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The VET sector in Australia has taken a number of blows in the media in recent years – bad publicity around funding schemes and about the closure of unscrupulous operators etc. The government certainly appears keen to turn this around to restore confidence, as are the training providers. But how do we do this? We believe that the VET sector should take heed of the recent messages about quality and the need for 21st Century Skills and promote excellence in education so that this sector will become to ‘go to’ education sector for the future.
The signs are there to show us how important the VET sector will be in the future. Indeed, in his recent review paper the Honourable Steven Joyce tells us that although the VET sector is considered to be effective and efficient today that ‘it’s likely that work-based learning models will be more important in the future as technology-driven changes to the ‘way we do things’ need to be quickly transmitted across industries and around workplaces. 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 in order to participate in new and changing industries.’ But unfortunately, Joyce (2019) also reports that industry in Australia is becoming less confident that the VET sector can provide the training needed for the future. The sector is not able to provide updates to training packages at the rate required by some industry sectors and there are ongoing issues around quality of training and assessment, providers not delivering the outcomes required by industry, funding complexity and apprenticeship arrangements.
To complicate matters further, there are unclear pathways from secondary school into the VET sector and a strong dominance of university pathways as VET is seen as less prestigious than university. We see this first hand in the community, from the parents of school leavers as well as industry bodies and associations. Parents encourage their children to strive for university entrance even if the student desires a technical or vocational pathway. Phillips (2012) wrote that ‘we live in a society that places a high value on the professions and white-collar jobs, and that still considers blue-collar work lower status. It’s no surprise that parents want their children to pursue careers that will maintain or increase their status. In high socio-economic communities this is even more evident’. He also writes that ‘most schools that are effectively helping kids to overcome this (achievement) gap and achieve academically also place a premium on college admissions, often the mark of success for these schools. And kids who are the first in their families to graduate high school appear foolish to “throw this all away” by choosing some alternative to college.’ He is speaking about American schools and families but we see this here too. Families insist that their children must attend university when their interests, skills and abilities would be much better applied in a vocational pathway. But it is not just parents influencing these trends.
A few years ago now I was involved in the development of an accredited course in an allied health area. The association for practitioners in that field flatly refused to endorse this new course because of the perception that VET was for poor performers, was a low level of training etc. This course was actually developed at a Graduate Diploma level but was based in the VET sector. This was done for a reason – because existing courses were all academic and theory based and were not providing the outcomes sought after by employers. It is interesting to note that this particular profession, in its early days, was pursued by students using a master and apprentice style of learning where skills were taught on the job and wisdom and knowledge shared in the workplace context. But like so many other professions that were taught this way, the growth in the profession, increased demands of society, and the need for more formal training resulted in universities taking the lead. Of course this is valid in many cases where research informs teaching and students benefit from the cutting-edge information being shared. However, universities do not always provide opportunities for students to develop the skills required for the workplace. The course we were developing required students to develop both complex knowledge and practical skills and was well suited to the VET sector. However, the stigma of VET won out and the industry association flatly refused to accredit the course. This is an example of how the process of learning a craft or a trade at the side of a master has been devalued over the years. And yet as mentioned earlier this is an age-old practice that once spanned many professions including medicine, art and engineering! So where does this stigma come from?
Rose (2004) in a book exploring the mind at work and the valuing of intelligence in (American) society talks about the devaluing of types of work that require manual labour. He talks about the belief in society that there is a divide between mind and body i.e. it assumed that people who work with their hands in manufacturing or as manual labourers do not use their minds. Rose believes that ‘these generalisations about mind and work are intimately tied to the dynamics of social class and affect the way we think about each other and ourselves.’ Sadly, jobs requiring physical skill development or manual labour are seen to be of lower value to society. As a result, there is a bias against vocational education. Phillips (2012) a Professor Emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University wrote that ‘This bias against vocational education is dysfunctional. It is destructive to our children. They should have the opportunity to be trained in whatever skills their natural gifts and preferences lead them to, rather than more or less condemning them to jobs they’ll find meaningless. To keep a young person with an affinity for hair design or one of the trades from developing the skills to pursue this calling is destructive. It is also destructive to our society. Many of the skills most needed to compete in the global market of the 21st century are technical skills that fall into the technical/vocational area.’
Phillips (2012) believes that this bias against vocational education is destructive to society. He states that ‘The absence of excellence in many technical and vocational fields is also costing us (America) economically as a nation.’ But this is not just a recent struggle or divide. In the early 1960s, John W. Gardner wrote a book called ‘Excellence. Can we be equal and excellent too?’  in which he spoke of the importance of vocational education. Gardner states that ‘The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.’ He also wisely pointed out that ‘We don’t even know what skills may be needed in the years ahead. That is why we must train our young people in the fundamental fields of knowledge, and equip them to understand and cope with change. That is why we must give them the critical qualities of mind and durable qualities of character that will serve them in circumstances we cannot now even predict.’
Perhaps not surprisingly, a similar message about the future is being communicated today. There are strong predictions about the types of skills our industries and communities will need in the future. We are being told that we are on the brink of huge change globally and many professions will be overhauled as a result of new technologies being introduced. We need to be ready for this future and our young people need to be equipped to innovate and be responsive. As mentioned earlier the VET sector is best suited to prepare the next generation of workers for these challenges. The big concern is that the next generation are turning to higher education and not to VET!
Why can’t we in Australia be a society that celebrates excellence across all professions? The VET Sector itself celebrates excellence in training and the achievements of students each year but are these awards and events just looking inwards and are we, in this sector, just talking to ourselves about these issues. Whilst I applaud the suggestion by the Honourable Steven Joyce to establish Career Centres and that more efforts be made to allow secondary school students to commence their VET studies, should we not be looking at society more broadly and educating them about both the needs and the opportunities of the future?
What can we do in the VET sector to celebrate excellence in all professions? What can we do to encourage the next generation to follow their hearts not their parents’ ambitions?
Here are a few ideas for you:
- Strive for excellence in everything you do in your RTOs. Include the word in your Mission and Vision Statements and define the term i.e. outline what excellence looks like in your RTO.
- Lift the game when it comes to quality training and assessment. This means ensuring that students are given the opportunity to interact with industry and real workplaces rather than providing all the training in the classroom or online.
- Reinforce the importance of assessment. Assessment is such an important part of vocational training and yet it remains such a problem across the VET sector. Assessment of skills and collection of valid and reliable evidence of competence is what is needed. Trainers and assessors, backed by their managers, should insist on quality assessment materials and practices so that they can reassure employers that the students are job ready!
- Promote the benefits of a Vocational Education at careers fairs. Promote your student success stories, not just at the time of graduation but with their permission, follow their careers and promote their ongoing success in society.
- Develop and nurture relationships with industry and work together to provide incentives for workers to become lifelong learners
- Develop a proactive approach to compliance and quality management to build a successful business.
How can we help? We would love to talk to you about your RTO’s vision and mission, your compliance practices and your assessments. So please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org
Over the next few weeks we are going to be focussing our
social media posts on excellence in education. So please follow us and read our
posts. We will be featuring some of John W Gardner’s quotes so hopefully they
will inspire you to reflect on your own personal teaching practice and that of
your RTO too!
 ‘Strengthening Skills Expert Review of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training System’ by The Honourable Steven
 Why we need vocational education Mark Phillips, The Washington Post, 2012.
 The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker Mike Rose, Penguin Books NY, 2004
 Excellence. Can we be equal and excellent too? John W Gardner, Harper, NY 1961