer internships, usually for a period of about 4 months. Students select and apply for these internships independently. Therefore, the role of business is restricted to provide these internships. An intermediate level of interaction can be found in France and Austria where companies choose available first-year students who are then employed. Here, the students select the curriculum and are not sent to the institutions by the companies.
Business partners take over other responsibilities within dual education curricula as well, e.g.:
Defining topics for courses and student projects
Providing experts as lecturers
Holding regular courses with business partners
Defining course set-up with academic partners
Providing infrastructure for courses and projects
Employability after graduation is a central goal from a socio-economic point of view, but this focus should not cover other important aspects of co-operative education such as ethics, responsibility, common wealth and independence .
Type of rotation
The schedule for rotation between theoretical education at HEIs and practical training in industrial or business environments differs between countries. In the USA, Canada, Germany (DHBW Duale Hochschule Baden-Württemberg, 1‘Berufsakademie’) and Austria (University of Applied Sciences – FH Joanneum), rotation usually takes place after 3 to 6 months. In Germany, with its ‘Duale Studiengänge’, a variety of rotation systems is to be found additionally. In Spain and Italy, students spend 2 to 3 days per week in the HEIs. The French ‘Formation en Apprentissage’ knows various rhythms—e.g. 2.5 days in a business environment and 2.5 days in a training centre (or alternatively 2 days of business and 3 days of training) .
Salary and legal issues
Ideally, dual curricular students receive payment similar to remuneration for an apprenticeship. Another possibility is to hire the student as a part-time employee for the duration of the programme and to postpone payment until the successful passing of the curriculum.
In a global context, the application of dual curricular formats is increasing. According to a recent study, the basic ideas behind the dual study system were exported from Germany to countries like Brazil, France, Qatar, Mexico and USA as it was described by Graf et al. .
In order to push European universities towards intensifying activities concerning energy issues, the EUA developed a Roadmap for European Universities in Energy . This roadmap includes 13 actions clustered around research and education, collaboration and effect. In this respect, collaboration includes actions to foster university networks and co-operation between universities and organisations in different sectors . One of its particular goals is a stronger mobilisation of university and business co-operation. If co-operation between HEIs and business really shall contribute to establishing the highly qualified workforce necessary to reach the ambitious goal of a carbon-free energy system, it must not be restricted to dual study curricula. It must in fact become the new standard and part of each and every curriculum educating future engineers and energy experts in various fields. It must also become the basis for re-training and qualifying the current workforce to meet the challenges posed by the energy transition as described in the SET plan.
Available data on co-operative learning formats on the course level is poor and anecdotal. This is due to the facts that there are different approaches to co-operation in education and training between academic institutions and business and that it plays only a minor role in the particular national education systems. There is even less information on co-operative education programmes with a focus on energy, not to mention energy transition.
The most prevalent and traditional form of co-operation between HEIs and business on the course level is the participation of experts from business as guest lecturers in courses. In some cases, business experts may even be invited to conduct the courses entirely. Such co-operative learning formats expose students to business positions as well as to approaches and methods to solve problems used in business. This input by business experts certainly complements teaching by academic lecturers and may expand the student’s horizon. It may also help students to throw their acquired knowledge into perspective by revealing how to use these skills in practice.
Even more intensive co-operative learning formats are seminars and design courses in which business define specific real-world problems and business experts help students to approach and solve these problems and give feedback on the applicability of the proposed solutions. In these seminars and courses, business experts are directly involved in course planning and implementation as well. Such learning formats provide students with practical insight into how to use their knowledge and skills. These seminars and design courses, moreover, provide students with access to supervision and feedback by academic as well as business instructors.
An ever-increasing number of HEIs offer lectures held by business experts as well as seminars and design courses with the participation of business instructors. Although they provide considerable advantages for both students and academic teachers and form an important link between business and academia, they do not provide exposure of students to business working environment, they contradict the general approach that tertiary education is exclusively planned, provided and evaluated by HEIs and that there is only indirect added value for business partners, mainly by generating a more qualified workforce that benefits not only business involved in the co-operation but also the competitors not involved.
