The word ‘curriculum’ largely disappeared from the VET lexicon but seems to be re-emerging. Recently, four well known VET researchers (Steven Hodge, Anne Jones, Melinda Waters and Hugh Guthrie) had a paper published in the International Journal of Training research entitled ‘Curriculum across the great divide: exploring a key problem of Australian tertiary education.’

This is in the light of calls for “a better integrated and harmonised tertiary system,” most recently manifested in both in the final report of the Universities Accord Panel and the Australian Government’s recent White Paper on Employment and Jobs. As we noted in VDC summary of the Universities Accord report:

“… a range of regulatory, institutional, administrative and cultural issues have all contributed to stifling collaborative momentum and movement within and between VET and Higher Education institutions. It may also mean reshaping what tertiary providers do and how they work.”

The four authors of this recently published paper on curriculum argue that: “The Australian competency-based model has been politicised over the last few decades, leading to fetishisation of the standards used to guide learning and teaching in VET and fostering distinct approaches to curriculum in the two systems.” They also argue that “an expanded concept of curriculum could lead to a renewal of VET and simultaneously promote generative articulation between the two tertiary systems [higher Ed and VET]” rather than having a “divided tertiary education sector [which] presents a barrier to individuals who need to navigate the tertiary divide during their career and lifelong learning journey.”

The paper highlights “differences between the VET and HE systems and, specifically, differences of theory and practice relating to curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, teacher qualifications and regulation, as well as differences in funding policy and market positioning.” And, just in case we think moving from VET to HE has barriers, the paper also points out that there are also barriers to movement within HE itself because self-accrediting HE institutions are able to “design distinctive qualifications that align with their institutional vision and aspirations for their graduates but do not necessarily actively promote high levels of inter-institutional recognition.” Training Packages, on the other hand, are supposed to allow a qualification delivered by one provider to “have the same outcomes as that from a different provider.” However, Training Packages and the competency-based approach on which they are built fails “to develop broader and more abstract professional knowledge bases” that are presently needed in a modern workforce.

Issues with developing and delivering curriculum

The paper points out that the “Australian form of CBT … is leveraged to give industry control over the formulation of the [competency] standards, leaving the teaching or the ‘delivery’ of them to training providers and teachers, albeit within significant constraints.” Moreover “for many years, VET providers and teachers have been excluded from the work of formulating standards, and by the same token, ‘industry’ has had relatively little to do with the delivery of competencies.”

Nevertheless, the paper argues strongly that “teachers are, in a sense, representatives of all the stakeholders that shape curriculum, whether governments and providers, academic disciplines, professions, industries, unions or employers and are ultimately responsible for translating curriculum into meaningful experiences and outcomes for students.”

However, “auditing and compliance have become a time-consuming and dominant constant in Australian VET provision, and much of the auditing effort is devoted to verifying delivery of competency standards in exactly the way they are expressed in the documents” and this compliance culture has arguably been at the expense of promoting improved delivery quality, flexibility and innovation. In fact, and as the paper points out, “teacher time that might be spent on continuously improving teaching and learning through practice-based inquiry and reflection is instead spent on relentless form completion and other compliance and administrative tasks.” Thus, we may now need approaches that are fit for purpose for particular occupations rather than the current more standardised way of doing things. In short, the VET system needs “to allow different industries to express standards in ways appropriate to those industries for the standards component of curriculum to truly serve the specific character of each industry involved.”

So, what needs to be done?

One thing the paper suggests is to significantly reduce “the curricular imposts of competency standards in VET.” As the authors note:

“A fundamental point here is that a renewal of VET curriculum could take industry-devised standards (whether competencies or some other form of skill standard) as one reference point to be balanced with other reference points, including the needs of students and local and/or innovative employers. Industry standards (like professional standards or implicit disciplinary standards in higher education) could retain a role in a renewed VET curriculum.”


“A shift to a deliberative curriculum approach in VET would not dispense with subject matter, whether in the form of units of competency or another type of standards regime, but call for a more expansive and forward-looking conception of it.”

Therefore, “an alternative curriculum model for Australian VET [can be] based on three capability domains: the knowledge base of practice, the technical base of practice and the personal attributes needed for a given occupation or profession,” including advocating for an emphasis on ‘21st Century Skills.’

In short, the paper argues for an expansive approach to conceiving and delivering VET subject matter, including involving students in the curriculum development process so that we learn from their real world and lived experience.

One of the outcomes of the VET Qualification Reform Group may also be to reconceptualise VET qualifications and what goes into them in terms of subject matter being concerned with standards, especially if they are “taken to represent those aspects of an occupation or industry that are not only essential and valid but also enable portability of learning, especially with regard to technical skills, 21st century skills and disciplinary knowledge.

As the paper argues,

“A better outcome would be to allow standards formulation to be simpler and less prescriptive, and a matter for individual industries to determine. HE and VET providers and teachers could complement this information with other subject matter, along with information about students and milieu, all guided by those with specialist educational knowledge (teachers).”

In fact, what this also means is that we might need to rediscover and awaken curriculum research in VET, which was so strong through the 1980s and early 90s.