June 3, 2018

Why vocational education matters now more than ever

By Anne Jones

Many countries recognise the need for high quality, high level technical education to underpin the delivery of technologically advanced products and services. There are also strong arguments that we can design such education to nurture the capabilities needed for active and equitable citizenship in a digital society ((Pfeiffer, 2015). Yet Australian innovation policy, including the National Innovation and Science Agenda, ignores historical and contemporary evidence for the importance of vocational education in our country’s digital future; focusing instead on the contribution of school and university education.

Historically, industrial innovation has depended on technical capabilities such as those now acquired through vocational education. For example, many historians have attributed Britain’s leading role in the first industrial revolution to the greater availability of capable technicians and tradespeople in that country compared with other places such as Germany. These technicians took the inventors’ ideas and provided:

The high-quality workmanship needed to implement an innovation, that is, to follow the blueprint with a high level of accuracy, carry out the instructions embodied in the technique, and to have the ability to install, operate, adapt, and repair the machinery and equipment under a variety of circumstances

(Meisenzahl & Mokyr, 2011)

Mokyr and his colleagues have referred to the technicians in the first industrial revolution as tweakers and implementers and these terms are still useful today. Tweakers create the countless small innovations needed to get the bugs out of the big inventions, implementers construct, install and operate the technology.There is good contemporary evidence that tweakers and implementers are critical to a country’s participation in the current digital revolution (also known as the 4th industrial revolution and, particularly in Germany, as Industry 4.0).

In an Austrian Parliament commissioned report, Pfeiffer, reviewed the evidence for the value of vocational education in an Industry 4.0 economy. Her analysis confirmed that Germany’s standout success in digital manufacturing relies on the availability of large numbers of people with strong, higher level technical qualifications. Pfeiffer argues that whilst the long-term impact of the digital revolution on the organisation of work, the division of labour between humans and machines or numbers of jobs is unknown, it is important for societies to negotiate these matters, to make choices about how to share equity and prosperity.Pfeiffer considers that Germany’s significant technical workforce not only supports digital innovation but positions its economy for an equitable distribution of work and rewards.

Closer to home, Phillip Toner and his colleagues from the University of Sydney have conducted substantial research into the contribution of workers with trade and technical qualifications to Australia’s innovation effort. They have shown that such workers make up ‘46 percent of the business research and development (R&D) workforce and 30 per cent of the total R&D workforce.’ One of their studies found that majority of researchers agree that tradespeople and technicians are an important source of ideas and innovation in their workplaces assisting to convert concepts into reality. In another example, the Melbourne Institute’s 2007 Australian Inventor Survey looked at all Australian patent applicants from 1986 to 2005, finding that ‘over half of the inventors did not have university qualifications’ (Beddie & Simons, 2017).

Dalitz and Toner have demonstrated that ‘the Australian pattern of innovation is, arguably, more dependent on VET skills than other OECD nations…the dominant form of innovation is incremental and particularly oriented to the adoption and adaptation of products, processes and services developed locally by other firms and industries or sourced from overseas.’ In other words Australian industries need tweakers and implementers. Nonetheless ‘…in Australia skills, particularly VET, are almost entirely excluded from government innovation policy reports and bodies’ (Dalitz & Toner, 2016).

Lack of recognition of VET’s role in innovation means that we have neglected to build the capability needed to optimise that contribution. Rather, we have reduced the capacity of VET institutions and their graduates to contribute to innovation through:

Limiting national qualifications to narrow preparation for current job roles, rather than developing creative adaptive future problem solvers;
Failing to invest significantly in building new knowledge about innovative applied, technical and workplace-related learning;
Enabling the cannibalisation of the VET sector by universities and schools without any resulting increase in the availability of high quality, high level technical skills;

Reduced funding to vocational education in total and in comparison with the school and university sectors (Noonan, 2016).

Germany, Austria and some other countries are focusing on building strong, innovative vocational education sectors to support their future workforce strategies. In their recent study into the Australian VET sector’s role in innovation, Beddie and Simon concluded that the sector’s participation in innovation depends on its ‘…capability to identify, nurture and impart…applied research skills’ (Beddie & Simons, 2017). This belief underlies the approach taken in a number of countries.

In Canada for example, the national Government has established a program to support business innovation based on co-investment and collaborative applied research between community colleges and polytechnics and enterprises partners. This program has been so successful that now more than CAD$50m is allocated to it annually. Demonstrated impacts include increased productivity, new product development and increased sales for the participating businesses. The colleges and polytechnics also claim improved capability and employment outcomes for students.

New Zealand Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics are able to apply for national research funding in the same way that universities and other providers can. In 2015, the ITP sector received over NZD$7m. NZ polytechnic websites describe many examples of innovation driven by applied research as can be seen in this example from Otago Polytechnic (www.op.ac.nz/industry-and-research/research/success-stories/innovation/).

TAFE institutes, as permanent public institutions, ought to be the natural leaders for developing and sustaining applied VET research and innovation in Australia. Despite limited resources, some are working towards this. For example, TAFE Queensland has opened RedSpace and Holmesglen Institute, the Centre for Applied Research and Innovation as dedicated applied research units. Other institutions are building applied research into their delivery in imaginative ways. However, lack of resources, means that TAFE institutes and the VET sector generally are not making their potential contribution to innovation. Significant investment in applied research and innovation infrastructure and staff capability is needed to enable Australian TAFE institutes to support future tweakers and implementers.

Anne Jones is an Emeritus Professor at Victoria University

Beddie, F., & Simons, L. (2017). VET applied research: driving VET’s role in the innovation system. https://www.ncver.edu.au

Dalitz, R., & Toner, P. (2016). Systems failure, market failure, or something else? The case of skills development in Australian innovation policy. Innovation and Development, 6(1), 51-66doi:10.1080/2157930X.2015.1084116

Pfeiffer, S. (2015). Effects of Industry 4.0 on Vocational Education and Training. Retrieved from Vienna: http://www.austriaca.at/ita/ita-manuscript/ita_15_...

Noonan, P. (2016). VET funding in Australia: Background, trends and future directions. Retrieved from Melbourne: www.mitchellinstitute.org.au