Diploma’s or Certificate – Employments outcomes v Qualification level (The problems of Australia’s debt fuel Diploma industry)

Given a number of discussion I have had recently around Vocation training (VET) in Australia and in particular the rise of debt funded diploma industry I thought I might take a look at some actual figures and see whether or not getting a Diploma (AQF level 5) made any significant difference to employment options and outcomes, or whether it was the case that a lower AQF qualification, in particular level IV or III actually had the same or better outcomes in terms of employment.  So to the figures.

As most of you know NCVER is the place to go to look at statistics relating to the VET industry in Australia.  Now it is important to note that this data is around 12 months old, but still I think worth looking at now if only in the context of us then being able to comment on the new data when it comes out.

If we look at the student outcomes to total VET activity by key measures table it seems to be at least to my eyes beginning to tell us some interesting stories.  If we look at table 21 – Key findings for graduates by qualification firstly what do we see?


We see that the biggest proportional increase in employment before and after training at 8.9% is at the Certificate II level with the Certificate III (7.8%) and Certificate I (6.9%) not far behind.  The lowest performers (and significantly lower are Certificate IV and Diploma or above Qualifications at 1.6% and 1.7% respectively.

When we look at table 22 which represent module completer’s rather than graduates we see that the situation is even worse with what appears to be almost 1% fewer people employed out of those that started but did not complete a diploma level course again with the result better at a certificate III, II and I level.

And the trend continues when we look at Improved employment status after training for those employed before training,  at a certificate III and II level  21% of respondents were employed at a higher skill level while only 14% and 10 % for Diploma’s and Certificate IV’s.  Of those not employed before training 51% of Certificate III graduates were employed after the training as opposed to 43% at a Diploma level.


So what does this all mean?

Well and I am happy to take any challenges to this as I am now making some assumptions, what I think it shows is that if you are unemployed your best choice in terms of what training to undertake in order to maximise your ability to gain employment is to undertake a certificate III level qualification.  It also seems even if you are employed and you want to improve your employment outcomes a certificate III is still the better option.  This becomes even more relevant when we start to consider the relative costs of certificate III vs Diploma programs.  Certificate III, negligible cost to participant due to direct government funding arrangements versus up to $20,000 debt through government study assistance for a diploma.

It seems to me, and this has been my position for a long time, when we look at the vocational education system in this country and how it relates to that group of people who have for whatever reasons not gone on to tertiary education, it seems that the best approach is to undertake lower level courses (certificate II and III) courses to maximise the opportunity of gaining employment and then whilst employed access higher level training qualifications to improve overall job position.  This use of the system seems to be supported in general (particularly in QLD) by the structure of government funding, where Certificate III level qualifications are heavily subsidised for people without qualifications, yet higher level (IV and V) qualifications require participants to already be employed in the sector they wish to study in.  Also given that gaining a higher level qualification first, rules out the possibility of individuals or employers being able to fund lower level qualifications, it really does seem to me to be the case that you are far better off, starting at a lower level of qualification and working your way through the system, than starting higher up the ladder and hoping for an employment outcome.


Essential Skills – Learning in a digital, interfaced world

I have talked a number of times now about the concept of Interfaced Learning and as part of the discussions about this concept with a number of my greatly appreciated comment providers, one of the prime discussions has been around the concept of essential skills.  One of the reasons why I like thought experiments around the future of learning is that often they tend to give us quite deep insight into the issues facing us today.  So if we consider the world that I have posited on several occasions now, a world where skills and knowledge can for the most part simply plugged in, utilised and then discarded the concept of what basic skills would be essential for me to possess in order not only to be able to utilise technology like this but to utilise it well.  We can also place these ideas more firmly in the now by thinking about the learning through watching YouTube experience I have also mentioned previously, what skills did I need to have to be able to effectively utilise the skills I acquired through the process of interfaced learning.

Now if we take the example of undertaking some home renovation and picking up required skills along the way through watching YouTube.  It is clear that there are some obvious skills which are required in order to be able to do this, things such as;

  • manual dexterity
  • language and comprehension
  • numeracy and mathematics

But what else do we need, what other skills are essential to our ability to rapidly acquire and utilise new skills and knowledge.   What about skills (which are often thought of as being higher level skills) such as critical reasoning, the ability to evaluate options, the ability to extrapolate information (specific to general and general to specific).  We sometimes criticise the outcomes of learning programs without necessarily considering whether or not these higher level skills are present.  To give you an example I am currently working with a group of youths who are disengaged from the general school environment.  While for the most part they have quite good language, literacy and mathematics skills, one of the things I noticed they were missing very early on was the ability to take skills and knowledge from one environment and utilise them in another environment.  It was almost if they had to relearn skills that they actually had, but were unable to transfer to a new problem or task.  This meant that we actually had to spend a fair amount of time early on trying to teach them how to achieve this transference of information but in the long run it made the learning process much easier on them and us.


So I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts on  what you think the essential skills are that people need in order to be able to effectively learn.


