16 January, 2016

The secrets of VET

By Dr Don Zoellner

Australian vocational education and training (VET) is built upon a foundation of secrets. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but these confidences must be identified in order to improve our understanding of how the national training system operates.

Secrets help mediate society’s operations and can serve a range of roles. For example, the current conceptions of participatory democracy rely upon citizens casting a secret ballot. Capitalism requires trade secrets to provide advantages in a free market, hence ACPET’s concern about releasing commercially sensitive training data as part of the VET transparency agenda. Federal, state and territory cabinets of our parliamentary governments conduct their business in secret. Recently those who have violated cabinet secrecy have been labelled as ‘gutless’ by one minister and ‘deplorable and disappointing’ by another.

Our industry-led training system is focused upon what Leslie Roman calls a ‘moral panic’ about skills shortages that dominates the official discourse and makes challenging the existing relationship between industry and the public purse all but impossible. One example of the influence of industry’s secret, masked by this moral panic, came from the former Managing Director of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, Tom Karmel. His research findings challenged the core belief that training is an automatic benefit by statistically demonstrating that for workers in some age groups and industry areas, such as sales or community and personal services, increased formal training did not improve incomes and career options. Speaking at the 2012 Australian VET Research Association Conference, he called for greater scrutiny of the allocation of public training funds by shifting resources to areas that produced outcomes more in line with human capital development (as measured by increased income post-training). This would represent better economic and social policy. He prefaced these remarks with commentary about the political sensitivities associated with even discussing the matter and light-heartedly linked his raising the issue with his own pre-retirement planning. The audience reaction was one of nervous, knowing laughter when industry’s secret was even mentioned, let alone challenged.

Michael Taussig proposes that these types of secrets have a purposeful place in society, based upon how members deal with “that which is generally known, but cannot be articulated”. In order to facilitate collective interaction, citizens must learn that the most important social knowledge is mediated by “knowing what not to know”. This has been described as holding a ‘public secret’. Transparency agendas always establish unstated, but nevertheless very powerful, rules about what to turn a blind eye to and what to know without declaring it publicly. Public secrets serve a quite important and precise purpose in the operation of the VET system by maintaining the furtive reality of industry control.

It is perfectly economically rational and financially desirable for industry to problematise skills shortages especially if they don’t have to pay to resolve the matter. As long as governments use public funds to finance training, keeping the story of scarcity alive not only comes at no cost to industry, but also maintains pressure on governments not to redirect these funds elsewhere. Former senior VET administrator Kaye Schofield concurs: “governments have not been able to stem the massive shift to the addiction of publicly funded training”.

It is not the simple lack of information that gives rise to public secrets. Advanced market democracies are swamped with information that continually recites society’s stories and Michel de Certeau believes “these narrations have the twofold and strange power of transforming seeing into believing and fabricating realities out of appearances”. The constant repetition of the need for industry leadership and control of VET, framed in such a manner to suggest that it has not been achieved in the face of perverse resistance by training providers, exemplifies this odd capacity. The casting of industry’s role in VET policy as an aspirational target implies that the long-stated goal of supplying industry-determined outcomes has not yet been achieved. By framing the discourse as aspirational, a deception leading to a public secret, is being performed on the public.

This focus upon industry’s place in VET is not new. In its first annual report in 1995, the Australian National Training Authority stated: “ANTA has a five person board drawn from industry to ensure that that Authority remains focused upon the needs of industry”. But the story goes back much further. In order to achieve the Commonwealth Government’s goal of full employment, Prime Minister Curtin’s 1945 White Paper also noted the pivotal role of industry: “The solution of this problem of the distribution of resources lies mainly with businessmen”. The course content in vocational and technical education has been influenced by industry for over four decades, commencing with the 1969 landmark Tregillis Report and the consequent establishment of 14 government-funded Industry Training Councils. The VET landscape is littered with the remains of literally hundreds of government-sanctioned bodies which have variously provided policy advice, determined the content of training programs and frequently prioritised funding allocations.

