The fractured social settlement in VET in Australia
25 September 2012, by Assoc Prof Leesa Wheelahan
Leesa Wheelahan is an associate professor at the LH Martin Institute and the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Leesa will be presenting at the upcoming conference on the future of mid-level qualifications, 25-26 October, Melbourne.
The Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency argues that Australia needs to increase productivity and workforce participation to maintain international economic competitiveness and increase social inclusion. The AWPA’s vision is that:
Australia’s growth potential is realised through a highly skilled and adaptable workforce where skills are used effectively to meet the increasingly complex needs of industry and individuals are able to fulfil their potential.
In its most recent discussion paper, the AWPA identifies the key factors that will realise this vision, such as effective deployment of skills at work, a forward looking education and training system that meets the needs of industry, proactive workplaces, high participation rates in learning and work, and tailored skill and workforce development that meets specific industry and regional needs. All this requires an increase in the number of people with post-school and higher level qualifications and more productive workplaces.
This is what we must do, how we do that is another question, and that requires a plan on how to get there. However, I’m not sure that we’ve got a plan that will work. We need a social consensus on who should do what and how they should do it. That’s where the plan breaks down, because the social settlement that underpins VET is fractured and while this remains the case, it will be very difficult to make progress.
The different purposes VET serves
The structure of VET, the way skill is envisaged, and the relationship between VET and work are always the outcome of a settlement between civil society (employers, labour and occupational groups), the state and educational institutions. My colleague Jack Keating (2008: 3) argued that power is not equally shared in this relationship and that the key relationship is between the state and civil society. This is particularly clear in VET where educational institutions have less autonomy than in the higher education or the schools sectors, both of which are supported by very powerful, often overlapping, interests. Elite schools and universities train the social elites, are embedded in them, and mobilise them when needed. VET doesn’t have friends like this; its relative lack of autonomy means that the pressure brought to bear by the state and employers and unions is much more direct and unmediated. And, while schools and higher education are under pressure to be more relevant to the needs of work, VET comes under particular scrutiny and critique because it is meant to deliver the skills that industry needs.
VET is always subject to critique because it must serve a range of different purposes and different interests, and the interests of all constituents are not the same. Clarke and Winch (2007: 1) explain that governments focus on the productive capacity of society; individuals focus on preparation for their working life and progression in the labour market; and employers focus on the immediate needs of their firms. They explain that these are conflicting interests, and as a result, the VET system represents a compromise and at the same time reflects the power attached to each of these different interests (Clarke and Winch 2007: 1).
There have always been complaints about VET
Consequently, there have always been complaints about VET and always will be. Terry Hyland (1999: 99) says that employers in the United Kingdom have been complaining about education and training since at least the time of the Paris Exhibition in 1867 when, even then, they argued that they were falling behind their industrial competitors. Debates over the extent to which VET should be directly tied to the needs of work are also not new. Hyland goes on to say that in 1889 the UK passed the Technical Instruction Act to improve this situation, but in 1901, Lord Haldane:
… still felt the need to remind politicians that the country had to train the minds of our people so they may be able to hold their own against the competition which is coming forward at such an alarming rate…(Hyland 1999: 99)
Not much has changed and we are still having the same debates today. VET will always be criticised, for three reasons. First, if its purpose is primarily to prepare people for work then it will be found wanting as the demands of work change and as a consequence of changing notions about appropriate preparation for work. Industries change at different rates and in different ways, and employers even within the same industry have different needs. It is not possible to reconcile these differences within one system. Second, the nature of the social settlement is always subject to negotiation as the various constituents press for greater consideration of their concerns in response to broader changes in society and the economy. Third, problems in the economy and mismatches between skills and work are attributed to problems with VET even though the relationship between VET and work is mutually constitutive, and problems can also arise from ineffective deployment of skill in workplaces (Skills Australia 2010).
The ‘low trust’ social settlement in VET in Australia
The social settlement underpinning VET in the 1970s emerged from the 1974 report of the Kangan Committee which established TAFE as a national tertiary education sector and developed a shared sense of purpose that still lingers with TAFE teachers, if not in policy. TAFE’s interdependent purposes were to prepare people for work, develop the individual, and provide second-chance education.
The was replaced by the much more instrumental approach to VET in the late 1980s, when TAFE was subsumed into a broader VET system so that it was one provider in a competitive VET market, and its purpose was redefined as preparing people with the specific skills they needed to perform specific jobs. Henceforth, VET was subordinated to national economic imperatives and the Kangan vision was gone from policy. VET was to be ‘industry-led’ and produce the skills that industry needed. Competency-based training (CBT) was implemented so that learning outcomes were defined as industry-designated workplace tasks and roles, and VET qualifications were bundled up in ‘training packages’ and exclusively based on CBT.
This is the social settlement we still have, but it is broken. It was built on mistrust from the very beginning. Governments and policy makers were deeply suspicious of TAFE. Gillian Goozee (2001) explains in her history of TAFE that the prevailing view during the period of reform was that TAFE had a monopoly on VET, was unresponsive to industry and that more weight needed to be given to the ‘demand’ side. She explains that the demand side was invariably defined in terms of industry, which didn’t include students or trainees, or broader social objectives of public policy.
When trust is so low, institutions have to be told what to do – hence competency-based training. The idea is that employers tell educators they outcomes they want, and educators deliver it. If only teaching and learning were that simple. It denies that teaching and learning is complex, and must engage individuals in complex ways and meet their individual and social needs. This approach leads to behaviourist tick and flick approaches to learning, fragmented learning and fragmented qualifications that are made up of discrete units of competency that describe discrete workplace requirements.
The other aspect of the 1980s social settlement is markets in VET. This has two aspects: first, it was believed (and still is) that markets are the only way to organise all aspects of social life, including education; and second, that this was one way to discipline TAFE and make it more entrepreneurial, by forcing it to compete with private providers. The result today is a low trust system based on a market where the costs of entry are low and the rewards high. We have a crisis in the quality of VET overall and massive blowouts in funding in private VET providers. This is leading to more and more regulation and greater requirements for compliance. The emphasis is on stamping out dodgy practice, rather than building a quality system.
In our current fractured social settlement, we have skills councils and their constituents on one side, eyeing TAFE with suspicion on the other. Distrust is mutual and relations are hostile. The only way to achieve the kinds of outcomes AWPA says Australia needs is through a new social settlement based on trust in a system where quality is high and the cost of entry is high. Governments have a key role to play here – they need to articulate the role of TAFE as a public educational institution that must be supported to ensure we meet the future skill needs of Australia, but also that we build a tolerant and inclusive society with opportunities for all.
Clarke, L and Winch, C (2007). Introduction, Vocational Education: International approaches, developments and systems. Clarke, Linda and Winch, Christopher, London, Routledge.
Goozee, G (2001). The development of TAFE in Australia. National Centre for Vocational Education Research, Adelaide. http://www.ncver.edu.au/publications/574.html viewed 6 February 2004.
Hyland, T (1999). Vocational Studies, Lifelong Learning and Social Values: Investigating Education, Training and NVQs Under the New Deal. Aldershot, Ashgate.
Keating, J (2008). Qualifications Systems and National Qualifications Frameworks. Conference paper by Monash University, presented at ACER Centre for the Economics of Education and Training Annual Conference, Melbourne. http://www.education.monash.edu/centres/ceet/docs/conferencepapers/2008jackkeating.pdf viewed 8 June 2009.
Skills Australia (2010), Australian Workforce Futures: A National Workforce Development Strategy. Sydney, http://www.skillsaustralia.gov.au/PDFs_RTFs/WWF_strategy.pdf viewed 9 March 2010.