Lifelong learning policies for young adults in Europe: a conceptual and methodological discussion
Lifelong learning policies for young adults in Europe: a conceptual and methodological discussion
Abstract and Keywords
In order to be successful, Lifelong Learning (LLL) policies in Europe have to reconcile numerous concurrent aspects related to their different contexts, timeframes, target groups and the specific issues they confront. Failing to recognise these specificities risks producing unintended effects and/or exacerbating the problems they intend to tackle. Further, these may have substantial impact on young adults’ life courses as the policies are often formulated at the national level while having to unfold at the regional level, but also because they often do not take into account the specific needs, diverse social and living conditions and regional/local infrastructures in education and labour markets. The first section introduces conceptual considerations drawn from Life Course Research, Governance Studies and Cultural Political Economy that help us identify and analyse these various aspects across countries in the interplay of levels. The second section describes the implementation of a mixed-method approach. The complementary approach results in a juxtaposition along the project’s sub-studies that generate insights for enhancing each other as we analyse different phenomena interwoven with our research object by approaching them from different viewpoints. The third section reflects on the possibilities, conditions and limits of producing comparative multilevel knowledge that is relevant for policy-making.
Since the beginning of the new millennium, lifelong learning (LLL) policies have become significant tools in tackling ongoing economic and social structural problems. Across European communities, major programmes have highlighted the need for an education that is lifelong and life-wide. The overall objective has been building ‘an advanced knowledge-based society, with sustainable economic development, more and better jobs and greater social cohesion, while ensuring good protection of the environment for future generations’ (EP and CEU, 2006: 48). In this policy context, ensuring the overall prosperity and well-being of European citizens has become largely dependent on the LLL education and training opportunities provided by national and local/regional governments. Subsequently, much attention has been paid to optimising the reach and efficacy of LLL programmes across European countries by means of policy transfer of ‘best practices’, often disregarding the contextual conditions for implementation on the ground. What has also become apparent over the course of time is that the role of young adults as active shapers of LLL and their life courses is largely missing, and more often than not, they are viewed as passive recipients. This is true for young people in general since they struggle with several challenges at the same time – developmental, personal, educational, professional and so on – but is particularly relevant for groups facing difficult situations and at risk of social exclusion. Furthermore, the highly diverse and dynamic life projects of young adults are not necessarily or completely consistent with societal expectations. Against this background, researching the compatibility of the objectives of LLL policies and young adults’ life projects and living conditions becomes crucial in assessing policies’ ability to succeed at local and regional levels.
(p.4) To ensure the success of LLL policies in Europe, such policies have to reconcile numerous concurrent aspects related to their different contexts, timeframes, target groups and the specific issues they confront. Failing to recognise these specificities risks producing unintended effects and/or exacerbating the problems they intend to tackle in the first place. Additionally, LLL policies may have a substantial impact on the life courses of young adults as the policies are often formulated at the national level while having to unfold at the regional level. Generally, they do not take into account the specific needs, social and living conditions and regional/local infrastructures in education and labour markets.
This chapter discusses the comparative multi-level as well as multi-method approach used in the YOUNG_ADULLLT project for analysing interplays of (un)intended effects concerning the individual, structural and institutional dimensions of policies in 18 selected regional contexts throughout nine European countries. We argue that the effects policies have are best researched at local and regional levels. Policies impact young adults in local/regional contexts of economies, labour markets and education systems. Our approach takes different analytical dimensions – individual, structural and institutional – into account by using different qualitative and quantitative methods to address the diverse research questions.
This chapter is organised into three sections: the first introduces conceptual considerations drawn from life course research (LCR), governance studies and cultural political economy (CPE) that help us identify and analyse various aspects across countries, including their interplay of discourses, levels, actors and expectations, that is, spanning from macro structures to micro issues. The second describes the implementation of a mixed-method approach along sub-studies that generate complementary insights as we analyse different phenomena interwoven with our research object by approaching them from different viewpoints. The third reflects on the possibilities, conditions and limits of producing comparative multi-level knowledge that is relevant for policy-making.
