8 November, 2018

TAFE in the 21st Century

Professor Anne Jones

The crisis in Australian vocational education is more than a funding, marketisation or system design issue: it is a question of the fitness of our vocational education model for our times.

In the context of revolutionary digital technologies, continued globalisation, population ageing and changes to work patterns such as the emergence of the gig and post- work economies, we are failing to repurpose our vocational education resources to develop the twenty-first century capabilities needed by individuals, communities and industries.

Manpower on steroids

After forty years of training reform, policymakers, industry stakeholders and even many educators regard vocational education primarily as a means of producing manpower as cheaply as possible. Successive state/territory and federal governments have managed vocational education as a cost to be reduced rather than as an investment in the individual or in social good.

The understanding that the vocational education sector exists primarily to serve industry rather than individuals or communities is almost universally accepted in the public policy and polemic concerning the sector.

Yet, over the past five years there has been growing evidence that the vocational education sector has suffered from an excess of training reform. Growth in for profit private provision has siphoned government and individual investment into private pockets with little return to industry or community. Vocational education continues to be the Cinderella of the education system despite the fact that in 2016, 4.2 million Australians participated in it.[1]

Reduced funding has meant less investment in teaching practice and vocational education research, greatly affecting the capacity of the sector to maintain its knowledge, renew its educational practices and adapt as society and industry change. Despite their best efforts, vocational education providers, even the enduring public institutions, are not resourced to innovate. Given the public ownership of, and historical investment in, TAFE institutions, these ought to be leading the development of new vocational education knowledge and innovative practices. However, TAFE institutions have lost much of their capacity to evaluate and renew their educational practice and thinking.

Australia’s vocational education sector remains in the past, painstakingly preparing people to perform known, narrowly defined tasks for yesterday’s industries. Vocational education and the vocational education system are not positioned to meet the needs of twenty-first century industries let alone individuals and communities.

We do not know how work and employment opportunities will change in the near future. What we do know is that people will need occupational breadth as well as educational depth to adapt and thrive as industries and society change. Researchers who have looked specifically at how vocational education can prepare people for digital disruption emphasise the importance of acquiring broad technical skills that can be adapted and applied in novel contexts, complemented by what have become known as twenty-first centurycapabilities (Baker, 2016; Committee for Economic Development of Australia, 2015)

Capabilities are much broader than the combinations of skills and knowledge specified by the Australian Qualifications Framework: capabilities also encompass dispositions and attitudes (Barnett & Coate, 2005; Hager & Holland, 2007).

I identify five critical gaps in the preparedness of Australian vocational education to support the preparation and ongoing education of individuals for twenty-first century life and work:

  • There is insufficient capacity to ensure learners graduate with the strong core literacy, numeracy and digital skills needed to underpin all other learning.
  • Australian vocational education curriculum and teaching do not address the twenty-first century capabilities needed for long-term employability and community engagement.
  • The applied and workplace-situated pedagogies required to develop high-level technical skills are not regarded as distinctive pedagogies requiring research and development to keep pace with workplace change.
  • Our vocational education institutions and systems are not well prepared to respond to disruptive change.
  • Vocational education institutions have neither capability nor capacity for innovation.

Evidence of the vocational education contribution to innovation comes from the Office of the Chief Scientist, which in March 2016 reported that “… people with vocational education level qualifications had a much higher level of business ownership compared to those with university level qualifications” and “… of the STEM- qualified population, approximately two-thirds held vocational education and training (vocational education) qualifications, while one-third were higher education graduates with bachelor degrees or higher… The vocational education sector makes a critical contribution to Australia’s STEM skills base, a contribution yet to be fully reflected in the evidence base for policy development.’ (Office of the Chief Scientist, 2016, p. 158).

This contribution is invisible to policymakers, the media and the general public. For example, the vocational education sector did not initially feature in the Australian Governments National Innovation and Science Agenda. Lack of recognition of vocational education’s role in innovation means that we have neglected to build the capability needed to optimise that contribution. Recent policies have failed to build the capacity of vocational education institutions and their graduates to undertake research and foster innovative capability.

TAFE institutes, as permanent public institutions, ought to be the natural leaders for developing and sustaining applied vocational education research and innovation in Australia. Despite limited resources, some are working towards this, such as Holmesglen Institute with its Centre for Applied Research and Innovation and TAFE Queensland, which is building an applied research portfolio. However, lack of resources, means that TAFE institutes and the vocational education sector generally are not achieving their potential contribution to innovation. Significant investment in applied research and innovation infrastructure and staff capability is needed to enable Australian TAFE institutes to create the organisational cultures that will produce future adjusters and implementers of innovations.

Strong core skills

First, there must be a genuine, adequately funded commitment to ensuring all adults have strong core literacy, numeracy and digital skills as a basis for ongoing participation in work and community. This commitment must acknowledge the specialised needs of significant groups such as early school leavers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and recently arrived migrants.

