VOCEDPlus has recently published a ‘What if’ paper, entitled “What if we could eliminate the stigma of VET?” The paper was authored by Maree Ackehurst, Leesha Chan and Tania Erzinger.

Why this paper? It’s because a wide range of groups, including students and their families, school staff and faculty, careers advisors and employers have a range of perceptions about VET, some of which are negative and misguided, and this creates “a stigma associated with choosing a VET pathway.”

What are the perceptions?

VET has a parity of esteem problem especially when compared with higher education and is seen as a dichotomy between ‘jobs versus careers; technical versus analytical; applied versus theoretical and trades versus professions’. In addition, parents, and others, may have outdated ideas about vocational education and training and what it can do. There are concerns over whether VET leads to second best and low paying careers and whether VET is actually for the less able, non-academic students and dropouts. This means that VET is not promoted as an attractive option for young people and many also “still view university as the pathway to success and stability.” Many in society apparently know more about higher education than VET, and this is borne out by surveys. In my view, VET is its own worst enemy in that the very diversity of its roles and offerings means that it is very hard to get a precise handle on all the sector does! And, by the way, this issue is not unique to Australia!

What’s being done to help overcome these perceptions?

According to the paper, attention is focussed in a number of areas – some of which are longer term solutions potentially: quality and structural improvement; incentives for students and businesses; information provision and career guidance; marketing campaigns and rebranding and skills competitions. Let’s look briefly at each of these in turn.

In terms of quality and structural improvements the paper draws on international literature. For Australia, however, the paper concentrates on the new agencies set up nationally: the National Skills Commission and National Careers Institute. It also highlights changes at ASQA. For me (Hugh Guthrie, author), however, much of the perception problem is probably due to the bad press that occurred around the moves towards and away from marketisation and the scandals surrounding VETFeeHelp. This was a level of poor publicity that rarely affects higher education. What VET needs is good news stories and plenty of them clearly showing the benefits VET gives to individuals, employers and industry more broadly. The research has been done on the many benefits of VET, but the stories don’t get told effectively.

Financial incentives to individuals and employers are important initiatives too. Free TAFE has been one recent initiative, but in my view it maybe the upfront fees that some VET courses still have in contrast with deferred fee payment initiatives such as HECS.

In terms of information and career guidance, this has been a vexed issue for much of my time in VET. As the paper points out:

“One of the most prevalent themes emerging from the literature is the need for accessible, accurate and impartial information on VET to help potential students make informed decisions about their education and reduce the stigma barrier to VET.”

In short, it’s notions of prestige for parents, students and schools alike that pushes them all towards higher education. One thing that would help is if career guidance counsellors had a clearer idea of what the sector does and what the outcomes and available pathways are.

Effective marketing is important, the paper suggests, “to reach out to students and their families, as well as the broader public” and to “improve public perceptions of the VET sector.” This requires a wide messaging format, including television, websites, and social media. In addition, “communications should emphasise the concepts most important to young people, such as finding a job in line with their passions and individual skills.”

VET may need a rebranding the paper suggests, and a number of providers already do this to emphasise the market they are in and what they are trying to do. The Joyce Review recommended rebranding to an alternative such as ‘Skills Education’. And finally, of course, there are the skills competitions such as ‘WorldSkills’ that can have a positive impact.

Whatever is done, initiatives will have to be sustained and the people and policies driving these changes need to be in it for the long haul. We also need a whole range of stakeholders and the press to be more positive about VET rather than continuing to support the bad news stories that only perpetuate the biases against the sector and what it does.