Policies supporting young adults: conceptual entry points
Theoretical perspectives furnish the lens with which the research object – LLL policies that frame young adults’ transition from schooling to work – is examined and conceptualised. This tripartite approach underscores the intertwining of LLL policies and young adults in different living conditions throughout European landscapes. (p.5) The research analyses different types of LLL policies regarding their apparent competing – and possibly contradicting – objectives for young adults. In addition, the intended and unintended impacts of LLL policies on young adults at regional/local European levels are brought into focus. By framing the research object in this manner, three entry points come to the fore: LLL policies, their target groups and the different regional/local contexts. With regard to the conceptualisation of the theoretical perspectives, the different entry points referred to represent different analytical dimensions (institutional, individual, structural) aimed at adequately accounting for the various thematic and analytical dimensions of the research object.
While the extent to which LLL policies are effective/ineffective for young adults’ needs in constructing a meaningful life course is best analysed using LCR, the coordination of different actions and agents partaking in these LLL policies – and presumably influencing young adults in their decision-making processes – is best analysed with the help of GOV. CPE is best used to describe the different objectives of LLL policies and in particular the intended impact of LLL policies at national, regional and local levels. Therefore, an understanding of the research objectives is based upon a set of assumptions provided by LCR, GOV and CPE to guide the research and orient the interpretation of the results accordingly.
The remainder of this section is divided into three parts that explain how theoretical perspectives contribute to the project and discuss the resulting implications for empirical research.
In Europe, a vast number of LLL policies for young adults have been designed and implemented in the framework of overall strategies intended to meet the challenges of creating and improving economic growth and at the same time guarantee social inclusion. Among the policies and initiatives targeting young adults at secondary, postsecondary and tertiary education levels there are substantial differences in scope, approach, orientation and objectives. There is much variation in the way policy makers understand and construct their target groups, namely young adults. Two underlying assumptions are of particular importance when discussing LLL policies for young adults in the context of current strategies. First, the target groups implied in LLL policies are neither natural nor static categories that can be used by policies to ‘address’ particular groups and social issues. Rather, policies significantly change and sometimes even construct the target group (p.6) they address. Second, policies with different orientations and objectives will understand and construct their target groups in substantially different ways. This raises questions regarding the mutual compatibility of the policies and their potential effects for young adults, including direct or indirect side effects.
We adopted a CPE approach as one of our main theoretical perspectives for the critical interrogation of the orientation of LLL policies in Europe. CPE represents an attempt to combine contributions from critical political economy and critical discourse analysis from the field of policy studies (Jessop, 2004; Sum and Jessop, 2013). Jessop defines CPE as:
An emerging post-disciplinary approach that highlights the contribution of the cultural turn to the analysis of the articulation between the economic and the political and their embedding in broader sets of social relations.
(Jessop, 2010: 337)
CPE uses a diverse set of concepts and methods drawn from different social sciences, mainly economics, political science and sociology. In its application to the education field, a CPE approach is interested in the interplay between the politics of education and education politics. In other words, it is interested in investigating the rules of the game, the paradigmatic settings that set the limits to what is considered possible and desirable from education (for instance, the understanding of the role of education in economic neoliberalism) and how these rules of the game shape the who and the how of policy-making in education.
CPE integrates analysis of concrete interactional realities (through critical discourse analysis) with the analysis of underlying political economy trends, their translation into hegemonic strategies and projects, and their institutionalisation into specific structures and practices. Although CPE is mainly applied in the field of political economy, its general propositions and the heuristic that it informs can also be applied to fields like education policy analysis by combining the same semiotic analysis with concepts appropriate to educational institutions, processes and practices.
The CPE approach highlights the importance of the cultural dimension – understood as semiosis or meaning-making – in the interpretation and explanation of the complexity of social formations such as policies. CPE is interested in the study of policy discourses, economic and political imaginaries, their translation into hegemonic strategies and projects, and their institutionalisation into specific (p.7) structures and practices. CPE emphasises that explanations of social reality need to focus on the dialectic relationship between the discursive and material elements of social life rather than just on its discursive aspects.
