Joao Santos is retiring after an impressive thirty three years spanning career at the European Commission. In the last ten years of his career at the Commission he was deputy Head of Unit, acting Head of Unit, and Senior expert in the Vocational Education & Training (VET) Unit. In this position he played a key role in boosting  the quality and image of VET in the EU, most notably through developing the concept of the Centres of Vocational Excellence (CoVEs). In this goodbye interview, Neth-ER talks with him on his impression of Dutch VET, his contribution to the CoVEs and his vision on education and training.

Ambassador of vocational excellence in Europe Joao Santos says goodbye


Ambassador of Vocational Excellence 

After an impressive 30 year career at the European Commission Joao Santos retires. In the past ten years he played a key role in improving VET throughout the EU. Last November, at the Vocational Excellence Forum in San Sebastián, the VET community already expressed its gratitude for his efforts and said goodbye. Joao is now returning back to his country of origin, Portugal, to enjoy some well-deserved rest and time with his family. But not without speaking to Neth-ER for a last time to share his view on VET and the role he played in improving the quality and attractiveness of VET in the EU.     

Fond memories of Dutch VET 

Joao Santos has fond memories of the Dutch VET schools. He visited many during his time in the Commission, like Da Vinci College, STC and the ROC van Tilburg. The Dutch system impressed him and during the years working on VET he found inspiration in the Dutch approach to VET for the Centres of Vocational Excellence. He notes the Dutch VET system has a strong reputation abroad, including within the European Commission. On business-education partnerships, on innovation, on environmental sustainability, and on applied research, the Dutch VET system has some of the best examples in the world.


The Netherlands has many reasons to be proud of its VET system, but unfortunately not everyone is aware of the quality and excellence of the Dutch VET offer for young people to obtain a first qualification, and for adults to upskill and reskill.

A need to improve the image and quality of VET

Joao considers that the low social esteem and image that some people still have of VET, is a general  problem all over the world, which is still influenced by outdated views and lack of information on substantial reforms and improvements the sector has undergone. For many years VET functioned essentially as a social safety net. It was mainly taking care of the people who did not fit into the system, or were unsuccessful in other education and training sectors. Society and parents still have that old image in mind, although the VET system itself has improved greatly over the years.


We need to change that deeply grounded image. We need communication initiatives that show learners, parents, companies, decision makers, and society in general, about the interesting qualifications and training that VET providers have to offer, which empower people with skills for fulfilling lives and quality jobs. But it is not only about cosmetics and saying “VET is beautiful”, says Joao. You also need to continuously keep working on reforming and modernising the VET system. The job is never complete, and we need to constantly rethink on how to improve the teaching and learning process. This is particularly important in an era of rapid technological and societal change. Luckily he sees reforms and investments in the VET system are indeed taking place in Europe and the world. However, changing the old image might still take some time, and needs a concerted effort from all VET providers and ministries. The European Commission can have a leading role in this process and provide an added-value by coordinating mobilising campaigns such as the Vocational Skills Week.

A new vision for VET 

Joao contributed in his own way to modernising the VET system through the initiative on the Centres of Vocational Excellence (CoVE’s). Already in 2012 the European Commission released a Communication on Rethinking Education, where it proposed a new and more innovative vision on VET. While also focusing on its social inclusion role, the VET system should also contribute to economic growth and innovation, the document stated. However, with a lack of funding and a mobilising initiative to launch this change, the idea did not fly and it seemed it would be just another well intended document in a drawer.

A new Erasmus+ program, new opportunities 

An opportunity arose in 2017, when the Commission initiated the process of designing the new Erasmus+ program for 2021-2027. For the higher education sector the European Universities Initiative was proposed, after French President Emmanuel Macron called for the establishment of transnational university alliances. The Head of Unit at that time, Dana Bachmann, asked Joao Santos to explore the possibility of an ambitious initiative in the VET sector to be supported under the new Erasmus+ program. As doing something similar to European Universities for the VET sector would not be appropriate due to the substantial differences of these two sectors, Joao and his colleagues (with the inspiring ideas of Jan Varchola) proposed to push for an initiative to support a new innovative vision of a future-oriented VET.

