There is more than one path

The process of developing youth work education and training is as diverse as youth work itself. Our research showed that the creation of formal educational opportunities for youth workers in Estonia, Ireland, North Macedonia and Wales followed very different paths, but ones that aligned the overall development of youth work. There is no magical formula that one can apply in any context, but there is a variety of paths to choose from, according to the socio-political and economic circumstances. 

The “How to” section of this page describes the most common approaches for initiating formal educational programs in higher education. Within that section, we matched those descriptions with existing study programs in the studied countries, and we found that in most cases it was the universities themselves that initiated the program creation. In one case in Estonia, the initiative came directly from the government. And in the case of North Macedonia, the first study program for youth workers, albeit unsuccessful, was at least to some extent initiated by a civil society organization.

Upon carefully analysing the development of youth work in each country, one can understand why the exact scenarios unfolded. In Ireland and Wales, at the time when the first programs were established, youth work had already achieved high level of recognition and there was already demand for professional youth workers. The programs were preceded by governmental strategies, reports, formation of bodies tasked with developing youth work, adoption of competency frameworks and occupational standards, introducing serious public funding schemes, and other preconditions. Both countries also had a strong sector of youth work practitioners, which in many cases was involved in the mentioned processes alongside governmental bodies. All those actions by different stakeholders created conditions that enabled, and in some cases required the establishing of study programs in higher education. From there, it was the universities that recognised the momentum and started offering programs that responded to the existing needs. 

The situation was very different in Estonia, where the government wanted to introduce a completely new approach to youth work upon gaining independence from the Soviet Union. It was a top-down approach, in which the Ministry of Education and Culture’s youth department started negotiating with several universities with a view to developing a youth work qualification. This was followed by other measures of the government, directed at establishing and funding youth work. What came was a stark development of youth work over the next two decades, which in turn created a growing need for graduated youth workers. That need was recognised by universities, which started opening new and more diverse study programs in the field of youth work. At this point, the process resembles the situation in Ireland and Wales. 

North Macedonia is the only country studied in this project that does not have formal education for youth workers in higher education. The only trial for establishing an educational program can be considered an isolated event, led by an university and a civil society organisation. However, this process was not matched by any other steps for recognising youth work and its establishing as a graduate profession. Our analysis could not find any policies or strategies that supported the establishing formal youth work education. There was no occupational standard for youth workers at the time, and “youth worker” did not exist as an occupation nor as a profession. We also could not find any proofs for conducted assessment of needs for youth workers on the labour market. Hence, one can argue that the initiative came at a time when conditions were not yet formed for establishing youth work studies in higher education. 

Formal education for youth workers should be need-driven

Establishing formal youth work education in higher education should not be a goal by itself. Rather, youth work study programs usually come as a result of a long process aimed at recognition and development of youth work. The creation of youth work study programs responds to an already created need for educated youth workers, demonstrated by occupational standards, competence frameworks or other similar national level documents that define youth work as a mandatory degree-based qualification. Our analysis shows that universities recognise that need and, in most cases, they initiate the creation of corresponding youth work study programs. 

The first youth work study program in Estonia is an exception of that rule, as it preceded the other steps that lead towards youth work recognition. When the Ministry of Education and Culture’s youth department started negotiating with several universities to establish youth work qualification, the restructuring of youth work in Estonia was just starting. However, this was not an isolated process. The government of Estonia also formed the Department of Youth Affairs as a special department in the Ministry of Education and Research, and a number of national youth work strategies and plans were established by the early 2000s. The Estonian Youth Work Centre was established, National Occupational Standards for youth Workers were adopted, and hundreds of publicly funded youth centres were opened throughout the country. And even in the case of Estonia, most universities opposed the initial invitation by the government in 1991.

None of those measures were taken in North Macedonia when the University program for Leadership and Community Youth Work was established. This shows that a graduate study program for youth workers in the country was not only premature, but it also did not align governmental strategies in the youth field. Only 7 students graduated from this program, and they still cannot be formally recognised because youth work in North Macedonia does not exist as a profession. 

The recognition of youth work can be a very long process, as the case studies of Ireland and Wales show. Development of youth work was not always steady and throughout the years there were instances of stagnation and even regress, caused by changes in the socio-political and economic circumstances. Education and training of youth workers were inevitably affected by those developments, and study programs flourished or seized to exist accordingly. But all the way, training and education providers in both countries worked alongside policy makers and the youth work sector to ensure effective youth work training and education. 

Start with competences

A prerequisite for establishing youth work programs in higher education is the national level document that defines the competences for different profiles of youth workers – be it a quality framework, occupational/professional standards or something else. Practice shows that those documents are usually created in cooperation between policy makers, youth work practitioners and providers of training and education. If such document does not exist, have nothing to base their curricula on.   

