The future of VET: What should it look like?
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 123 No 6, 31 August 2018, page no.23
In the lead up to the next federal election, a report into the structure and funding of post-compulsory education has been released under the imprimatur of the global consultancy firm KPMG.
Penned by Professor Stephen Parker, an ex vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra, the report reimagines the post-compulsory education sector with the federal government having primary responsibility for funding. It calls for the elimination of the distinction between higher education and vocational education and the creation of a monolithic and universal system of public funding, with income contingent loans available to public and private providers.
The report describes the parlous state that poor policy and underfunding have reduced vocational education to, but the recommendation that the post-compulsory education scene be homogenised has drawn the ire of Universities Australia, with their Chief Executive Catriona Jackson declaring the recommendations “bizarre”. Jackson sees the KPMG recommendations as spreading the ills that are plaguing vocational education into higher education. She makes the case that the current approach of parallel education systems has its strengths, and that the role of vocational education is distinct and important in its own right. Jackson draws on recent experience with the VET FEE-HELP scandal to warn against KPMG’s proposals re opening of funding more broadly in the university sector. She calls instead for a strong, properly funded vocational sector.
At almost the same time, the National Centre for Vocational Education Research released a report calling for urgent action to meet the needs of “the fourth industrial revolution”. The report, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: the implications for technological disruption for Australian VET”, is labelled for the impact of artificial intelligence and automation, a forthcoming industrial era that will supersede the three earlier industrial revolutions: steam, electricity and oil, and the digital computer. The report identifies that there is no one in either the higher or vocational education sectors teaching the content that will be required to be successful in the world of “Industry 4.0”, as this next era is known. Staff need to be brought up to speed and require fast track training to meet the challenges coming.
The paucity of training packages is also addressed in the report, with the system being seen as inadequate as a framework for providing skills and knowledge in this future world. The inflexibility of the training package system, with its inbuilt delays to change, will undermine the capacity of the training system to adapt in the face of increasingly fast-paced innovation.
It is clear that what is needed is leadership in post-compulsory education policy. There is unfortunately no bipartisan agreement on the issues plaguing the sector, and the current federal government seems content to fiddle around the edges. But this will not solve the inherent and intransigent policy problems of the vocational education sector that our public providers and our TAFE members struggle with on a daily basis. The AEU federally has been successful in convincing Labor to institute a national inquiry into the vocational education sector (albeit within the broader category of post-compulsory education). Hugh Guthrie of the L.H. Martin Institute of Melbourne University supports the call for a comprehensive review, given current policy decisions regarding vocational education are made by officials with no understanding of how it works. The last time such a review was held was in 1974, when the Kangan report outlined the need for a strong, professionally staffed, publicly funded vocational education sector - TAFE.