Strengthening Skills in the VET Sector
In late 2018 an independent review of Australia’s vocational education and training (VET) sector was announced. The review was led by Steven Joyce, a former New Zealand Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, who delivered the final report in March 2019. The review focused on how the Australian Government’s investment in VET could be more effective in providing Australians with the skills they need, and made over 70 recommendations. The key issues in the VET sector identified are:
- Continuing variations in quality between providers, and concerns about the relationship between the regulator and providers.
- A cumbersome qualifications system that is slow to respond to changes in industry skills needs.
- A complicated and inconsistent funding system that is hard to understand and navigate, and which is not well matched to skills needs.
- A lack of clear and useful information on vocational careers for prospective new entrants.
- Unclear secondary school pathways into the VET sector and a strong dominance of university pathways.
- Access issues for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and second chance learners seeking skills that will help them obtain and stay in meaningful work.
The review argues the “changing nature of work is likely to make the vocational education system even more important in creating a productive workforce that is flexible and adaptive to change. It is crucial that all governments signal to the sector that they acknowledge its importance and are committed to it meeting a greater proportion of Australia’s training requirements.” A major rebranding of the sector as ‘Skilled Education’ is recommended, necessary due to a series of monumental policy fails over the last decade by both State and Federal governments, along with changing the current bias in funding to universities.
Restructuring the very large and diverse range of offerings is also recommended: “Breaking down the VET umbrella into streams will improve monitoring of the system, allowing for the creation of new performance measures that better align to the intended purpose of each part of the VET system. This will support the identification and regulation of underperforming RTOs [training organisations], while rewarding strong performers.” A nice way of saying the sector has too many colleges and courses that are variously useless, ineffective and in some cases corrupt. The streams would be:
- Qualification-based training that leads to vocational careers (including courses and skillsets),
- Short courses,
- Foundation education (lower level courses for language, literacy, numeracy and digital literacy), and
- VET in schools.
The review nails the conclusion: “the sector needs to be more active in emerging skills areas in order to be seen as a more modern method of education. Timely qualification upgrades in more traditional trades and skills will help the sector’s reputation, but there are huge opportunities in industries such as digital technologies and human services for vocational training to fill workforce gaps, particularly at higher levels”. While this would require significant investment in qualifications development and funding, the opportunity is there to link VET to future jobs and help people adjust to the changing nature of work.
With the many alarmist forecasts of a workless future getting a lot of attention, where automation replaces many or most jobs, it is important to realise that the workplace, the workforce and the work done changes over time, usually quite slowly. In the transition through the Fourth Industrial Revolution these will all be profoundly affected, but there will be no shortage of jobs for people with the appropriate skills. This is the essential role for VET, training new entrants and upgrading the skills of current workers as digitisation and automation spread through the economy, including support for second chance learners needing foundation language, literacy, numeracy and digital skills.
The review recommends a new National Skills Commission, which got bipartisan support in the shadow of an election due in a month. What the next Commonwealth Government does remains to be seen, and State Governments have their own policies and initiatives. While there are over 70 detailed recommendations in all, the report does not address the collapse in Commonwealth funding for VET since 2011, as shown below.