A new report links graded VET assessments with improved productivity

Paul Krugman, a recipient of the Nobel Prize for economics, once wrote:

‘Productivity isn’t everything, but, in the long run, it is almost everything. A country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker.’

Raising productivity is an ever-present challenge. We constantly need new strategies to tackle it. Recognising that, in 1998 the Australian government set up the Productivity Commission (PC) to advise on how to maintain high productivity. Its brief is wide; as its website says, the PC’s ‘activities cover all levels of government and encompass all sectors of the economy, as well as social and environmental issues.’

In October, the PC released Shifting the dial: 5 year productivity review, weighing in at 255 pages. Helpfully, chapter 3, Future skills and work, claims just 40 pages and encompasses everything from early childhood education to lifelong learning.

VET contribution to productivity is foundational and complex

An introductory section to chapter 3 is titled ‘If we had to pick just one thing to improve it must be skills formation.’ The productivity rationale for that ‘pick’ is simple:

‘The focus of this chapter is on skills formation because technology adoption, use and diffusion — the long-run drivers of productivity — require people with the right skills.’

The PC recognises the VET system has a complex job:

‘Not only does the system need to provide broad ranging job-related training relevant to employers, it must do so for a wide variety of students with very different needs. It is expected to be a place where young people leaving school can pursue non-academic pathways, where workers can retrain and gain new skills to keep pace with a changing economy, and where people marginalised by the traditional education system can get a second chance.’

The benefits of grading

Acknowledging those intricacies hasn’t stopped the PC from seeking to add more complexity by proposing we introduce proficiency grading. Instead of binary competent/not competent assessments, the PC proposes ‘grading of the relative performance of students.’ It sees four productivity benefits in proficiency grading:

  • create incentives for attainment of excellence for students (because it positively affects job prospects and wages)
  • provide information to employers to enable efficient recruitment and job matching
  • give the VET system the necessary status to compete with other routes (such as university) to a successful career
  • assist future learning pathways for students wanting to upgrade from a vocational qualification to a university qualification.

The main obstacle to a grading system is often cited as difficulty in designing one governments and employers can agree on. The PC suggests starting small and smart:

‘The Australian Government – in conjunction with State and Territory Governments and the Australian Industry and Skills Committee – would initiate planning for proficiency-based assessment processes… Models would be the subject of employer and VET provider review, with a process that supported early adopters to trial and deliver proficiency assessments. Before their broader application, an evaluation of the trials should be completed, with wider consultation across employer groups and institutions.’