Wales has a long history of youth and community workers’ qualifications. The UK Youth Work National Occupational Standards currently defines the competences required to carry out the functions of the youth work workforce, and the UK Subject Benchmark Statement for Youth and Community Work sets out the general expectations around standards for youth work degrees. The professional endorsement framework for youth work education and training in Ireland was established immediately after the adoption of the Youth Work Act (2001). The document is called National Quality Standards Framework. In Estonia, first an occupational standard was established, which offered a systemic approach to youth work training. The Youth Worker Professional Standard was developed in 2005, and universities adopted their curricula to it. 

While quality and competence standards are long present in countries with tradition in youth work, they still do not exist in other contexts. In North Macedonia, there were no standards when the first study program for youth workers was developed. Because of that, youth work could not be added to the national registry of occupations and professions, even after the first students of youth work graduated. Since 2018 there is an occupational standard for youth workers, and on its basis the first certified formal vocational training for youth workers was implemented in 2021. However, to establish a degree level education in the field of youth work, the stakeholders in North Macedonia would first have to create a professional qualification. Only once the qualification is adopted by the Ministry of Education, youth work can be registered as a profession. To assist this process, the Union for Youth Work has created a Portfolio for Youth Workers, which describes the key qualifications of all profiles of youth workers – vocational as well as professional ones.  

Build coalitions

Something that came quite strongly from the case studies gathered in this project is the value of cross-sectorial cooperation in developing youth work education and training. The analysis of examples showed that the development of effective youth work education and training requires collaboration between the state (and policy makers), the youth work sector and education and training providers.

The level of cooperation between actors from different sectors is higher in countries that have long tradition in youth work, such as Ireland and Wales. Youth work there has been strongly rooted in the volunteer and non-governmental sectors and consequently, in the beginning, youth work training was also driven by organisations and even individuals, rather than as a result of a national policy. The national governments got involved later on, bringing public support and funding, as well as standardisation and regulation. With that came the involvement of education and training providers, including universities – even though their influence has often been overshadowed by the youth work sector and government, and their actions were focused on balancing the needs and expectations of both sides.

The Compendium of educational opportunities for youth workers concludes that the relationship between the three sides should be one of creative tension, and that there are risks if the processes are dominated by one sector.  The case studies collected with this project outline some good examples of forms of collaboration that can facilitate those relationships, while bringing in one place the diverse perspectives and competencies of all three sides. 

In Wales, structured cross-sectorial cooperation dates back to the 1950s, when the Joint National Committee (JNC) for youth and community work was established. The JNC brings together representatives from youth work employers, with representatives of youth and community staff. Another example coming from Wales is the partnership between the Wales Youth Agency and three universities – even though this also created tensions and rivalries with other institutions. Estonia offers an example of a master’s program of the University of Tallinn that was created through a wide consultative process of various stakeholders. A working group of practitioners, scientists, officials and professionals were formed to discuss possible master curriculum. For opening the studies, discussions were held with the youth department of Ministry of Education and Research, Estonian Youth Work Centre, Youth Agency of Archimedes Foundation, Estonian Youth Workers Association, Estonian Scout Association, Estonian Youth Council, Sport and Youth Department of Tallinn, The Youth Work Service of Tartu, The Association of Estonian Cities and The Association of Estonian Rural Municipalities. Another program studied in this project was created through a cross-sectorial partnership. In Ireland, the level 8 certificate titled “European Youth Mobility Project Management” was created through a partnership between the Maynooth University and Leargas – the National Agency for Erasmus+ Programme. Both examples of graduate programs can be considered as innovations, which comes from the unique combinations of expertise brought by the different sides. 

Formal education is not the only option

It is important to note that the need for adequately educated youth workers does not have to be necessarily met by youth work studies in higher education. There are examples of countries where youth workers develop competencies through other forms of training and education, outside of universities. Even in the countries studied in this project, there are profiles of youth workers that earn their qualification in other ways. 

In Wales, degree level qualification is required only for the professionally qualified youth worker. Youth support workers can earn level 3 and level 2 certificates, which are offered by training providers on a local level. Similarly, in Ireland Youth support workers are required to have level 5 qualification, which can be obtained through an accredited one-year course. In Estonia, there is no requirement to be a qualified youth worker in order to run some types of youth work activities as a youth support worker. 

The introduction of formal education for youth workers in higher education brings its own challenges. In Wales, an example of such a challenge is the risk of creating or entrenching divisions between paid youth workers who, increasingly, are required to have professionally endorsed accreditation, and volunteer youth workers, who are not required to do so. Ensuring that study programs are accessible to potential students; balancing between theory and practice; and keeping youth work education up to date and relevant, are among the challenges that come with introducing youth work study programs in higher education. A careful consideration is needed of the pros and cons in the specific context when discussions of establishing formal education are launched. 

Standardised youth work trainings outside of formal education can be considered as an alternative to degree level courses. Even though outside of formal education, such courses can be the basis for earning national qualifications for youth work on a vocational level. Such courses are validated/accredited by bodies responsible for ensuring the quality of education. In Ireland, that is done by Quality and Qualifications Ireland; in Wales by the Joint Negotiating Committee for Youth & Community Workers; in North Macedonia by the Centre for Vocational Education of Adults.