The concepts of hyper-complexity, complexity reduction and imaginaries play an important role in CPE’s approach. Hyper-complexity maintains that it is impossible to observe and explain the natural and social worlds in real time. CPE distinguishes the existing economy as the chaotic sum of all economic activities from the imaginatively narrated ‘economy’, as a more or less coherent subset of these activities (Jessop and Oosterlynck, 2008). Complexity reduction is a means of distinguishing what is ‘going on’ in the world. Since it has both semiotic and structural aspects, complexity reduction turns meaningless and unstructured complexity (hyper-complexity) into meaningful complexity (social construal) and structured complexity (social construction). The product of complexity reduction processes are imaginaries (social, political, economic). An imaginary is a semiotic system that gives meaning and shape to the social and natural world, working as a theoretical representation and as a powerful strategic policy model in several fields of social practice. It is important to highlight the idea of technologies as ‘social practices that are mediated through specific instruments of classification, registration, calculation, and so on, that may discipline social action’ (Jessop, 2010: 339). For CPE, technology is not concerned with the productive forces involved in the appropriation and transformation of nature (as in orthodox political economy), but with the mechanisms involved in the governance of conduct. In this context, it understands that technologies (in this case, policies, policy formulation, decision techniques, policy instruments and policy evaluation) are important instruments deployed by agents within the process of selection and retention of policy discourses.
The main contribution of the CPE approach to education policy analysis is the need to take seriously the importance of the mobilisation of policy ideas, and the perceptions of political actors, in the explanation of education policy dynamics and policy outcomes. Policy makers are thrown the world in its complexity and need to selectively attribute meaning to some aspects of the world rather than others. They encounter different pre-interpretations of the world and must engage with some of them in order to make sense of the environment in which they make policy decisions, and so they end up relying on existing meaning systems (policy discourses, political and economic imaginaries). These acts of meaning-making (construals) may also contribute to the constitution of the social world insofar (p.8) as they guide a critical mass of self-confirming actions premised on their validity.
This attribution of meaning to social problems and policy solutions opens the door for infinite policy variation and innovation, but we know that not all policy innovations have the same opportunities to be selected, retained and institutionalised, that is, to become concrete policies. The critical nature of CPE serves the de-naturalisation and re-politicisation of LLL policies as taken-for-granted discourses and practices. Therefore, the CPE approach not only helps us raise questions about how LLL policies reflect selective interpretations, explanations and solutions of social, economic and political problems that are formulated by specific groups of actors, it also sheds light on how LLL policies are being legitimated or ‘sedimented’ within social structures.
According to Jessop (2010), all institutional transformations can be explained by the iterative interaction of material and semiotic factors through the evolutionary mechanisms of variation, selection and retention. These three mechanisms can help to explain why and how some policy reforms emerge, are selected and get embodied in individual agents or routinised in organisational operations, are facilitated or hindered by specific social technologies, and become embedded in specific social structures ranging from routine interactions via institutional orders to large-scale social formations. By applying the CPE approach to the analysis of LLL policies in Europe, we look at how the evolutionary mechanisms of variation, selection and retention shape the social dynamic of adoption, re-contextualisation and implementation of global policy ideas in different national contexts. Variation refers to the process by which dominant educational policy discourses or practices need to be revisited due to the emergence of new narratives that problematise educational processes by referencing either external (e.g. economic crisis) or internal challenges (e.g. school dropouts). Selection implies the identification of the most suitable interpretations of existing problems, as well as the most complementary policy solutions. These solutions tend to vary from place to place due to their different political economy structures and the pre-eminence of particular ideological coalitions. Finally, retention requires the institutionalisation of these new policies through their inclusion in regulatory frameworks and governance technologies, and their enactment through the reinterpretation, acceptance and/or resistance of implementers and practitioners at different levels. The three evolutionary mechanisms of variation, selection and retention offer a productive operationalisation of the CPE approach to the (p.9) analysis of LLL policies for young adults in European countries. These three mechanisms can help us explain why and how some LLL policy reforms emerge, are selected and become embodied in different ways within different national and local contexts. The next section discusses LCR.