Innovative co-operative learning formats on the course level
As the arguments above indicate, there is ample room for improvement, in particular for co-operative learning formats on the course level. This publication provides insight into some new approaches to such formats, based on case studies carried out in the course of the BioEnergy Train (BET) project commissioned by the European Union under the Horizon 2020 programme.
BET is put into effect by a consortium of HEIs, research centres, professional associations and industrial stakeholders. Its goal is to develop two new pilot master’s curricula in fields specifically identified by the SRMET as critical to implementing the SET plan, namely the master’s programmes Biorefinery Engineering at the Graz University of Technology in Austria and Bioresource Value Chain Management at the University of Twente in the NetherlandsFootnote 2. The consortium is headed by the European Sustainable Energy Innovation Alliance (eseia), a cross-sectoral associationFootnote 3. According to the guidelines of SRMET, the project is also tasked with the development and application of innovative co-operative learning formats.
Arentsen, Kienberger and Bauer [Additional file 2] (from the viewpoint of academic teachers) and Ortner and Foxhall [Additional file 3] (from the viewpoint of business partners) describe a co-operative learning format known as ‘student camp.’ The general idea of this format is to assemble an interdisciplinary and international group of students and academic teachers at the site of a business partner. Academic teachers and business partners mutually select the problems to be discussed by the students, which are organised in interdisciplinary groups. These problems should be of strategic importance and highly relevant to the further development of the business partner.
The student camps have a duration of 1–2 weeks. In the beginning, the business partner should introduce the company and define the problems. He should also appoint a camp leader and company experts who should provide the student groups with advice and data.
Student camps are designed as student centred learning formats. The students are responsible for dealing with the specific problems, and academic teachers and company experts are prepared to be of assistance. Regular reports of the groups to the assembly of student camp participants allow exchanging of information. At the end of the student camp, the students should report their findings to company staff and academic teachers. Evaluation is done jointly by academic and business supervisors.
Feedback from students, academia and business is mainly positive. Students are highly motivated and can apply their knowledge to strategic real-world problems, thus gaining confidence in their skills. They experience interdisciplinary and international co-operation in a team, dealing with a specific and demanding task, as well as exposure to a business environment. Business partners derive profit from out-of-the-box thinking of students and unconventional approaches to problems which are relevant to further company development. A particularly important aspect is that students also represent customers of the future, providing company managers with an insight into possible future preferences of their clients.
Pilot plant research labs
Arentsen, Kienberger and Bauer [Additional file 2] report on experiences with this format, in course of which a student group was allowed to operate pilot plant installations at the site of a business partner. The research plan for this operation was prepared in co-operation between academic teachers and business experts.
This format provides students with hands-on experience in operating industrial plants. They are confronted with the challenges and difficulties of real-world technological development.
The benefit for students is obvious. Academic teachers have the possibility to gain access to research infrastructure that is not available within HEIs. Business partners come to know possible future employees and are able to evaluate their skills in practice.
Open summer schools
The third co-operative learning format described by Arentsen et al. [Additional file 2] is known as ‘open summer school’. These summer schools bring together interdisciplinary international student and academic teacher groups with business experts and address a specific topic. Although this format is closest to conventional co-operative course formats with teacher-centred instruction and supervised student exercises, it features some innovative aspects. Prominent among them is the fact that students are invited to bring their own tasks to the meeting. They are encouraged to take advantage of the interdisciplinary set-up of supervisors and of the access to business experts to get assistance in solving their specific problems.
Arentsen et al. [Additional file 2] say that the innovative value of these three co-operative formats results from:
Linking industry to education in a new way
Gaining an extended and deeper involvement with immediate industrial issues including problems and state-of-the-art knowledge and technology
Fostering student-centred learning
Performing a more interactive, reflective and group-centred learning
Collaborative non-traditional learning, distance learning and co-operative design courses
In non-traditional learning methods especially collaborative learning, approaches represent new ways for knowledge integration . Compared to classical methods an integrative, group learning process helps to provide knowledge to students. Collaborative learning can also be supported by digital tools  or distance learning settings and open online resources .