Qualifications for twenty-first-century industries

Our narrow, behaviourist vocational qualifications need to be broadened for the twenty-first century to ensure that technical skills are transferrable and complemented by twenty-first century capabilities such as critical thinking, creativity, adaptability and entrepreneurship.

The range of qualifications levels available through vocationaleducationmustexpand.Vocational education of the future could offer vocational qualifications ranging from AQF 1 to 10 designed for applied and workplace- situated learning. Higher, including degree level, apprenticeships could be expanded to cover a much larger range of industries, recognising the valued of situating vocational education in real workplaces. Incentives may be needed to encourage reluctant employers to host on-the-job learning.

In the future even more than in the past, vocational education qualifications must meet the needs of individuals seeking to reskill or upskill throughout a lengthened working life as well as new entrants to the workforce; some of these will be seeking new employment opportunities after interrupted lives. These many circumstances require an expanded range of qualifications, skill sets, micro-credentials and pathways.Skilful curriculum design will be necessary to ensure that that individuals are able to achieve the mix of core skills, technical skills and capabilities needed at each critical life and employment stage.

To address this complexity, many are arguing for a localised approach to ownership and development of vocational education qualifications, giving providers ownership and allowing them to respond agilely to local needs (Billett, 2016; Wheelahan, 2015). Such a change would mean an end to industry ownership of national qualifications, but not necessarily of vocational standards. The development of national industry standards to frame technical skills development in locally developed qualifications could maintain the qualification portability and recognition which has been so useful in Australia.

Twenty-first century teaching

There is a need to recognise and resource high quality, self-renewing vocational education teaching. This requires serious initial and continuing teacher education in applied and workplace-situated pedagogies. To develop and maintain its relevance in a changing workforce environment, vocational education teaching practice must be based on applied research into the development and evaluation of the applied and workplace-situated pedagogies required to develop high-level technical skills and twenty-first- century capabilities in context. Twenty-first-century vocational education must operate within a lifelong learning context, respond to digital disruption in education as well as industry and nurture innovation. It will take much more professional development than a certificate IV to meet these needs.

Future ready vocational education providers

We need a network of ‘grown-up’ institutions, each with its own sense of purpose related to its aspirations for its students, not to current government policy. TAFE institutions, as large, enduring public providers are the natural anchor institutions for such a network (Wheelahan, Buchanan, Goedegebuure, Mallet & McKew, 2017). There is no reason why TAFE institutions could not become the repositories for excellence in vocational education practice on behalf of all education institutions.

Autonomous twenty-first-century vocational education providers should develop their own qualifications and quality standards reflecting local needs and national industry standards as appropriate. TAFE and other vocational education institutions already deliver mixes of vocational qualifications from foundation certificate to postgraduate level (AQF 1-9) depending on local needs.

An integrated tertiary education sector

Given that the workforce will need more higher-level vocational qualifications in future, perhaps we no longer need to designate qualifications as vocational and higher education. In future it may be more useful to differentiate what we now think of as VET institutions on the basis of their specialist expertise in applied and workplace-situated learning, understanding that increasingly learning will take place in and around workplaces.

As the need for higher-level vocational education increases, it becomes increasingly nonsensical to retain hard sectoral and funding boundaries between institutions that primarily deliver vocational education and those that primarily deliver higher education. Parity of esteem can only come with parity of policy and resourcing.

This is an edited extract from Vocational Education for the 21st Century published in August 2018 by the LH Martin Institute, University of Melbourne. It is one of a series of discussion papers contributing to the debate necessary to reform and invigorate the TAFE sector.

A full version is available on the L H Martin Website.


Baker, K. (2016). The digital revolution: the impact of the fourth industrial revolution on employment and education. Retrieved from http://www.edge.co.uk/media/193777/digital_revolution_web_version.pdf

Barnett, R. & Coate, K. (2005). Engaging the Curriculum in Higher Education. England: Society for Research into Higher Education, Open University Press.

Billett, S. (2016). Beyond competence: an essay on a process approach to organising and enacting vocational education. International Journal of

Committee for Economic Development of Australia. (2015). Australia's future workforce? Melbourne.

Hager, P. & Holland, S. (2007). Graduate Attributes, Learning and Employability Dordrecht: Springer.

Office of the Chief Scientist. (2016). Australia’s STEM Workforce: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Retrieved fromhttp://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/Australia’s-STEM-workforce_full- report.pdf

Wheelahan, L. (2015). The future of Australian vocational education qualifications depends on a new social settlement Journal of Education and Work, 28(2), 126-146. doi:10.1080/13639080.2014.1001333

Wheelahan, L., Buchanan, J., Goedegebuure, L., Mallet, S. & McKew, M. (2017). VET in crisis. Melbourne: Centre for Vocational and Educational Policy, University of Melbourne.

[1] https://www.ncver.edu.au/data/collection/total-vocationaleducation-students-and-courses

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