Acquire – Utilise – Disacquire; The essence of Interfaced Learning

“The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”- Alvin Toffler


I was reminded recently of Toffler’s quote by a reader of one of my previous posts  and it, as it had done previously struck a chord with me, both at an individual and organisational level, particularly given the subject matter that I have been toying with over the last few posts I have made, that of Interfaced Learning.  While I think Toffler is to a large extent right, what I think we are beginning to see, with more and more how to videos, learning snippets, user-created content, or as Ryan Tracey suggested to me, technologically enabled distributed learning is that his quote maybe does not go even far enough.

I say this because when we look at a definition of learning say  the act of acquiring new, or modifying and reinforcing, existing knowledge, behaviours, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information.  I would suggest as I have elsewhere that this is, at least in a significant number of cases not what is going on with a lot of Interfaced Learning.  What is in fact happening is we are acquiring a new skill or knowledge, utilising that skill or knowledge and then either actively or passively disacquiring it.  For me whether we are actually learning something, in a traditional sense of learning is really up for debate.  Of course Toffler may in fact have quite a loose definition of learning in mind when he says this which works quite nicely if that is the case, however I think, while probably inherent in the thinking behind the quote, it is the ability to utilise the skills and knowledge acquired that is particularly interesting, particularly for organisations.

This is because, as I have spoken about previously, there are a number of areas where organisations are even now actively encouraging staff not to retain certain types of information and to simply access them when necessary.  An example of this is policy and procedure documents, where, rather than have staff print out these documents or attempt to commit the information contained in them to memory, the organisation’s preference is for the staff member to check the document (held in some form of online repository) to ensure that they have the correct and most up to date information on had.  Inherent in this concept then is of course the idea that the staff member will disacquire the information (I hesitate to use the word unlearn here because I don’t think there is any intentional learning going on here simply the acquisition of information), so that when they have to undertake that task again they will again check the information repository.

In the same vein a significant number of employers are now providing their staff with just in time style learning snippets; small, task specific e-learning modules, delivered through a range of devices to the staff who can access them prior to undertaking a task to refresh their memory on how the task is supposed to be completed.  This process even in this form again encourages and reinforces the Acquire – Utilise – Disacquire mindset of Interfaced Learning.  It is true that at least in most cases the staff in question have already received more formal or traditional training in the task, however due to the infrequency of the task or other factors a quick refresher is useful in assisting them to complete the task successfully.  Let us think about it for a moment though.  How far away are we from not providing specific training in the task in question and simply providing generic skills training over which and interfaced Learning program can be layered to provide the specific skills need to achieve the task at hand at the time they are needed.

On of the complaints often raised against traditional training is that of retention of learning.  As we are all aware if a staff member attends a course or does an online program and then does not have cause to utilise the skills and knowledge they learnt then they will quickly forget them.  This of course then creates a range of situations when however many months down the track from their initial learning of the skill the staff member is called upon to use it.  Perhaps it may be more efficient and cost-effective to ensure that staff members have the underlying skills and knowledge to allow them to rapidly Acquire – Utilise – Disacquire skills through some form of Interfaced Learning, than to try to ensure that they retain the skills and knowledge over and extended period of time.


Rapid Skill Acquisition and Instant Evaluation – The Evaluation of Interfaced Learning

Ask yourself this, if we think about just in time learning, utilising YouTube or videos to impart skills to staff, or even just staff reading a policy or procedure through an online portal, what result do we want this?  How can we tell if this skill acquisition through some form of interfaced learning has been successful?  How can we evaluate skills or knowledge, which as I have discussed in another post  may be disacquired as rapidly as we have acquired them.  The more I think about evaluation the more I feel that our traditional models aren’t designed to cope with a world in which just in time, rapid skill acquisition is becoming more prevalent.

If I think about the example I have used previously of me acquiring the skill to use a mitre box to cut ceiling trim and install it, I think this provides where my think sits on this.  So the question is how to evaluate whether or not the ‘learning’ was successful?  Well what was my (or to be truthful my wife’s) success criteria,  it was quite simply install ceiling trim.  So if that was the success criteria, then it would seem that I was successful.  I know I was successful because my wife was happy with the result.  The real question here for me is how long did that evaluation process take, well in reality it was almost instantaneous.  I completed the task and then got my wife to come in and evaluate it as soon as I was finished.

Now you might say that is a very simply example and that evaluating the  success or failure of a learning program at an organisational level is much more complex than that and while I think that is at leas to some extend correct I think there are also a range of learning interventions where trying to do something other than what I have outlined above simply overcomplicates the matter.

Certainly there are tasks, skills and knowledge that we want our staff to have learnt and integrated so that they can perform them independently, and without additional learning when they need to.  However there are a range of tasks within any organisation where what we want from the learning process is that when the person needs to undertake the task, they simply access the relevant information, perform the task and then move on.  It is the Interfaced Learning process that I have described elsewhere, where we don’t actually expect that the staff member will retain skills or knowledge for any longer than it is necessary for them to complete the task (Acquire, Utilise, Disacquire).  In these cases I would suggest that the best time and in really the only time we should be evaluating the effectiveness of the learning should be at the time, that is directly after they have completed the task in question.

Sure we can accumulate all of this data, from all of the Interfaced Learning activities across the organisation and then begin to analyse what worked better, what was successful and what wasn’t, but the success of the actual instances themselves is something that should be determined as soon as possible after the completion of the task in question.

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