Yet another report from NCVER (yes, this issue of VDC News is also a bumper NCVER one!) explores whether aligning VET and higher education (HE) can be better aligned ‘to enable students to move between, and draw from, both sectors.’

As the title suggests, it’s about trying to ‘have the best of both worlds.’ The thought has been around for long time, but what would help make it a reality?

Pathways or integration?

There is a long history of trying to make our whole tertiary education sector work better and be more integrated. The Bradley Review of 2008 was one attempt and, exploring ways of making pathways between the VET and HE sectors work better – in both directions – has been a policy and research focus for some time. However, the fact that we don’t see a strong level of integration is likely because:

‘The two sectors differ in purpose and content, they also offer different experiences of teaching and assessment and are funded, regulated, governed and culturally valued in different ways.’

Steven Hodge and Elizabeth Knight in their recently published report ‘The best of both worlds? Integrating VET and higher education’ suggest that ‘highly integrated VET and HE qualifications are difficult and expensive to develop.’ This, they believe, is primarily due to the comprehensive mapping of VET and HE content required to make this work, and a range of other challenges, which include ‘overcoming competitive pressures between the integrating institutions, convincing industry and employers to invest in and recognise integrated arrangements and creating delivery schedules acceptable to students.’

Integrative models that can be considered potentially include qualifications that are ‘consecutive’, ‘concurrent’ or ‘embedded’ but might also include those that are endorsed: that is, where ’a specific course at specific provider [is] indicated, but with credit unspecified.’ This latter one is a lower level of integration, and the three higher integration models can be difficult and expensive to develop, Steven and Elizabeth suggest.

Thus, sustaining the qualifications and their associated practices is the issue. In the authors’ view, certain conditions need to be met to make things work, including students finding the integration attractive and the associated demands acceptable along with industries and employers seeing the value of integrated VET and HE qualifications. In addition, VET and HE providers need to see value in collaborating and be supported with the expertise and resources to undertake mapping processes.

What’s needed to make integration sustainable, then?

Steven and Elizabeth suggest a range of characteristics commonly needed for sustainable integrations. These include (and to quote them):

  • adequate provision of resources and expertise to prepare mapping documents
  • high trust between, and support from within, integrating institutions
  • formal collaboration of teaching teams across institutions
  • geographically close provision of both VET and HE elements
  • industry and employer support and recognition of both the VET and HE components of integrated qualifications
  • typical patterns of student study and employment, which make study of VET and HE components feasible over the longer-term.

But there are caveats!

Steven and Elizabeth argue that

‘greater programmatic integration of qualifications may not be the best way to promote greater integration of VET and HE, largely because of the difficulties in developing and sustaining them. Further, integrated qualifications would only be useful in some industry areas, and not necessarily in large numbers. They may only be viable as niche offerings and where the conditions listed above are met.’

And finally:

‘Less tightly integrated models of integration that do not require the same investment and expertise to initiate are likely to be a more sustainable approach.’