The individual level of the research has been conceptualised with the help of LCR (Elder et al, 2003; Heinz et al, 2009; Meyer, 2009). Life course is colloquially understood as the documentation of the stages through which individuals pass along their lives, especially institutionalised stages such as school, training, military/civil service, work and so on. Sociological LCR analogously defines life course ‘as a social institution […] in the sense of a rule system that orders a central realm or a central dimension of life’ (Kohli, 1985: 1, own translation). The concept of life course may be contrasted with that of biography, where life course points to an institutionalised construction of (culturally defined) patterns of ‘female’ or ‘male’ (normal) lives. A biography can be regarded as the ‘narrated life’, that is, a subjective meaning-making with regard to one’s individual life course.
LCR highlights the need to consider how individual lives (the biography) are embedded in institutional macro-social framings (the life course) such as the labour market, welfare and education/training programmes, but also in ephemeral framings like social inequality. A life course perspective differs from other theoretical approaches that address the different life stages. For example, it could be contrasted to the concept of ‘biography’, which is based on the so-called ‘narrated life’, that is, the way in which individuals subjectively make meaning of their life trajectories and how they perceive their own experienced life stages. It could be further contrasted to the concept of ‘life cycle’, which understands the individual life as a linearly developing process in normative age-related stages. In contrast to these concepts, the life course concept assumes that the individual life is not linearly developing, but rather fragmented. Moreover, it is not only institutional contexts that play a major role in defining people’s life courses, but it is the young adults themselves who actively shape and form their lives, thereby highlighting how the uniformity of linearity neglects individuals’ choices as well as their interrelation with structure and agency (cf Walther, 2006). Within this context, YOUNG_ADULLLT aimed at examining to what extent policies recognise the vastly diverse living conditions of young adults across (p.10) Europe, and their plurality in terms of youth cultures, life styles, life projects, professional choices and trajectories in the labour market, in particular with reference to gender, migration and other dynamics (Nilsen et al, 2012; Field, 2013). Thus, this theoretical perspective invites us to consider the young adults themselves, their diverse living conditions, their life projects as well as whether their perceptions and expectations are taken into account by policies. In conclusion, a multi-level perspective on life courses aims at addressing the challenge of placing life courses in a range of wider contexts, from the local/regional to the European level. This is particularly challenging considering the comparative approach of the YOUNG_ADULLLT project, together with the multidimensionality, uncertainty and destandardisation of contemporary life courses. The following section deals with the governance perspective.
In order to support young adults in precarious situations who are often experiencing difficult transitions from schooling to the labour market, a great number of LLL policies, programmes and initiatives have been set up across different administrative levels, from the local to the European. These policies, however, have been subject to review and recurrent criticism in policy debates regarding their fragmentation and ineffectiveness. Such claims state the lack of coordination among policies is the result of their inefficiency. The interrelations relevant for the policies to be most effective include actors, that is, relevant stakeholders, system levels, modes of coordination as well as the cooperation between different policy sectors (e.g. education policies, social youth policies and labour market policies). The degree of interrelation is complex and multilayered, thus revealing the need for effective and efficient coordination among policies as they have a great impact on economic growth and social inclusion. A particular result of LLL policies is the enabling of their target groups, young adults, to enter the labour market successfully. As a theoretical perspective, governance provides a useful lens to frame the aforementioned phenomena as it recognises important shifts in perspective within the political field (Rhodes, 1997; Pierre and Peters, 2000; Benz, 2004). These shifts in perspective refer to the coordination of social activities for which traditionally terms such as ‘steering’, ‘governing’, ‘control’ and ‘interdependence’ had hitherto been preferred. In the social sciences, governance indicates a significant shift in perspective, ‘namely from actor-centeredness to an emphasis on regulatory structures’ (p.11) (Schuppert, 2006: 374, own translation). Renate Mayntz refers to governance as comprising all forms in which public and private actors, separately or jointly, aim to produce common goods and services and solve collective problems. In her opinion, ‘Governance means the sum of all concurrent forms of collective regulation of social issues: from the institutionalized self-regulation of the civil society, through the diverse forms of cooperation among state and private actors, up to the action of sovereign state agents’ (2004: 66, own translation; see also Mayntz, 2009; Bevir, 2011). This perspective helps us to address issues of coordination of action among the different agents within the state, the economy, the labour market, civil society and, not least, young people. In other words, governance offers us a conceptual tool to understand the interactions of different actors, at the different levels, and with different mandates, competences and varying degrees of leverage power at their disposal.
