In preparation for its “No Frills” online conference this week, the NCVER has released a discussion paper entitled Past Informing the Future, by Joanne Waugh. The paper reflects on key developments in VET’s past and how they have shaped the sector’s approach to enduring issues such as VET’s purpose, national harmonisation, and quality.
“Our past informs our future,” the paper says. “It achieves this in two ways: first, by providing the context in which we make decisions, and by delivering the various experiences that enable us to discover what does and does not work.”
CCA’s Evelyn Goodwin and Dr Don Perlgut are presenting at day one of the conference about how Australian ACE providers have been impacted by COVID-19, with a focus on the forced move to online learning.
CCA recommends that all members and stakeholders read the NCVER paper, from which we extract below.
At the heart of VET lies a tension created by the competing purposes it is called upon to fulfil. Increasingly, VET has become viewed as a mechanism for delivering skilled workers for industry and as fitting into a framework of broader economic policy. However, these employment outcome aims have always been intertwined with the undeniable needs of individuals to explore career options, have a second chance at developing educational foundations and develop flexible, agile skill sets, which enable them to face a continuously changing employment landscape. VET receives the least amount of funding of all the educational sectors, but a great deal is asked from it: that it respond to industry, individual and community needs, all within a nationally agreed, yet state/territory-administered, system — and all this while it is employed as a tool in education, health and social services, and economic policy.
In the context of being a tool for skilling workers, the need for VET to be ‘industry-informed’ has dominated the qualification development model in the last 20 years or more. Industry’s input to training standards is important in ensuring the relevance of the skills acquired, but the commentary on VET’s supposed failure to deliver the breadth of skills and knowledge required suggests that there are limitations to an industry-centred, consensus-driven model for the development of training standards.
VET’s Social Role
VET’s other purpose can be less straightforward to measure and relates to the social benefits VET delivers to students and communities — as a context in which individuals have a second chance to acquire foundation skills, meet new people and find supporters, gain confidence, and identify new opportunities. VET’s role in mitigating disadvantage is evident in the share of Australia’s vulnerable population it serves, with research showing that nations with smaller gaps between the most and least vulnerable enjoy greater economic stability and wealth. One key advantage of VET has been its supported learning environment, one that provides opportunities to those who struggled in the traditional school setting.
A second-chance education pathway is a vital component in lifelong learning and in tackling socioeconomic disadvantage; however, this opportunity hasn’t been accessible to all who might benefit. Various programs and policies to address access and equity in VET have been targeted at a wide range of cohorts experiencing barriers to education, including women, Indigenous people, people living in rural and remote areas, those from low-income areas, prisoners preparing for community re-integration, and refugees and migrants.
VET has long lacked a unified voice. ANTA’s reign stands out as a relatively cohesive period, but since that time Australia has lacked a single coordination point and an abiding vision for vocational education. Despite this legacy, ANTA was never able to realise one of its key mandates: to manage the allocation of VET funding provided by the states and territories…. The national VET regulator has been in place since 2011, yet the persistence of state-based regulators suggests that national harmonisation is still a difficult goal to realise.
Marketisation of VET
One important factor in VET’s story has been the shift towards marketisation, whereby governments have deliberately sought to reduce the traditional monopoly of TAFE institutes and provide greater choice to students through the establishment of contestable government-funded training markets…. These reforms have in part stimulated significant growth in the number of private registered training organisations (currently around 4500 RTOs), with TAFE’s share of the VET market declining.
The underlying philosophy that has guided governments is that competition leads to greater efficiency through lower costs while encouraging quality and choice. In practice, however, despite some clear benefits to students and industry, there have been a number of large market failures, most notably, the disastrous VET-FEE HELP program. In a functional market, providers who deliver excellent training at a fair market price should be the most attractive option for students and employers. However, as VET-FEE HELP demonstrated, the sector still needs to grapple with the lessons learned so far, including how to ensure students and employers are sufficiently informed and empowered to make appropriate choices.
Clarifying and balancing VET’s purposes, embedding equitable access and coordinating system functions are all features that influence the ultimate quality of training and assessment, ‘quality’ itself also being the subject of many VET reviews…. The continued drive towards a market-driven VET system has raised questions about how consumers can judge the quality of VET providers and their offerings. The Joyce review (Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet 2019) recommended reforms to ‘strengthen ASQA and quality assurance’, but that will do little to improve the public’s ability to select courses based on quality. Implementing a website that publishes provider outcomes is one solution offered, but such a website needs to first tackle the issue of how to track and report provider outcomes in a fair and insightful way.
In the age of social media we know that ‘quality’ often relates to how a product or service is perceived. For a nation that loves to support an underdog, Australia is surprisingly neglectful of the education sector that provides a pathway for early school leavers and those not academically inclined. History shows that VET has delivered skills crucial to Australia’s prosperity, including during, and in the recovery from, the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is worth examining what part the perception of VET plays in framing its ‘issues’ and their solutions. While VET is often held responsible for industry discontent with the availability of skilled workers, its positive contributions remain relatively unacknowledged.