EU-funded vocational training and advice programmes in rural areas cost too much to run, often duplicate existing programmes and favour established training providers, according to a new report from the European Court of Auditors. The auditors’ report identifies poor management procedures by the Member States and insufficient supervision by the European Commission.
While farming remains central to rural economies, EU rural development policy also focuses on revitalising rural areas through vocational education, training and knowledge transfer. The EU supports rural training and advice projects through the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. For the 2007-2013 period 2007-2013, €1.3 bn was set aside for these activities. Member States’ co-financing brought total public support to €2.2 bn. For 2014-2020, the amount may exceed €4 bn.
The EU auditors assessed whether the Commission and the Member States had adequate management and control systems in place. They visited five Member States; Spain (Galicia), Austria, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom (England), covering more than 65% of relevant expenditure.
Overall, the auditors found that the management of the training was not sufficient. Member States relied too much on trainers’ proposals and considered any type of training as ‘good’ and eligible for public funding. Insufficient analysis of the proposals risked financing irrelevant activities and duplicating training activities readily available. Some training supported was 10 times more expensive than equivalent courses already available.
“Training should respond to identified needs and be provided at a reasonable cost by qualified and experienced trainers,” said Mr Jan Kinšt, the Member of the Court of Auditors responsible for the report. “But too often this is simply not happening.”
The auditors also noted that a lack of fair and transparent selection meant long-standing and well-established providers were recurrently selected and received most of the funding. In Austria, certain providers had privileged access to relevant information when preparing training proposals. In Poland, the grant award system systematically favoured long-standing providers. In Sweden and Spain, much of the training was delivered by the administration without justifying the exclusion of private-sector trainers.
Project applications often lacked sufficient detail to allow a meaningful assessment of costs in relation to the activities planned. Nevertheless, the national authorities indicated in their checklists that the costs had been checked.
Examples of Member States paying too much included: payments not reduced when the actual number of participants was lower than planned, payments made on the basis of unreliable attendance lists, and costs claimed which were very much higher than the amounts actually paid to subcontractors. Available information, such as direct feedback from participants, was seldom used to assess the quality of the services provided, while only rather simplistic indicators such as the number of persons trained or the number of training days financed were collected.
The report recommends that Member States should select training activities that respond to skills needs identified through a recurrent analysis, and should avoid the risk of the selection process becoming provider-driven. They should improve their assessment of the qualifications and experience of training providers and assess the need to support activities that are readily available on the market at a reasonable price.
Training and advice providers should not only provide information on participants’ satisfaction, but also test whether they have actually learned what they were supposed to.