April 22, 2015
The good, the bad and the unlikely
By Gavin Moodie
The Abbott Government has been erratic in vocational education, as in many other areas, in its first 18 months of office. It started badly with early decisions to reduce quality controls, appoint supporters to key government advisory posts and further cut unions from contributing to policy on vocational education. These decisions seemed to have been driven more by ideological fervor and rewarding party supporters than evidence of what is good for vocational education, its students and the interest groups which governments these days insist on calling ‘stakeholders’. Unfortunately few so called ‘stakeholders’ satisfy the original meaning of those who provide crucial support to the organisation. However, within 6 months the Government acknowledged the need to strengthen quality assurance and remove or at least try to reduce the dodgy providers and practices which are costing governments so much in subsidies, as well as undercutting TAFE.
The Government’s launch of reviews of training packages and their development has been generally good for vocational education, and a considerable advance on governments’ previous practice of announcing major new policies without any public involvement or consultation but following secret consultations with key supporters and favoured interest groups – sorry, stakeholders. The Government released discussion papers, held nationwide consultations online and in person, and invited submissions from all who may be interested. However, the Government is not planning to release submissions. While this is an observation of an improved process rather than outcome, it is nonetheless an advance.
The training package reviews are also good in opening for discussion issues that had previously been non negotiable, responding to criticisms that have been published in The Australian TAFE Teacher and elsewhere. For example, the training packages discussion paper notes the relatively high proportion of qualifications that had no or trivial numbers of publicly funded enrolments in the decade from 2002 to 2013. This is precisely the issue raised by Leesa Wheelahan in her article ‘VET has too many qualifications and is too complex’ published in the Winter 2012 issue of The Australian TAFE Teacher.
The possibility which perhaps has the most potential for TAFE is in the discussion paper on the development of training packages which includes ‘Approach 3: Government contracts for designated VET sector bodies’. The discussion paper explains: ‘This approach would see a limited number of bodies, approximately six, assigned the responsibility for the development and maintenance of the training package and associated products with the possibility of a lead industry skills body.’ This seems to offer the possibility of the State TAFE bodies preferably, or less desirably TAFE institutes in each State and territory, associating to be one of the approximately six designated VET sector bodies.
This review of training packages responds to the extensive research that found that certificates I and II have much poorer outcomes than higher level vocational qualifications, and acknowledges that they may serve different roles from other qualifications mainly as preparations for higher level qualifications. The review also responds to the finding from NCVER’s ‘Vocations’ project led by Leesa Wheelahan that some vocational qualifications are much more closely related to occupations than others and suggests that qualifications may be designed and regulated differently according to the roles they serve. The discussion paper raises the possibility of ‘“Broad banding” qualifications into vocational streams’, which was also proposed by the ‘Vocations’ project.
These developments would be good because they would allow TAFE institutes to shape qualifications to suit the different needs of their students and the different roles they play in preparing graduates for employment and further learning.
Also good for TAFE is the proposal to strengthen qualifications’ quality assurance, perhaps by specifying volumes of learning and/or monitoring assessment standards, since this should curb the dodgy providers and practices which have been undercutting TAFE by lowering standards.
The discussion papers even invite a change in nomenclature from the previous hallowed ‘training packages’ to ‘industry-defined qualifications’, ‘occupational standards’ or ‘skills standards’ and replacing ‘competencies’ with ‘knowledge and skills’. While, again, this appears more symbolic than substantive, it may signal an acceptance that vocational education is not well served by having the language and structure of its qualifications so radically different from, and largely incomprehensible to, the other education sectors.
While it is important to recognise the advances that vocational education has made so that they may be consolidated and built upon, they don’t detract from much that is bad in recent developments in Australian vocational education.
The most important obstacles to improving the quality of vocational education are the unrelenting cuts in funding per student training hour, which have been introduced by both major political parties at both major levels of government for over a decade. But of course the Australian Government is silent on this. Most starkly, the training packages discussion paper considers what levers might be available to the government to improve the system, without mentioning the obvious option of increasing investment in it.
This raises a second problem with the Government’s approach: its fragmentation of vocational education as if different aspects could be examined and possibly changed without considering the implications for the sector as a whole. All aspects of training packages should be reviewed together, including curriculum, accreditation, quality assurance, funding and governments’ construction of vocational education markets.
Vocational education was made ‘industry led’ in the mid 1990s to make it more relevant to employment, and more recently it has been increasingly marketised to make it more flexible and responsive to employers. But still the Government’s discussion paper complains that vocational education is too inflexible and that employers aren’t sufficiently engaged in exercising the leadership governments thrust upon them.
Yet the Government seeks to fix the problems arising from marketising vocational education by introducing yet more marketisation – what it calls ‘contestability’ – in developing training packages. This risks all the principal-agent problems of bodies acting in their own market interests rather than in the interests of their students let alone the system as a whole. This in turn will require the Government to introduce different layers of monitoring and control, by contracts rather than regulation, but external control nonetheless.
The discussion papers assume that skills standards (training packages) will continue to be based on atomised work tasks. Yet it is precisely this shackling of vocational education qualifications to narrow and often short term work tasks that limits their development of graduates’ medium term vocational development and transfer between occupations, and limits their application to broader vocational roles.
While the Government is open to different ways of developing skills standards (training packages), all of its approaches would continue to place almost all of the initiative at the top of the hierarchy, which would impose its requirements on successively lower layers to training providers. This top-down approach is the reason for the large number of unused and under used qualifications, since qualifications are commissioned at the top of the hierarchy far away from the teachers and training providers responding to students’ and employers’ interests.
Furthermore, all 3 of the Government’s options for developing skills standards (training packages) combine the specification of the requirements for skills standards (training packages) with developing qualifications to meet those skills standards (training packages). The Government should continue with the top level specification of skills standards (training packages). However, skills standards (training packages) should be restricted to the minimum necessary to ensure national portability and should be defined differently as the development of the knowledge, technical skills and attributes of graduates in their field. The Government should also allow qualifications to be developed by providers or groups of providers such as TAFE systems.
The Abbott Government has intensified Coalition governments’ marginalisation of unions’ involvement in vocational education and continues the longstanding and bipartisan exclusion of teachers from vocational education policy which has led to policy which erodes the educational value of vocational education. Minimally, the attributes of training package development should include understanding how people learn knowledge and skills, for this the whole point of vocational education.
On 9 January 2014 USA President Barak Obama announced his proposal to make approved community college programs free to all students who study more than half time and maintain reasonable passing grades and progress towards their qualification. This proposal follows similar policies in the state of Tennessee under a Republican governor and for the city of Chicago under a Democrat mayor. While Obama’s proposal is unlikely to pass the current Congress, it offers a useful example to Australia since the USA is also a federation in which until Obama’s presidency almost all community college funding came from the states. President Obama’s ‘college promise’ offers a great ideal to which Australian governments should aspire.