Narrow VET training sells students short

| July 1, 2019

Vocational education is traditionally supposed to train people in the skills they need for specific jobs, but what happens in a fast-changing world when those jobs disappear and we can’t even know for sure what the future jobs will be?

According to Associate Professor Leesa Wheelahan, an international vocational education and training expert, Australia’s narrow focus on specific work place skills is short-changing students and is a key reason why our scandal-ridden training sector is in crisis.

In a startling statistic, she points out that last year a full two-thirds of vocational education and training graduates were working in occupations that weren’t directly associated with their qualification.

Associate Professor Wheelahan says it is a clear signal Australia’s market-driven training system, in which private and public providers compete for funding to deliver off-the-shelf training course as cheaply as possible, isn’t working.

TAFE courses need to be broader if they are to better prepare students for future workforce needs. 

“What is the point of tying training to workplace tasks and roles when graduates don’t work in those roles? It means the first objective of VET, which is to align with the needs of the workplace, simply isn’t being met,” Associate Professor Wheelahan, the William G. Davis Chair in Community College Leadership at the University of Toronto, told a recent seminar at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

An expert on the Australian system and an honorary senior fellow at the University of Melbourne’s LH Martin Institute, Associate Professor Wheelahan said Australia’s VET sector was “broken.”

Trust had been undermined, she said, noting that last year the Commonwealth’s own Education Department had admitted to a Senate committee that one-third of new VET students who had obtained student loans weren’t getting a quality education.

“The point of VET isn’t to create a market for profit. The point is to create nationally trusted qualifications and to do that we need strong institutions that can create and deliver these qualifications,” Professor Wheelahan said.

She argued that the solution is to refocus funding away from the private sector and invest more in publicly-funded TAFEs, which she said are among the only institutions with the capacity to develop their own courses, as universities do, that can be better tailored to future workforce needs.

Associate Professor Wheelahan said current training courses focused on narrow competency based training that educates workers for largely routine and supervised roles, rather than training them to be proactive and versatile.

She said the system is wasteful and expensive as it leads to thousands of different qualifications, many of which only attract handful of students. Unbelievably, she said over half the publicly funded VET courses in Australia each attract less than 50 students a year.

“Competency based training fragments knowledge and skills and provides students only with access to specific applications of knowledge, leading to an emphasis on procedural knowledge and supervised workers.”

Instead she wants training to refocus on enhancing the capabilities of students by developing courses attuned to broader fields rather than narrow occupations. For example rather that having specific courses in aged care, disability care and drug and alcohol care, students should do training in care work more broadly, equipping them to move easily between areas.

Many VET courses currently only attract a small number of students. 

“What we need are vocational streams linked to occupations that share common vocational practices and knowledge that can allow graduates to move around occupations,” she said. “The teachers of electrical trade apprentices should be thinking about what the latest insights in engineering mean for the way electrical trade work will change in five years time.”

She said the Canadian province of Ontario had a strong and trusted network of vocational colleges partly because the colleges have responsibility for developing their own courses, in consultation with business, local communities and professional accreditation bodies.

“We need qualifications that are based on minimum standards, but beyond that institutions must be required to develop their own qualifications, which can then be accredited by professional bodies or by industry.”

Associate Professor Wheelahan says a move could force about 2,000 small private providers out of the system “overnight” because only large providers like TAFE would have the capability to produce their own trusted courses that the sector now needs. “That would be a good thing.’’

She said the policy push nationwide to open up public VET funding to the market had “decimated” TAFE and led to massive government funding cuts.

Associate Professor Wheelahan pointed out that real government recurrent expenditure on actual per student teaching hours in VET fell by a massive 31.5 per cent between 2005 and 2014.

Over a similar period, total government spending on VET had been almost flat at $6.3 billion a year, when spending on schools had risen from $33 billon to $41 billion, and spending on universities had rise from $16.5 billion to $23.4 billion.

“Vocational education is the only sector of education in which funding cuts are regarded as an efficiency gain and not a crisis in quality,” she said. “Just imagine if these cuts had been imposed on the schools sector or the higher education sector? There would have been uproar.”

She noted that since 2009, TAFE’s share of the student market across the country had fallen from over 80 per cent to just 50 per cent, while the share of private providers had soared from less than 15 per cent to almost 46 per cent.

Speaking at the seminar, LH Martin Institute Director, Professor Leo Goedegebuure, backed Professor Wheelahan’s call for Australia’s VET policy to refocus more on TAFE and to give them more power to develop their own qualifications.

“The only thing that is going to work when the future is unpredictable and involves enormous change, is having strong autonomous institutions,” he said.

Professor Goedegebuure said there was overwhelming evidence that open markets simply don’t work in education and that the push to marketising VET had been driven by ideology rather than evidence.

“For a market to work in education you need to have government playing a role as the regulator of the market, and that has been absent,” Professor Goedegebuure said.

This article was published by Pursuit.