In conclusion, it is worth noting that all theoretical approaches have their own blind spots and reflect a selective view of reality and of social relationships. For this reason, complementary theoretical perspectives were chosen to shed light on selected aspects and processes on the three thematic entry points. Thus, by adopting these theoretical lenses the primary goal was to enquire about the complicated and intertwined relations that accompany the processes of formulation and implementation of LLL policies under concrete local and regional conditions. The following section presents the adopted design and discusses the methodological requirements and decisions taken.
Multi-level comparative analysis: methodological discussion
The different conceptual and theoretical perspectives of the research object previously discussed as a multi-level analytical framework were translated into a methodological perspective and research strategy using a set of combined methods and procedures for collecting and analysing data.
In the following section, we describe the research strategy of the project as a multi-method and multi-level approach and explain the implications for the methodology and the analysis, including their implementation. The contextualisation of each object of research in global/national/regional/local cultural traditions and conceptions was taken into account in our international comparative research approach, which aimed at assessing the possibilities and limitations of comparing different research sites within the European landscape.
The focus of the YOUNG_ADULLLT research brings to attention the interrelation of LLL policies and young adults in different realities across Europe. Departing from such a complex conceptualisation of the issues requires a research strategy that combines various theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches in a comparative multilevel analysis. In terms of theoretical conceptualisation, the different entry points illustrated represent different analytical dimensions of the research object, as discussed in the previous section.
In terms of methodology, adequately taking into account the various dimensions of the research object implied discerning different analytical levels – individual, structural and institutional – which in turn entails using different – qualitative and quantitative – methods to address the various research questions. For example, capturing young adults’ perceptions of underlying social expectations of LLL policies is best achieved by means of qualitative methods such as biographical narrative interviewing. Accounting for the diverse living conditions of young people in their specific regional/local area is most adequately realised by means of quantitative data analyses. Figure 1.1 illustrates these different thematic entry points and relates them to the different analytical dimensions of the research object at hand.
In the following paragraphs, we describe the application of a multi-method and multi-level approach and explain the ensuing methodological and analytical implications. Methodological issues are highlighted, including the research design and its implementation, followed by methods applied at each level. The embeddedness of the research object in its global/national/regional/local cultural traditions and conceptions is taken into account in the international comparative research approach, providing a methodological reflection of the comparative approach.
The multi-method approach is described according to the three phases of the research process. In doing so, we start from the multi-method approach, first, by outlining its implementation in the project; second, explaining the characteristics and advantages of the multi-method approach; and third, specifying the implementation of the methods. Finally, we describe how the multi-level approach draws together the different phases of the research.
First, the launching, conceptualisation and policy-mapping phase is used to clarify the research objectives and design a common research framework, ensuring the latter’s compliance with ethical standards and codes of good conduct. The mapping and analysing of the LLL policy field on a national and international level provides sensible indicators for the analysis of national and regional LLL policy strategies. Second comes a data collection, treatment and analysis phase comprising a quantitative analysis of young adults’ living conditions, qualitative research with young adults and a comparative analysis of skills’ demand and supply in conjunction with the labour market. These are followed by regional/local case studies, analysing and bringing together policies and policy-making, including data and results from the previous empirical phase (see Introduction, in this
(p.14) volume). Third, a comparative analysis, reporting and policy phase draws together empirical results from the previous phases for comparative cross-case and cross-national analyses as well as the preparation and implementation of policy roundtables in each participating country, in order to produce European/national/regional/local briefing papers and disseminate the project’s findings via a thorough communication and publication strategy.
These phases of the research process are implemented according to a specific use of methods, data collection and their analysis. As discussion of methods is central for the scope of the research object, the subsequent paragraphs discuss the applied mixed-methods approach in depth, followed by its implementation as part of YOUNG_ADULLLT.
