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Vocational Education and the Innovation Agenda

Vocational Education and the Innovation Agenda

27 March 2017, by Prof. Leo Goedegebuure & A/Prof. Ruth Schubert

Below is an excerpt from the authors' chapter in Visions for Australian Tertiary Education, published 27 February 2017 by the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education.


The growth of technical education institutions prior to and since Federation has been driven by a mix of community and industry interests, combined with government intervention. States had responsibility for technical education, and for the most part institutions were small and local, and arguably responsive to the local community and industry. In the 1970s several reviews were conducted, the most significant being the 1974 Commonwealth report, ‘TAFE in Australia: a report on needs in technical and further education’. It was from this time that TAFE became synonymous with vocational education in Australia.

The establishment of the Australian National Training Authority (ANTA) in 1994 heralded an era of much greater collaboration in funding and planning between the Commonwealth, State and Territories. It was also during the 1980-90s that Australian traineeships grew in importance and the launch of the New Apprenticeship system in 1998 allowed for User Choice funding, the first real opening up of the training market. The greater mingling of responsibilities between the States, Territories and Commonwealth has been in most recent years governed by a series of National Partnership Agreements. National reforms included the establishment of income
contingent loans (VET FEE-HELP) allowing VET students to access loans for full fee qualifications at Diploma and Advanced Diploma level.

Beginning in Victoria in 2008, State governments across Australia developed more comprehensive training markets. Whilst the market design varies considerably from State to State, the changes in the funding mix consistently applied pressure to traditional TAFE Institutes, forcing change in the governance and business orientation of TAFEs. The reforms also facilitated the rapid rise of private providers as major players in the delivery of vocational education, and the formation of new models of corporate private providers with a national reach. The release in 2016 of the Total VET activity (TVA) by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) shows for the first time the extent of the change. Private providers now deliver the majority of vocational education (66.3%).

A recent acceleration of the trend to centralise and amalgamate TAFE Institutes appears to be driven by a combination of factors, including loss of revenue and market share, and a view that a larger critical mass will provide economies of scale. Whilst this is not the place to enter into a debate as to whether or not these developments are based on sound principles in terms of both governance and effectiveness, we need to note that key functional rationales appear to be subordinated to economic rationalism. As we argue in the remainder of this chapter, this lack of vision is particularly problematic given the challenges Australia is facing in transitioning its economy.

The launch of the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) by the Turnbull government in late 2015 quite rightly emphasises the need for tertiary institutions to develop a highly skilled workforce capable of entrepreneurial thinking, being digitally literate, and able to collaborate and innovate. It also calls for better articulation and collaboration between industry and tertiary education institutions, and for a better balance between basic and applied research to drive innovation and socio-economic growth. NISA emphasises that Australia is located in the most dynamic and fastest growing region in the world, and argues for further international orientation. Questions, however, remain about whether the current nature of vocational education institutions and the overall system is fit for purpose.

This chapter will explore this by first challenging some of the operational aspects of NISA, followed by a discussion on the nature of research and the role of research in open innovation. This will then be examined in relation to the Australian economy. We argue for a more pronounced role for Vocational Education (VE) and particularly TAFE Higher Education (TAFE HE) in regionally based innovation eco-systems. Our analysis draws inspiration from international reference countries such as Canada and the Netherlands. Here, successful examples and practices can be found demonstrating highly effective innovation eco-systems built around research universities and other types of tertiary and vocational institutions that work together with other key stakeholders to lift the socio-economic performance of their regions to meet the fundamental challenges of a rapidly changing world, locally and globally.

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Professor Leo Goedegebuure is Director at the LH Martin Institute. Associate Professor Ruth Schubert is Associate Director at the LH Martin Institute. 

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