Vocational training is too complex, too job-specific, too underfunded

Vocational education is underfunded, understood by too few, and too specific to allow students to go on to further education. Shutterstock

The Australian government is reviewing vocational education and training qualifications. The aim is to streamline a system that has educators, employers and government baffled by its complexity. The government has released two discussion papers exploring some of the major issues facing vocational education.

Work-ready doesn’t have to mean job-specific

While the review is meant to be about vocational education qualifications, it hasn’t included curriculum. The biggest issue, not raised in the discussion papers, is that vocational qualifications have to be related directly to job tasks.

Most agree that vocational certificates and diplomas should be related to work more closely than the bachelors and masters degrees that prepare graduates for an occupation. But the specifications for vocational qualifications can require them to cover anything from 20 to 200 job skills. They are specified too narrowly and tied too specifically to immediate job tasks.

The focus is on preparing graduates for specific jobs, but this doesn’t prepare them for the future. Vocational education should provide graduates with the knowledge and skills they need for a career and for further education, as is required by the Australian Qualifications Framework.

The national standards for vocational education should be greatly reduced to a minimum needed to ensure that qualifications are recognised nationally. Rather than focusing on tasks at work, vocational education qualifications should focus on the knowledge, technical skills and attributes that graduates need for a career in their chosen field.

Funding cuts mean quality cuts

A big issue raised in the discussion papers is the variable and in many cases low quality and standards of teaching and assessment. There are two fundamental causes for this, and the discussion papers steadfastly ignore both.

The most obvious cause of poor quality vocational education is the unrelenting cuts in funding per student training hour. Both major political parties at both major levels of government have overseen these cuts for over a decade.

This has been elaborated by Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute and discussed in The Conversation. Vocational education is the only sector in which cuts to funding and costs are interpreted as increased efficiency. In school and higher education such cuts would immediately raise concerns about the obvious risks to quality.

Another major cause of poor quality ignored by the discussion papers is governments’ construction of vocational education markets, which encourage profit-driven providers to cut costs and hence quality and standards. Currently, 4,604 organisations are registered to offer vocational education. Many of these are also approved by state governments to receive subsidies and by the Australian government to offer fee loans to their students.

While governments have started increasing registration conditions, there are still too many providers that are too small, under-resourced or too little committed to vocational education rather than to their profits.

The discussion papers consider options for increasing the rigour of assessment with required assessment tasks, external checking and external tests. However, as the discussion papers note, such measures are expensive and have a considerable risk of standardising curriculum.

Who should decide the requirements for vocational qualifications?

The discussion papers seek to solve some of the problems arising from marketising vocational education by introducing yet more marketisation. They recommend contracting out the development of the requirements for vocational qualifications.

This just creates a new set of problems with bodies potentially acting in their own market interests rather than in the interests of students, or the system. This in turn will require the government to introduce more layers of monitoring and control over developing requirements for qualifications, by contracts rather than regulation, but external control nonetheless.

Currently the government not only specifies the standards for vocational qualifications but also specifies the qualifications that providers may offer. This has led to a proliferation of qualifications. Some are never offered, others have minimal enrolments Australia-wide and many are under-used. This is an extraordinary waste of public money.

The government should retain central control over fewer qualification standards but allow providers or groups of providers such as TAFE systems to develop qualifications. This would ensure that only qualifications in demand would be developed and offered.

It would maintain qualifications’ national consistency while allowing providers to respond much more directly to the interests of their students and the employers of their graduates. It would give employers much more involvement in the aspects of vocational education that concern them most directly, and hence greatly increase vocational education’s responsiveness to employers.

The discussion papers continue the long and lamentable systematic exclusion of educators from participating in decisions about vocational education policy. This has led to the erosion of the educational value of vocational education. At the very least the government should require contractors who develop qualifications standards to demonstrate that they understand how people learn vocational knowledge and skills, as this is the whole point of vocational education.