The main game for Australia in the view of the fifth interim report of the Productivity Commission’s (PC’s) look into Australia’s productivity is to boost productivity with a good education system.
This report, “5-year Productivity Inquiry: From learning to growth”, and its related media release, points out “high-quality school and tertiary education systems are vital for a productive workforce.” We’ll concentrate on the tertiary education side in this article.
In a quote from their media release one of the PC’s Commissioners, Dr Alex Robson, suggests that:
“For VET and higher education, the question is not just what to teach, but how to teach it.” “It could also be beneficial to explore current funding structures that distort the choices of students in favour of universities over VET, limit competition between providers, and restrict the number of available student places.”
“The solution isn’t just simply to provide more places; the answer is also to ensure that our education system can deliver improved and relevant skills.”
Two of the chapters in this interim report are of particular relevance to VDC News readers: one focuses on future skill needs (chapter 3) and the other on boosting learning outcomes with a focus on teaching quality and the impediments to it (Chapter 4). The Foreword to the publication is also a good read.
Investing in future skill needs
A key question, according to this interim report, is how effectively our education system delivers improved and relevant skills in return for the time and resources spent by students and others on gaining and growing them. Tellingly, the PC includes lifelong learning in the mix, not just schools, VET and HE. Technological change and the moves to a service economy also affects the nature of the skills and capabilities our economy needs. This extends to the need for core fundamental skills like literacy (including digital literacy) and numeracy and non-routine skills such as abstract reasoning, interpersonal communication or managing teams, which are also on the rise. This will require, the PC believes, a better mix of generalist and job specific skills, a greater focus on lifelong learning opportunities and innovation. This might include innovation in the approaches used to improve teaching quality.
Boosting learning outcomes and teaching quality
The Productivity Commission’s report argues that we really need high-quality teaching in the tertiary education system to help develop a productive workforce, but “there are obstacles to high-quality learning for students.” As the report points out:
“From a student’s perspective, ‘quality’ ranges from course delivery (content, teaching and assessment) to broader interactions with providers. A better experience means students gain more from the time and resources devoted to formal learning, and are ultimately able to bring more to the workforce. There is an opportunity to improve providers’ incentives to focus on students’ educational experiences, particularly given increasing diversity amongst students, technological challenges, and rapid changes in skill needs.”
What is crucial, they suggest, is an approach to teaching quality focused on continuous improvement, but this requires a change in regulatory focus. Happily, there are signs that this may be happening with changes in progress at ASQA, amongst other things.
The PC’s report suggests that providers lack incentives to invest in teaching quality. However:
“… this dynamic is challenged in tertiary education by inherent limitations to informed student choice [and in VET’s case we suspect it’s actual course availability] as well as the system’s funding and regulatory architecture.”
Training Packages are also a ‘regulated ‘product’ and because of their detail leave “less room to differentiate in the delivery of qualifications, particularly compared with universities who self-accredit courses.”
“Further, where VET registered training organisations (RTOs) have short-term annual renewal funding contracts with State and Territory governments, this can also create uncertainty that hampers their ability to invest in training quality (such as equipment, extended employment contracts, or professional development.”
Guthrie and Waters (2022) also found this in their work on the quality of VET delivery.
The report website provides access to the submissions to the inquiry by going here. The same site enables you to view any brief comments made too. Unfortunately, by the time this article comes out the date for the latest round of submissions will have closed. However, we will continue to monitor this work and report to VDC News readers when other material is released.