‘The past informing the future’ is the theme for NCVER’s 2021 ‘No Frills’ Conference. They have released a paper which questions the extent to which we are willing to learn from the past to help set the course for the future.

While one approach is to use scenario planning to chart alternative futures, another is to focus on persistent issues that need to be addressed to enable a better future for VET.

Why look to the past?

According to the paper’s author, NCVER’s Joanne Waugh, there are two reasons we look to the past: first, it enables us to take a look at “the context in which we make decisions,” and second, it enables us “to discover what does and does not work.” This process and the No Frills conference program and themes offer:

“an opportunity for those who are deeply invested in and passionate about VET to consider how the sector might shape its own future, based on learnings from the past.”

A growing and changing sector

Over many years we have seen VET go from TAFE (more or less) to VET; the rise and fall of ANTA; the coming of CBT and concerns about its prescriptiveness; the growth of industry’s role and influence on VET policy and practice; the use of Training Packages and concerns about them and the increased regulation and oversight of the sector with a focus on its quality and regulatory compliance – arguably at the expense of a focus on real quality. By any measures it’s a complex sector serving a variety of purposes and with a range of missions. Its funding, however, has been – and continues to be – a challenge.

At the same time, VET has grown and diversified in terms of its range of offerings, student numbers and variety of provider types. And, while the aim of reform and change has been to enhance and improve VET policy and practice, that has not always been the outcome. This is my rough summary of the ground the paper covers.

Purposes and roles

VET’s variety of purposes and roles carry with them inherent tensions, the paper points out. These include being a tool of economic policy and as a way of meeting the needs of employers for skilled workers whilst also enabling students to explore career options and gain longer term employability and life skills. At the same time the sector also provides foundational skills for those who might need them to pursue life and study options down the track. This is at the heart of the potential social benefits VET offers in tackling disadvantage.

The paper suggests that these tensions might be overcome by balancing the views of industry and educators in order to develop “more flexible and adaptable VET graduates.” It also requires a more flexible view about what represent the best outcomes and impacts of VET’s various activities. At its best, however, “one of VET’s key advantages lies in its ability to be a very sharp instrument when pointed in the right direction.”


There are a variety of persistent issues the paper highlights too. These include a lack of policy stability, change fatigue and a unified voice guiding the sector. Funding aims and approaches are also not aligned, and the sector continues to be seen as overly complex and opaque to its users. A greater degree of harmonisation would help improve things (and this might be achieved if current negotiations on a national agreement between the Commonwealth and jurisdictions are fruitful).

Another issue the paper highlights is ‘marketisation’ but market failure needs to be addressed by “appropriate regulation and oversight as part of a [well] ‘managed’ market approach.” Quality is another, with the quality and qualities of VET’s workforce being a central pillar, and the challenge is to develop and deliver sustainable approaches to their professional development. Perceptions about the sector is yet another, with many seeing it as too complex and a dysfunctional mess, which stand in stark contrast to VET’s many successes. But good news stories about VET, while there, are hard to find. Bad news stories are always more compelling.

Finally, data availability and reform are at the heart of things too, and the development and roll out of the Unique Student Identifier (USI) offers us the chance to see how the sector and its pathways into, out of, and within actually work!