Mixed methods combines different types of methods and different types of data (Brannen, 2005: 4) and is defined as a procedure of data collection and analysis that combines or ‘mixes’ quantitative as well as qualitative data in a single study (Johnson and Onwuegbuzie, 2004; Teddlie and Tashakkori, 2009). The combination of different data within one study is based on the assumption that singling out one method is not sufficient to answer a specific research question. Hence, an integration of methods is required when the research question itself is rather complex, and different kinds of data are needed to answer it (Teddlie and Tashakkori, 2009: 29). When using both quantitative and qualitative methods in combination, they mutually complement one another and combining their strengths leads to a rather robust analysis.
Mixed methods offer a practical alternative and logic of approach that encompasses the various strengths of qualitative and quantitative research methods for a ‘needs-based’ or ‘problem-solving’ approach (cf Johnson and Onwuegbuzie, 2004: 17; Teddlie and Tashakkori, 2009: 3). This approach goes beyond traditional discussions of selecting research methods for designing and conducting research, as these mostly focus on the duality of qualitative and quantitative approaches.
As both approaches have strengths, mixing and combining their advantages for capturing phenomena in a more comprehensive way is the aim of the mixed-methods approach, bridging the schism between qualitative and quantitative research (Johnson and Onwuegbuzie, 2004: 15). Mixed methods are rooted in the tenets of pragmatism led by a consideration of how well the methodology works when solving given problems (Johnson and Onwuegbuzie, 2004: 18). The focus on the more practical side of research emphasises the idea of finding workable solutions and the practical consequences that result from approaching rather complex research questions with a combination of methods (Johnson and Onwuegbuzie, 2004: 15ff). This ‘practical enquiry’ as an (p.15) outcome of mixed-method research allows us ‘to address the needs of research stakeholders and users’ (Brannen, 2005: 4) when elucidating the (mis)matches of policy strategies and their implementation at a regional/local level.
Instead of focusing on the predominant position of one method – and therefore on a paradigm linked to a specific research culture – Glaser and Strauss (1967) emphasise the inevitable link between the methods and the researched questions: ‘Primacy depends only on the circumstances of research, on the interests and training of the researcher, and on the kinds of material he [sic] needs for his theory’ (18). As a consequence of these rather complex interrelations of competing paradigms, methods and research cultures, pragmatism offers a middle position between the opposing poles in combining confirmatory and explanatory questions (Teddlie and Tashakkori, 2009: 26) and thus a way beyond research dogmatism. This logic of approach stresses the importance of combining multiple approaches for answering research questions in a comprehensive manner (Johnson and Onwuegbuzie, 2004: 17).
Departing from this mixed-method approach and its implementation in the different sub-studies of the research requires not only a design that encompasses different analytical levels (individual, structural and institutional) and their respective preferred different methods, it also entails conceptualising them as multi-level. A multi-level approach allows us to recognise and account for ‘naturally occurring nested, or hierarchical, structures’ (Teddlie and Tashakkori, 2009: 156). In YOUNG_ADULLLT, the entry points at different levels are nested within other levels, for instance, analysing processes of de-standardisation for young adults is framed by socioeconomic and political conditions as well as within institutions. Therefore, from a methodological perspective, this multi-level approach aims at accounting for the interplay of macro structures, regional environments, local institutions and individual expectations, life plans and the informal competences of the addressees of the policies.
As a result, our research used different methods on different levels to capture the complexity of the multidimensional approach with qualitative as well as quantitative data collection and analysis. It aimed at revealing the perspectives of different stakeholders and needs of young adults by means of interviewing experts from policy, employment and training as well as young adults themselves (collecting qualitative data). Moreover, this data was embedded in context-specific information on the macro and micro level from participating countries, such as the socioeconomic conditions and specific living conditions (p.16) of young adults. The mixed-method approaches applied prioritise qualitative methods, which are supplemented with quantitative data; thus complementary qualitative and quantitative data were collected.
The incorporation of the different methods in a complementary approach results in a juxtaposition, which generates paired insights as data from the different methods enhance each other (Brannen, 2005: 12). In contrast, triangulation, an often referred to advantage of mixing methods, aims to validate or corroborate different sources of data in order to understand the same phenomenon from different points of view (Brannen, 2005: 12). The various entry points were used to understand different phenomena interwoven with our research object by approaching them from different points of view. In order to do so, the incorporation of mixed methods at the different levels occurred at two specific moments during the integration of the approach: at the experiential (methodological/analytical) stage and at the inferential stage (cf Teddlie and Tashakkori, 2009: 145f).
