NCVER Conference highlights future directions in VET

The National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) annual conference has highlighted future directions in Australian vocational education and training (VET). This year’s conference – held in Adelaide in early July – included a number of sessions showcasing the achievements and position of Australian adult and community education providers. 

Minister Michaelia Cash speech

In her Conference opening, Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash, Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business, said that the Australian Government will undertake a “co-design” approach with key stakeholders in developing the new National Skills Commission that will oversee the country’s VET sector. The Government’s skills policy agenda would “promote a national approach to skills development and enhance the role of industry in designing training packages.” The National Skills Commission was a key recommendation of the Joyce Review. (See CCA’s submission to the Review here.)

Minister Cash also said departmental projections show that seven out of the ten fastest growing occupations have a VET qualification pathway. 

Community Colleges Australia presentations

CCA’s CEO, Dr Don Perlgut, and Policy Manager, Evelyn Goodwin, both made presentations at the conference: Dr Perlgut and Ms Goodwin presented about CCA’s Western Sydney regional economic development project.

Evelyn Goodwin assisted Associate Professor Lisel O’Dwyer with a report on the NCVER survey undertaken of foundation skills activities of community education providers in regional and rural Australia, which is sponsored by CCA.

Highlights of the Western Sydney presentation included:

  • Selections from “Train Trip to Guildford”, the iconic 1975 song about Western Sydney’s transport disadvantage by the late Australian folk-singer John Dengate (see image below)
  • Summary of the dramatic population growth in the region, combined with a 200,000 jobs deficit for residents
  • Major new developments of the Parramatta CBD – unique in Australia as the only major city with a second CBD – and the Badgerys Creek Airport
  • The large number of post-secondary education precincts in development
  • The extensive reach of Western Sydney community education providers in Western Sydney, operating from almost 150 locations
  • The unparalleled ability of Western Sydney community providers to engage with learners who are from non-English speaking backgrounds, are older (age 45+), have a disability or are from lower socio-economic backgrounds
  • Opportunities to expand outreach services where TAFE no longer provides

Important findings from the NCVER rural foundation skills survey included:

  • Almost half of all providers reported that it has become more difficult to deliver foundation skills in the last three years
  • The primary reason for this is insufficient and insecure funding, but also playing a part are enrolment processes and compliance requirements
  • The major barriers for students accessing foundation skills are personal issues such as lack of confidence and anxiety, lack of awareness that courses are available, availability of childcare and – most notably in regional areas – learning disabilities, lack of transport, no internet access and drug use
  • The primary motivation for undertaking foundation skills is to gain employment, with facilitating further study not far behind
  • Most students complete their foundation skills courses

Student choice and lifelong learning

Another important presentation came from Dr Don Zoellner, former Pro-Vice Chancellor for Community and Access at Charles Darwin University. In his paper, Dr Zoellner examined the result of the progressive implementation of national competition and contestable market policies (increased “user choice”) in Australian VET since the mid-1990s.

Dr Zoellner noted that “the introduction of training packages in 1999 allowed VET qualifications to be commoditised in order to facilitate the operations of training markets”. His paper analysed data to determine if the promotion of lifelong learning through the introduction of VET “user choice” has produced the intended benefits and outcomes.

The paper quotes the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA, PDF), which states: “A common view of the future for workers is that they will need a ‘genuine commitment to lifelong learning’ because ‘jobs of intermediate value are at high risk’ of being replaced by technology, therefore requiring retraining to enable workers ‘to transition to higher value, more skilled jobs’ or moving to the ‘low value jobs [that] will continue to be performed’.”

Dr Zoellner concluded that “user choice” has disadvantaged regional and rural areas as well as lower socio-economic learners. Key points:

  • State and territory governments’ entitlement guarantees have not produced the desired commitment of the Australian population to lifelong learning by accessing the national training system. On the other hand, the introduction of greater range of providers through the creation of a VET market has been accomplished.
  • There has not been an expansion of VET occupations or qualifications, with quite similar qualifications being used for the past 20 years.
  • There has been a substantial decline in government-funded VET nationally: this is most notable outside metropolitan areas, with inner regional, outer regional, remote and very remote areas all showing much greater percentage declines in government-funded VET students than the major cities. This was paralleled by a proportionate increase in metropolitan-based providers over regional and rural providers, further reducing opportunities for regional and rural students.
  • Lower socio-economic groups have incurred a disproportionate loss of student numbers engaged in the formal training system, with the lowest two disadvantaged quintiles (the bottom 40%) suffering a much greater loss than the highest two advantaged quintiles (the top 40%).

“The reality of the situation is that training providers have retreated to the major cities,” Dr Zoellner said. In late 2018, Victoria had 1014 training providers headquartered in the state; of these, 889 (88%) were located in major cities (including Geelong), 110 (10.8%) in inner regional areas, 15 (1.5%) in outer regional areas and none in remote areas. “Overall of the 777 private for-profit providers located in Victoria only 65 (8.3%) are located outside the major cities.”

Dr Zoellner concludes that outside of metro Melbourne or one of the larger regional cities, “the VET market is not offering the choice of provider that became the foundation stone for the marketisation of VET enshrined in public training policy since the early 1990s.”

Dr Zoellner will expand on his presentation at CCA’s Annual Conference in Brisbane in November.

(image below: album cover of John Dengate’s “Australian Son” album)

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