Studying vocational excellence in Europe 

A new concept was proposed, based on best practices from the VET sector in Europe. The Commission ordered a study and asked external experts to identify and map the best examples of quality VET centres in each country, and identify the strategic success factors that, irrespective of the differences among VET systems in Europe, lead to high employment levels, engagement with companies and society, and responsiveness of VET providers to labour market developments. The study identified three elements that all these excellent VET centres have in common:

  • Linking to regional development policies, and providing the skills and innovations needed to pursue the strategic objectives of the region;
  • Collaborating with a large number of partners, from civil society to companies, research centres and public employment services. These partnerships have a dedicated governance structure.
  • Doing much more than providing a qualification:  investing in entrepreneurial skills of their learners, engaging with SMEs, and developing applied research. In this way both teachers and students get acquainted with solving real life problems.

The mapping study also identified a set of activities that are often pursued by these successful VET providers. The results of this study were the basis for the design of the Centres of Vocational Excellence (CoVEs) in the Erasmus+ program, which intends to create international collaborative networks bringing together of these centres that share a common interest in developing skills ecosystems. The initiative took a pragmatic approach of learning from what has proven to work well, and then bringing those diverse experiences into a strategic VET proposal to be funded by Erasmus+.

An idea well received 

In the 2018 initial Commission proposal for the new Erasmus+ program, the CoVEs were assigned 200 million euros to support the initiative. The idea was so well-received by the Council and the European Parliament that the legislators proposed to double the budget to 400 million euros, in order to tackle the challenges of the VET sector. To test the concept and market appetite for such an initiative, in 2019 the Commission launched a first Erasmus+ call still under the previous programme, to fund five pilot CoVE projects. The demand was overwhelming, and it proved the wisdom of the Parliament and the Council that were pushing for a substantial increase in the budget for the initiative.


With the support of the member states a second successful call for pilot projects was launched in 2020. Even with the substantial increase in funding, the demand continues to be much higher than the Erasmus+ resources available, and only 1 in every 7 projects can benefit from EU funding. Success rates of the CoVEs in the current Erasmus+ program are now lower than the average success rates in the competitive EU research program Horizon Europe, showing the popularity of the initiative, also in the Netherlands.

What makes the CoVEs excellent?   

Analysing the success factors of the CoVEs so far, Joao Santos thinks it was a good idea to link VET to other sectors, such as universities of applied sciences, companies and other partners. If education sectors and employers think of skill needs together, they will design qualifications and micro-credentials in a lifelong learning perspective, creating flexible pathways for learners to make the best use of training offers, irrespective of the education sector that provides them. Universities can help the VET sector in providing continuous training for teachers and trainers, or bringing in knowledge and experience from research. This is why many universities engage in the initiative, such as in the CoVE on Sustainable Energy Education where the Hogeschool Utrecht cooperates with ROC Midden-Nederland.

Education sectors are interrelated 

Joao views all sectors of the education system as interrelated. The success of the VET system depends on learners coming from the primary and secondary schools well prepared. If the basic skills of these students are not well developed, or they lack literacy or foreign language skills, you cannot expect the VET system to remedy all of these challenges. A lack of effectiveness of the VET sector can also reduce the possibilities for learners to progress higher education levels. The better pupils from a young age are equipped with the right skills, the less remedies on upper levels of education are needed. Of course all the sectors have their own characteristics and specificities, but in the end the education sectors are all part of the same lifelong learning continuum.

Not done with rethinking the education system 

Looking at the future, Joao sees a clear need to continuously rethink the education system. This should be done at three levels: 1) the organisation of the education and training system, 2) the knowledge, skills and attitudes with which the system empowers the individual, and 3) the teaching and learning process, making full use of rapidly developing technologies (e.g. digital tools and artificial intelligence).  


