Learning from other nations about how to put innovation runs on the board

The most recent VDC Newsletter considered the underutilised potential of the VET system to contribute to innovation in Australia’s public and private sectors (Hands-on innovation: Applied research as part of VET’s job description). It’s a topic prompting detailed attention across the country, from governments, industry and VET leaders.

The increasing interest is unsurprising given the innovation benefits other nations derive from structured incorporation of VET into innovation policy and systems. Earlier this year, the LH Martin Institute organised a mission of Australian TAFE leaders, supported by TAFE Directors Australia, which visited the Netherlands and Italy. The mission offered them a close up view of how tertiary institutions collaborate with industry to generate innovation.

The mission’s learnings are shared in the Institute’s report, Bridge to opportunity: TAFE as key partners in innovation ecosystems (52 pages). The report also surveys the central role played in national and regional innovation by Canada’s TAFE equivalents – Community Colleges and Institutes.

Benefits to small and medium-sized enterprises

The report offers fascinating examples that make the case for ramping up applied research capability in Australian TAFE providers. It is clear from the case studies that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have much to gain from localised access to the innovation expertise TAFE could offer.

The reforms adopted in other nations are by no means incremental. They represent visionary extensions to the way that vocational education institutions are structured and how they engage with industry. The Polo di Lecco in Italy’s north has 16 research labs that encourage ‘a high level of interaction between the research groups and local enterprises.’ The report describes the SME interactions of SMaRTLab – Sustainable Marine Research and Technology:

‘…this lab is highly responsive to the local environment and conducts experiments relevant to the manufacture and optimisation of production processes in the nautical field. Research is conducted with enterprises in relation to composite materials, workplace safety, development of monitoring systems and computation models in support of yacht design. It also focuses on design for waterfront structures, water sports, disability and physical and social rehabilitation.’

All research projects intentionally involve students, offering them hands-on learning that deepens technical skills, develops employability skills, shapes innovation capability, and maximises engagement.

Professional development is essential

The LH Martin Institute report offers a string of practical strategies for moving Australia’s TAFE Institutes into Australia’s innovation game.

In particular, it marks out professional development for VET practitioners as an essential step. The report recommends funds are made available to ‘support the development of applied research capacity and creation of dedicated positions across TAFE Institutes and the TAFE divisions of Dual Sector Universities.’ It’s a proposal that echoes one made by the NCVER in considering applied research expansion in the VET sector (as the VDC Newsletter reported here).