Let’s talk about the system before we talk about funding.

There has been a number of articles and papers popping up recently which have discussed the need to reform post secondary training and education funding in Australia.  Now while certainly I would agree that this is an issue which we need to look at, and one which requires careful consideration, I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t a little bit of the tail wagging the dog.  Bear with me while I explain.

There is always a lot of discussion about how VET in this country is funded, who should get what, should it be more competitive or less, what should be funded, the list is endless and so is the opinion and verbosity about it.  Firstly don’t get me wrong, I think that discussions around how we fund post secondary education and in particular VET in this country are vital to our ability to be able to deliver high quality educational outcomes and ensure equality of access to education in this country.  However all of this talk of funding obfuscates the real problem that underlies the entire sector and that is the question of what is the purpose of the sector and what we need to do to ensure that we have a system that best addresses that purpose.  I would hazard to guess that if we took the approach of making sure the system and purpose of the sector were aligned that we would need to spend much less time thinking about the who, what, and how of funding as hopefully the answer to these questions would be apparent as a result of how the system worked.

For quite a long time I have held the position that when we look at the VET sector, its purpose is fairly clear and that is that the purpose of Vocational education and training is to designed to deliver workplace-specific skills and knowledge to assist participants to improve their workforce participation options.  Now over the years people have suggested that this concept is to narrow and that the purpose is to increase the overall levels of education with in the country, so that we have in general a smarter better educated populous, because education and learning are ends in themselves and not simply means.  While I have some sympathy with the position and generally that education and learning are important in and of themselves, this is not and should not be the central purpose of vocational education in this country.  It is certainly not the purpose for which the vast majority of students use it for.

it is clear from years worth of data collected by NCVER and other places that more than 80% of all participants in VET are seeking to convert their participation in the sector and subsequent qualifications to improve their workforce participation levels, either through getting a job or by improving or changing the job role that they currently have.  If the vast majority of participants in the sector are seeking workforce participation improvements and the sector is, pretty much by the definition of the words themselves (Vocational, Education, Training), about delivering workplace skills, then it seems clear, at least to me, that the main purpose of the sector should be what I outlined above ‘to deliver workplace-specific skills and knowledge to assist participants to improve their workforce participation.’

Given the purpose which I have put forward this gives us a fairly solid foundation from which to commence building a system to deliver on that purpose.  I don’t propose to do all of that here and now, but I will point out a few things which instantly seem to pop out.  The first is that there must be a connection between the knowledge and skills being learnt by the participant and the role they want to utilise them in.  No point in teaching someone underwater macrame if they want to an airline pilot or teaching a prospective printer how to work a Gutenberg Press. This means that there must be an intimate connection between industry, content, delivery and assessment.  It also needs that the system needs to be agile enough to cope with rapid changes in the skills and knowledge base of particular industries.

It also means that the system must ensure the validity, particularly in terms of competency, of any qualification issued.  Participants must be able to convert their qualifications into workforce outcomes and the only way that can effectively happen is if there is robust confidence in the competency outcomes of the qualification.  If as an employer I cannot guarantee that a person a particular qualification or  a qualification from a particular provider, then I am less likely to allow the conversion of that qualification into a workforce outcome, which in turn undermines the entire system.  In fact if workforce outcomes are the primary purpose of a VET system then the ability to convert qualifications into those outcomes is the lynch pin.

As i said I am not going to try and develop and entire basis for a system here, but as i said earlier, while discussions about funding are vital, we need to ensure that we have a system that supports the purpose of what the sector is trying to do first.

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The Australian Industry and Skills Committee – Some Commentary

So as I am sure everyone is aware, last Friday Senator Birmingham (@Birmo) released the make up of the new Australian Industry And Skills Committee which as you may be aware forms part of the new structure for the development of training products within the VET sector, an outline of which can be seen in the graphic below.

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There was some criticism raised very quickly by the Shadow Minister for Education Sharon Bird  around there being no voice for students or workers and unions on the new committee.  So lets take a look at the committee, its purpose,  its make up and how it relates to the rest of the new arrangements.

So essentially, and I think this is a really easy way of thinking about how the new structure works, the AISC replaces and takes on that kind of role that was done by the old NSSC.  So it does things like endorse training packages, provide advice and input as to the general direction of VET, assess cases for review of packages and provide advice and input to government.  This is essentially a strategic level group and given the Governments ( in my opinion solid) focus on making sure that the training packages and their content strongly meet the needs of industry (it is as I have said before vocational training after all) I would have expected to see quite a large representation from industry within this committee.  When we look at the make up of the committee, we see at least in my opinion a group of people who have both very strong industry experience as well as very strong VET industry experience, at least in a substantial number of cases.  .

Now a lot has been made by Minister Bird and others about the lack of representation from students, workers and unions and RTOs on the Committe so lets take a look at these criticisms.  What we need to keep in mind though is that most of the hard work around the development of training products and engagement with all of the various stakeholder will be done at the next level down, by the IRCs supported by the SSOs.  So let’s look at the groups who it has been suggested should have had some representation on the committee.  If we start firstly with the RTOs themselves.  To be brutally honest I don’t think RTOs should be on a strategic level committee such as this one.  RTOs be they public or non-public are essential service providers, and generally it would be quite strange to have a ‘vendor’ being involved in and driving strategic level discussion around the the development of the product they are providing.  It would be very easy if RTOs were included at this level for a perception to develop that there may be a conflict of interest.  I also think that if there is a place for RTOs in the development of packages it is at that IRC level where most of the consultation with stakeholders will and should rightly occur.

So what about the workers and unions?  Again I tend to think as with RTOs that the place for the workers and unions is in the IRC space, where they are providing input into what the packages look like, what they contain, and what the delivery requirements are.  In addition isn’t the interaction between workers and the VET system pretty much the same interaction as students with the system.  I might be wrong there but I am not sure of how else ‘workers’ interact with the system.  I am also and I have mentioned this before in relation of a number of the previous ISCs that I was unsure of why there was union representation on the boards of these organisation anyway and to a large extent have never been given a satisfactory answer.  The same goes here, I wonder what is it that a union is going to bring to the table.

That then brings me to the issue of students and whether through some mechanism or other they need to have a voice in a high level strategic committee such as this.  My first question here is how would you include the voice of students at this level, there is no nation union of students for the VET sector (and given the state of the NUS in higher education why would anyone want there to be) or body that represents students in some other form, so finding some way of presenting at unified voice would be difficult.  Also,  students are essentially simply the consumer of Training products (now go and get all offended I know students are more than that really, but in this context that idea of the consumer captures their place quite well I think).  Again as with all of the other groups that have been ‘left out’, it seems to me that the appropriate place for them to have input and be involved in the process is at the level of the IRC groups, where they are far more clearly stakeholders with relevant input.

There is of course another group of people that I was really surprised had not been included in the list of those who should have made up the membership of the committee and that is trainers, assessors, educators, educationalists, whatever the group of people who are involved in the delivery side of the equation, but are not themselves RTOs wants to call themselves (on a side note I have a really interesting discussion about what is group should be called at the recent AITD conference).  Again I would see their place as one of the variety of stakeholders that should be involved at the level of the IRCs, in the actual development of training products and not at the level of strategic direction.

So am I happy with the make of committee?  Yes, at least the people on it have at least in my opinion the skills and backgrounds that they need for the role and there is plenty of space for the other stakeholders in the more hands on development area where the IRCs fit.

Anyway that’s just my opinion.

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