As an example, Joao mentions that a few decades ago nine years of schooling at primary and secondary education was considered sufficient, to equip the learner with the basic life and academic skills that allowed them to choose whether to go on a vocational or general education pathway. That’s why in Europe most VET systems start receiving young people at the age of 15 or 16. However, nowadays there is a need for longer periods of schooling to provide youngsters with foundational broader skills that they will need throughout their academic and working lives, such as green, digital, communication, social, entrepreneurial and critical thinking skills (among others).


He mentions countries such as Canada, USA, Ireland and others in Asia, where students spend a longer time in secondary education to build that large set of foundational life skills, and only choose a more vocational or academic pathway at a later stage when they enter tertiary education by either going for a traditional academic university, or instead a vocational route in a university of applied science or community college. This is a debate that may be worth considering in Europe in a near future. It also has implications for the attractiveness of VET. Quite often VET is compared with higher education in a very negative way. This comparison is wrong because the two sectors are at different levels, they serve different purposes and have learners with very different characteristics and ages. However, if both traditional academic and vocational pathways are taken at the same tertiary level, this “attractiveness” debate can take a very different dimension.

Continuously updating the CoVEs 

Looking specifically at the future of the CoVE initiative, Joao says that there is a need to continuously rethink and update the concept of vocational excellence. There is no magic formula for VET excellence, and the constant pursuit of innovation is key for the success of the initiative. Every year we should carefully analyse all the new Erasmus+ project applications we receive to see what new ideas are being proposed based on grass-roots needs, we need to build on the very valuable work being done by the European Training Foundation in developing the international dimension of vocational excellence, and we need to closely monitor the implementation of the current CoVE projects by working closely with the executive agency EACEA, and the CoVE Community of Practice. By doing so, we can improve the initiative by correcting what does not work, improve what is working, and innovate with new ideas.

Future of the CoVEs is dynamic 

The future of the CoVEs thus has to be dynamic, according to Joao. He believes an initiative should never crystallise. For now the CoVEs seem to answer to a demand from the VET sector and beyond to modernise VET provision. If the external evaluation of Erasmus+ in 2024 indeed shows these CoVEs have a positive disruptive impact, the initiative should continue and even be reinforced. But if not, there should not be any fear of coming up with something else that better answers to the needs of the sector and society.


Public funding, according to Joao, should be used to mobilise stakeholders for action, and to intervene when there is a market failure. However, he does not think it is a good idea that the EU should be providing permanent subsidies for CoVEs (or any other project in the long run). A measure of success of each CoVE project is the extent to which they become self-sustainable. The end goal should be to make these partnerships between VET providers, universities, the research sector, companies, trade unions, employment services, and civil society self-sustainable, in which the partners value the outcomes they achieve together and feel they are worth pursuing, with or without public funding. Current projects should continue to be supported after their initial funding, when they aim to expand their proven best practices and innovative ideas to new partners, more countries or when they have new ideas on further developing new actions or innovative practices.

Future of the initiative is in good hands 

Joao Santos himself will not be actively involved in designing the future of the CoVE initiative, although he will continue to contribute to the reflection on the modernisation of education and training, that in his view is essential for people to have fulfilling lives, quality jobs and to actively participate in society.
For the future of the initiative he has no doubt his work is in good hands. The Commission has an excellent team of very experienced and competent professionals that will continue to steer the initiative to the best interests of the VET sector and the people we serve. The European Training Foundation and Cedefop will also continue to work on many actions that are directly linked to the CoVEs, and contribute with their expertise to the success of the initiative. The Erasmus+ programme has funding to support CoVEs at least until 2027.  And most importantly, the idea of Vocational Excellence has gained a life of its own, with many people outside the Commission, like the Dutch participants in the CoVEs, that have taken full ownership of the initiative and are developing it further, for example through the Community of Practice of Vocational Excellence, which was established by practitioners and for practitioners.

On behalf of the Dutch education & research sector, Neth-ER thanks Joao Santos for his efforts over the years and wishes him all the best for the future.