According to the multi-level mixed-method approach, two stages of data integration were implemented in our research. First, an integration of different data as a process of exchange between the different sub-studies at the experiential stage. At this stage, complementary data that were collected and analysed separately with the aim of ensuring that the different dimensions of the research object were captured. Second, the integration of results into case studies and into sub-studies oriented by comparative case-study methodology at the inferential stage. Here, integration of methods/data was implemented to show the interlinkages among results yielded in the previous research steps. Comparative case studies aim at providing more abstract and generalisable explanations in a theory-generating approach by analysing policy patterns in selected cases as well as the structural relationships, functional matching(s) and specific embedding of LLL policies in regional contexts (see also Chapters 2 and 11, in this volume).
In sum, the multi-level mixed-method approach adopted allowed us to explore the impact of LLL policies on young people in the participating countries, analysing the embedding of these policies in the local and regional frameworks of education, training and the labour markets with particular attention to actors and networks, dynamics, trends, (mis)matches and redundancies.
The conceptual and methodological choices enabled researchers to sharpen their focus on relevant aspects of the analyses and have (p.17) helped to avoid redundant work. Importantly, beyond the intended effects, they have also indirectly stimulated further theoretical and methodological considerations.
In terms of the operationalisation, careful conceptualisation of the study inspired researchers to explore new connections between LLL and more global institutional and structural contexts in which LLL is embedded. For instance, research on policy in education and training has traditionally used the nation state as its primary unit of analysis, distinguishing different national institutional specificities, cultures, traditions and structures in education/training, labour market organisation, economy/industry–education/training relations and so on. More recently, however, with changing realities brought about by processes such as internationalisation, Europeanisation and globalisation, the usefulness of static and absolute concepts for explaining our social world, such as the nation state, has been challenged. Against this background, searching for more dynamic units of analysis represented an important task in accounting for a high degree of complexity in the analyses in order to provide accurate information and useful results, as well as for policy-making (see Chapter 2, in this volume). This also involved a discussion of how young people’s living conditions are assessed in policy-making (see Chapter 9, in this volume).
Enquiring into the tension between agency and structure has equally raised important questions regarding the integration of young adults’ voices in policy formulation, the extent to which young adults interiorise societal values in their agency and, conversely, the extent to which this agency is shaped by the discourse surrounding LLL (for instance, employability and vulnerability) and with what consequences (see Chapters 3, 6 and 7, in this volume). Overall, adopting a mix of theoretical perspectives and their correspondent methodologies has proved essential in strengthening the odds of unearthing more mundane, context-specific knowledge about how young adults navigate the troubled waters of LLL between knowledge and the economy.
In conclusion, the theoretical and methodological choices made have implications for questions as to the feasibility and desirability of transferring these local/regional practices and patterns of policymaking to other settings. Policy transfer or policy learning has become a popular approach in European policy-making, that is, ‘a purposeful adoption of policies that have succeeded in other places’ (Jacobi, 2012: 393). If, as we have suggested, LLL policies are highly context-specific and therefore best understood in their regional/local (p.18) context, the notion of ‘policy transfer’ is at least questionable. Since LLL policies have been devised for specific contexts, it follows that transfer is highly likely to produce very different outcomes, or even unintended effects in other settings. Instead of aiming to identify one-size-fits-all ‘best practices’ with regard to LLL policy-making that might be ‘transferred’ across Europe, the focus on regional and local LLL policy-making at the functional region level suggests that it is preferable to detect different patterns of policy-making and identify specific conditions, strategies and necessities for LLL policies to become effective. In addition, the comparative cross-case and cross-national analyses of mismatches, dysfunctionalities and redundancies aim at providing new general insights into the structural relationships, functional matchings and specific forms of embedding of LLL policies in the regional economy and labour markets. Thus, identifying local and contextualised ‘good practices’ is useful for developing a set of more general indicators and parameters – in the sense of a reflexive tool (as opposed to a technocratic one) – for policy makers, which will help them improve coordinated LLL policy-making in their regional/local contexts.
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