The Business of Vocational Education – Purpose
September 19, 2016 4 Comments
What is the purpose of Vocational Education? For me this is a really important question because I think our answer to this question will have some wide-reaching implications for how we might view the sector, and how we might be able to conceive of a business model which would be ethically and financially sustainable and meet the needs of the many and varied stakeholders within the sector. If we look at a simple definition from the Australian government, Vocational Education and Training (VET) is designed to deliver workplace-specific skills and knowledge, and covers a wide range of careers and industries, including trade and office work, retail, hospitality and technology. While this is a solid definition, I tend to think that it does not go far enough, simply because it fails to mention the link between VET and employment or workforce participation. Other definitions talk about it as preparing participants for work or for advancement, by providing with the skills and knowledge mentioned in the original definition and this is I think an important link in the VET chain.
It is an important link because if we consider VET as related to workforce participation (whatever that might mean in the long run) then that changes the dynamic and the purpose, at least to my mind. If the outcome or the aim for someone undertaking a VET course is a greater level of workforce participation, rather than just to undertake study for the purpose of study, then what an ethical business model is going to look like is certainly going to change as well. I say this because ones ability to participate in the workforce is not solely dependent on having a piece of paper which indicates that you should possess certain skills or knowledge. I have over the years fired heaps of people who had pieces of paper that said they knew and could do certain things, but after a short period of time it became abundantly clear that they could not. It is actually having the skills and knowledge which the paper you have says you have and being able to put them into practice which at least to some extent determines how long you will be able to participate in the workforce. If we put the idea of producing competent graduates who can participate in the workforce at the center of our business model, then a lot of other structure around what that model might look like seems at least to me to be self-evident.
It is easy to see the first things to go in approaches such as this. Models that preface provider growth on the strength of continuing streams of enrolments, or where the central concern is the issuance of certificates to generate payments are going to have a difficult time justifying themselves; whereas models which consider the student experience and competence outcome as their central focus are going to be those that make the grade. This should however be taken to suggest that a provider cannot be both student focused and profitable, the two are not mutually exclusive at all, nor should it preclude us from suggesting that the delivery of vocational education should not managed in as cost-effective way as possible. It is simply a recognition that what we should always be seeking as an outcome is competent graduates, graduates who have the potential to participate in the workforce, even if for whatever reason they do not.
These concepts of competent graduates, workforce participation and cost effectiveness become even more important when publicly funded rather than personally funded vocational education is considered. It could be suggested that where someone is funding their own education, providing we meet the outcome of competency, the need for a workforce participation outcome seems not to be as strong. It does need to be suggested here though that where the ‘personal’ funding’ is something like an income contingent loan scheme (such as VET FEE Help) I tend towards the suggestion that workforce participation and cost effectiveness or ROI come back into play, and all three need to be present.
So it seems to me that the purpose of being in this industry should be to provide high quality learning which leads to competent graduates with improved workforce participation potential in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Now if we believe this it seems to give us very solid base from which we can develop an ethically and financially sustainable business model.
Anyway that’s just my opinion.