Distance education is no recent phenomenon, but with the digital revolution, instant information and knowledge sharing increased significantly. Social media and online-learning, like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for an unlimited participation of people, Small Private Online Courses (SPOCs) for privates and Corporate Open Online Course (COOCs) for companies, contributed to sharing and spreading teaching content online, and in relation to cooperative forms of learning and creation, there is a differentiation between Generic Points of Cooperation (GPoC), Spontaneous Points of Creation (SPoC) and Intended Points of Creation (IPoC) . Joan-Marc Joval [Additional file 5] reports on such a professional online learning platform. Professional digital education services and the passive role of learners are discussed. Co-operative design courses represent a chance for a co-creation of knowledge, and teacher-learner boundaries become less rigid when students are allowed to co-determine the design of a course. Moreover, online courses allow business partners not only to contribute to education on an equal footing with other actors. They also provide interesting tools for re-training and qualifying the existing workforce, a point particularly highlighted by SRMET as crucial for implementing the SET plan and a successful energy transition.
The article Structural Aspects of Co-operative Learning Formats states that experiences with co-operative learning formats are mainly positive. SRMET and AAEU attach great importance to the improvement of co-operation between business and HEIs. Krozer [Additional file 6] emphasises the importance of co-operative learning formats for the regional utilisation of bio-resources and the energy transition. Actually, the progress in developing and implementing these learning formats is rather slow. Structural hindrances and structural pre-conditions for wider implementation will have to be discussed.
Oswald [Additional file 4] points out a particular barrier for co-operation between academic education and business acquainted with vocational training: while academic education relies on workload-based evaluation, exemplified by the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) system in Europe, vocational training uses skill-based evaluation in the European Quality Assurance in Vocational Education and Training (EQAVET) system. He argues for a comprehensive and flexible education system combining academic and vocational training elements based on the needs of the market.
While such a comprehensive education system may still be a vision for the future, Sakulin et al. [Additional file 7] inform on advantages of regional clusters between HEIs, business and regional public and civil society actors. Experiences and potential benefits for participants from the collaboration of regional administrations with HEIs regarding co-operative learning formats are presented in a case study about a regional student camp in Austria and co-operative master’s thesis supervision in Romania.
The latter report as well as the experiences gathered in the course of the BET project point out an important structural element for accelerated implementation of co-operative learning formats in existing and future curricula: the participation of mediating actors. The development of co-operative learning formats is not part of the core business of universities and companies. Moreover, these two actors follow very different rules and incentives. While scientific excellence and high educational standards secure public funding of universities, enrolment fees and research grants, business is driven by profit and shareholder value. Particular goals and planning horizons as well as management structures and decision-making differ considerably. All these differences are formidable barriers to co-operation between universities and business exceeding the level of temporary, clearly defined research projects. There is no indication for a change on this matter in the foreseeable future although this would be necessary to strengthen co-operation in education required by the energy transition.
If co-operative learning formats are to contribute to ensuring a workforce qualified to meet the future challenges, mediating actors are required. Experience from BET shows that mediating actors must have some general characteristics:
They must integrate stakeholders coming from universities, business and, perhaps, from the public sector and the civil society;
They must be dedicated to a particular future challenge; in the present case, this would be the energy transition;
They must have a track record of co-ordinating co-operation between the stakeholders.
The clusters discussed in Sakulin et al. [Additional file 7] as well as by eseia which co-ordinates the BET project have these characteristics and, therefore, were able to co-ordinate and implement co-operative learning formats in their own specific environment.
The examples of successful and innovative learning formats established within the BET project however show another aspect: these formats are the result of an interdisciplinary and international innovation process that answered to the specific challenges for education posed by the energy transition as stated in SET Plan Roadmap on Education and Training (SRMET). Inter-sectoral actors like eseia who operate internationally and are actively involved in the changing process necessary for the energy transition are able to succeed in getting things done in this respect.