Almost without exception, the Kangan Review being a rare example, the membership of these various state, territory and federal authorities, commissions, training advisory councils, industry training advisory boards, industry skills councils, review committees, quality councils, research centres, foundations, training advisory boards, overseas study groups and agencies has been dominated by industry appointments. The current National Vocational Education and Training Board’s focus “on ensuring industry has a stronger voice in VET” is only the latest incarnation of such industry-led bodies dedicated to ‘fabricating realities out of appearances’ by using the power of public secrets.

Erving Goffman provides a complementary perspective by classifying secrets according to their social function. Dark secrets are likely to never be disclosed and some commercially-sensitive cabinet decisions fit here. ACPET’s rejection of total VET activity reporting is a strategic secret as it can be used to limit public information in order to protect market share. There are also entrusted secrets exemplified by the Unique Student Identifier being built upon a promise to keep individual information confidential as a demonstration of the system’s trustworthiness. Finally, there are inside secrets, frequently found in professions and trades, serving to increase group solidarity through the sharing of information only known to the membership.

Goffman exposes the power of insider secrets that are used to reinforce industry’s leadership in the Australian VET sector. The management of public risk that is promulgated through a “rhetoric of training” allows licensing and registration bodies to specify and guard the amounts and levels of training in a variety of occupations “to foster the impressions that the licensed practitioner is someone who has been reconstructed by his learning experiences and is now set apart from other men”. This process, either purposely or inadvertently, establishes a monopoly situation in some occupations by controlling the numbers of licensed practitioners in the workforce and creating pricing structures that increase the value of holding a licence.

The enactment of this rhetoric of training is carried out by persons with experience in the industry. They occupy the majority of positions on the licensing and registration boards. As a consequence, industry has the final say on who can practice what, by specifying the qualifications and experiences individuals must hold in order to work in the vocation. In Australia, some 63 industry areas have been identified that have government legislated licensing or registration requirements. With the exception of one publication, A Licence to Skill, my research has found virtually no detailed examination of these bodies. The power/knowledge exercised through licensing and registration is such a mundane and common sense practice that its operations have never received serious policy consideration with one significant exception – Licensing Line News. This project was established to support the Council of Australian Governments occupational licensing reform agenda and was overseen by a national advisory committee comprised of training bureaucrats and providers. After eight years of existence, the project was closed in 2011. It is conceivable that the existence of such a body could disturb industry’s public secret and be the reason for its demise.

The systematic denial of industry actually being in control of the National Training System is enforced in three major ways. There is a continuous recital of an aspiration to achieve an industry-led system as if that was not already the case. Its reputed absence is seared into VET’s psyche and is seldom challenged and then only with severe trepidation, as demonstrated by Karmel’s ironic reference to his retirement planning. Karmel was well-aware that he was expressing thoughts that everyone knew not to know. In addition, unambiguously, industry controls the licensing and regulation schemes which, in turn, manipulate and influence the labour market in most significantly-sized or economically important occupations. This often includes dictating the content and levels of training required to enter and remain in the occupation, thus holding the power to potentially create or eliminate skills shortages. They also support a self-serving rhetoric of skills shortages. Lastly, industry peak bodies are relentless and highly effective lobbyists of government, seeking the most lucrative and attractive financial arrangements for their members. Industry’s capacity to frustrate several decades of public policy intention seeking increased employer funding of training, speaks volumes as to who is in charge of the system. In addition, industry has always been and remains well-represented on each of the state, territory and national bodies that most directly influence public policy in VET.

Due to the power of this particular public secret and casting industry leadership as something to be achieved in the future, there is no ability to actually interrogate the possibility that industry has been in charge for a very long time and it may not be very good at this task. Individual government officials and lobbyists, in fact anyone who wishes to influence public policy in VET, continue to demonstrate the ‘most important social knowledge – knowing what not to know’. (1681)

This article is an edited version of a chapter from Dr Zoellner’s Doctor of Philosophy thesis If vocational education and training is the answer, what was the question?: theorising public policy and the behaviour of citizens. Readers seeking full references of those cited can visit