Recently Professor Leesa Wheelahan returned to Australia for a brief visit.

She looked at a new social settlement for TAFE. Timely, given current and possible future reviews of the VET sector.

Grist for the mill of current and possible VET reviews?

In mid-February this year, both Leesa Wheelahan and Shelley Mallett spoke at a seminar sponsored by the Centre for Vocational and Educational Policy at the University of Melbourne. In it they presented their ideas for radical changes in governance, institutional arrangements, funding and challenged the core philosophy underpinning the VET sector.

In the light of the current review of vocational education by the Hon. Steven Joyce and a proposed review should Labor win Government at the next election, it is timely to take a look at what she has put forward. You can watch her presentation and access her PowerPoint here. We will focus on Shelley’s presentation in another article later this month.

So, what does Prof Wheelahan have to say?

Between 2008 and 2016 the university sector has grown, but publicly-funded VET has declined. In VET, links between the training undertaken and jobs are weak in many cases.

Leesa pointed to the privatisation and marketisation of a range of public services, including aged care, child care, disability and employment and job network services, and VET. She argues that increasing levels of regulation have had to be used in all these cases to control rogue operators. In short, she argues that – for VET – human capital theory doesn’t work because the relation between education, skills and economic growth is not simple and linear from supply to demand for skills. In addition, economic development is cyclical, not linear and the approach ignores local and regional contexts.

She argues for a move back to Kangan’s vision for vocational education. This is a move away from a human capital approach and back to one which is more about fostering the productive capabilities of individuals.

The challenge, as she sees it, is to modernise Kangan’s vision so that TAFE is part of social infrastructure, and is a central anchor for public policy objectives along with the rest of the VET system. Social inclusion and regional development also need to be part of this mix and there needs to be deep connections with local employers and communities.

Another challenge is providing locally responsive qualifications that are valued by individuals and employers.

The key notion is ‘productive capabilities’ focused on opportunities and possibilities by enabling people to live lives they have a reason to value, and by considering the individual person, their occupation and their community as well as supporting sustainable, regional economic and social development.

What is needed?

In short, she thinks we need a high-trust system with trusted qualifications that government, students, employers, unions, communities & industries have reason to value. VET also needs to have a different mission to schools & universities. Personally, I think this ‘mission’ needs to have parity of esteem too. It needs to be recognised and valued for what it does for individuals and broader society.

She also argues for taking a hard look at governance systems, and keeping a local flavour for these. Qualifications also need to be looked at with a focus on entry, progression, pathways and lifelong learning. Local relevance is an important component of what Leesa proposes. She sees the need to build communities of trust based on partnerships between TAFE, local communities and industry. The ‘system’ also needs to be one that supports institutional and teacher quality and builds intermediary bodies that link TAFE and regions and TAFE with industry.


And if you want to look at further resources, see a recent speech by Tania Plibersek, and the proposed terms of reference of Labor’s proposed review. Maybe also take a look at the series of articles published by L H Martin too?