How VET could eat universities’ lunch

The Universities Accord recommends universities collaborate on “innovative curriculum,” the VET sector is already on to it.

There is an utilitarian emphasis in the Accord, a focus on skills rather than scholarship, an implicit assumption that education is about employment for graduates and economic growth for government.

It’s gone unchallenged so far, perhaps the humanities and pure research lobbies are so glad to be rid of coalition ministers who did not disguise their contempt that they will wear whatever the government wants – and that is a post-school system that emphasises skills for jobs.

The problem for higher education course creators, whose ideals of autonomy are not amenable to national cross-sector skills pathways is that, for once, the vast bureaucracies that create training curricula have advantages individual universities cannot match.

For anybody who watched previous attempts to create a national training system flounder in the face of indifference and inertia from the state TAFEs this will seem less unlikely than impossible. Certainly training curricula reform will depend on the authority of Jobs and Skills Australia (“the Australian National Training Authority, of not so fond memory but bulked-up,” a veteran observer of Federalism in training suggests).

But maybe the times are suiting training in ways where individual universities cannot compete, at least in creating qualifications, with broad occupational competencies, plus generic skills – and that bridge the less divide than chasm now separating training and HE.

The prospect of an individual university negotiating pathways with TAFEs for all the vocations they both teach seems unlikely. The Accord also includes a recommendation (38) that could mean TAFE’s would not even bother in growth fields. Mary O’Kane and colleagues, propose the Commonwealth encourage and assist TAFEs to become self-accrediting organisations in higher education. Plus, they could be self-accrediting for VET diploma courses, “in areas of national priority, starting with areas such as net zero emissions, care and digitisation.”

An expert group reporting to the Commonwealth and State Skills and Training Minister’s minco, chaired by TAFE policy veteran Craig Robertson, is on to this.

Its new report on qualification reform sets out what VET must deliver, because the world of work voced was created to serve no longer exists; “higher order knowledge and skills … across a far larger proportion of the labour market and society than when the VET qualifications system was first designed in the 1980’s. There is an increasing need for technical skills to be supported by knowledge in order to prepare students for the jobs of the future.”

And so what VET provides must change; “both knowledge and skills are core prerequisites for secure work and provide the foundation for lifelong learning as individual and employer needs change. Use of digital tools and automation of routine tasks is driving the reorganisation of work, and all workers need knowledge and skills to navigate blurring boundaries.”

How to create qualification models to accomplish this is bewildering in complexity and may well fall victim to TAFE systems that don’t want to change – or can’t. But the report makes plain VET needs to change, “students transitioning to Higher Education struggle to gain credit for VET qualifications due to uncertainty about how performance-based competency can be translated or trusted as a proxy of learning and knowledge which underpins higher education. Transition and credit recognition between VET and Higher Education are now critical issues for many industries, as they build knowledge and skills across their workforce and redistribute work roles.”

If whole State systems can do this, voced could eat a big slice of higher education’s lunch.



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