In the following opinion article, Jennifer Aldred discusses how Australia’s vocational education and training (VET) system needs to keep pace with the changing nature of work, and how adult and community education (ACE) providers are well-qualified to provide the diverse forms of training that NCVER advocates in its new paper Workforce-ready: challenges and opportunities for VET.
One thing has characterised the world of paid work since the first technological boom of the 1970’s: its lack of certainty. Since then, the booms and busts created by technological innovation and economic globalisation have tested our capacity to anticipate the skills required for uninterrupted employment. Now, in the COVID era, this challenge has become greater.
Australia’s vocational education and training (VET) is set to take a leading role in restoring our economy and re-modelling the university sector. How it will rise to the occasion will require strong, engaged leadership and effective public policy development. How it will address the public interest remains to be seen.
Despite its many flaws, our VET system is a good model to have at this time. Through a (mainly) cooperative approach by the Federal, state and territory governments, and with considerable investment in its constant review and renewal, it provides the leverage to create, fund and largely control the skills environment and shape the labour market.
Along the way, however, Government has lost interest in the work skills training that takes place across the nation which sits outside the VET system. Data is hard to find. Most adult community education (ACE) providers would agree this has been a great loss to the system and to the work of the ACE sector. Of the many strengths we have in ACE, that which comes readily to mind is the principle of learning as a continuum and the value of education attainment – whether credentialed or not – in securing personal, economic and social progress.
There is no question that our system of certification is extremely important – those entering or re-entering the labour market must be fully equipped to undertake the tasks required to win – then undertake – a job. Initiatives such as the Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow package recognise that ‘Our fast-moving world will need flexible and applied ways of learning, so people can lay strong foundations for their careers and then build further skills and knowledge throughout life to participate in new and changing industries’.
Within this framework, the newly-created National Skills Commission has the job of forecasting labour market needs to inform funding priorities, a task made more taxing with the impact of the pandemic. Questions arise though about how fast-moving our VET system itself needs to keep pace. Also, of the logic of differentiating, rather than integrating, accredited and non-accredited learning for life long and time relevant skills acquisition.
In my ACE organisation, operating primarily in inner and central Sydney, the vast majority of residents and workers are already work qualified, often to a high level and multiple times. Yet each year many hundreds of them enter our employment-related, non-accredited courses, whether in anticipation, or as a result, of the conditions that undermine employment. Indeed, the Australian Taxation Office recognises the contribution of the ACE sector in non-accredited skills learning and development in its guidelines to determine course GST applicability. Many thousands also enter our other non-accredited courses to explore opportunities during a lull in their career or when contemplating another one. To demonstrate the point, one student of our college, a qualified sociologist, became a jewellery maker after attending multiple courses in that skill. What she thought could be a ‘hobby’ became a business. She actively sells online. Another, an office worker, chose to enter art school and is now a practising sculptor. What she thought was an ‘interest’ in creative arts lessons became a new vocation. We need to dig deeper to know and understand the motivations of adult learners who look to ACE to develop new talents. The results can be surprising.
In the National Centre for Vocational Education Research’s (NCVER) recently released paper Workforce-ready: challenges and opportunities for VET there is a call to arms to embrace ‘the concept of lifelong learning’, the very bedrock of ACE: “…lifelong learning is the key to successfully entering, navigating and changing jobs and careers.” (p.11)
Further, VET alone cannot do this:
“Creating a culture of lifelong learning requires a collaborative response from industry, government and the tertiary education sector and needs flexible pathways, along with offerings that can be individually tailored to navigate the world of work.” (p. 11)
Where is ACE in that list, when it is so well qualified to provide the ‘diverse forms of training’ the NCVER argues are required for Australia to meet the challenges and needs of an unknown future? We need to be part of this debate.
Jennifer Aldred is Senior Manager, Finance and Funded Programmes at Sydney Community College. She is also the Manager of SCC’s Registered Training Organisation. She also holds a Master of Public Policy (USyd) and Master of Legal Studies (UNSW), and is a member of CCA’s Board of Directors.