Regular readers of VDC News and anyone else with a vital interest in Australia’s VET system could not fail to notice all that is currently happening in the name of VET and skills reform.

These are focused on strengthening the role of industry and employers in the VET system, improving VET qualifications, and better supporting high-quality training delivery. It includes a move to industry clusters, the development of a VET workforce strategy, exploring the possibility of some RTOs self-assuring their quality and reforming the quality standards that drive regulators’ activities.

So, there is a lot on right now!

As someone who has been in the sector 40 years now, I am hoping all these potentially good intentions lead to some real and sustained improvements to the sector. But I guess I am old and cynical. The reason for this? Been there, done that and got the tee shirt. Also, as one of my old teachers at school used to remind us young aspiring students: the road to failure is paved with good intentions!

Some of the recent VDC News articles have pointed to national reform attempts in the past. By my count we are up to our fourth attempt to reform training packages. There has been sustained efforts to see how RTO quality and capability and the quality of VET teacher education could be improved. In a 2013 paper, entitled ‘Tell me the old, old story or new messages?: five decades of inquiry into VET teacher development’ Berywn Clayton and I explored decades of key reports on the issue. And, of course, there has been more work on this since then, not least of which is that taking a look at the TAE package or the need to provide high quality and sustained professional development.

So, it seems to me that a lot of the key problems in the sector are known, but will there be any real change? In that ‘old, old story’ paper we explored the extent to which the same issues emerged time and time again with no apparent progress. Our conclusion was that the issues with VET teacher development, whilst recognised, never seemed to be really resolved. The same might be said of the other issues with Australian VET identified above and which seem to be the focus of so much work at present. But, despite all the good intentions, effort and significant consultation, will things really change?

When we wrote the ‘old, old story’, we speculated that one of the reasons for the relative lack of change despite evidence of its necessity was that no one body or group has the power to make things happen, or to enact comprehensive solutions. As we noted at the time:

‘Rather, any attempted solutions have been piecemeal, or have turned into battles between jurisdictions or a variety of interest groups over whom, precisely, has responsibility for carriage of the issue. One of the truisms of implementing change comes from a quote in the Yes Minister episode, A real partnership, where Hacker remarks that:
In government, many people have the power to stop things happening but almost nobody has the power to make things happen. The system has the engine of a lawn mower and the brakes of a Rolls Royce.’

So, it’s a matter of overcoming VET system’s inherent inertia, and driving sustained change and improvement processes without getting distracted by immediate issues which seem to be of consequence at the time but really don’t help win the main, long game.

Robin Ryan, a long serving VET senior official and academic, noted in his paper ‘Landmarks in the governance and policy frameworks of Australian VET’:

‘The difficulties successive governments have faced in developing a coherent future direction for the VET sector can plausibly be argued to derive from a failure to face up to fundamental questions about the role and purpose of the sector. Many of these derive from the perennially unresolved ‘training or education’ dichotomy.’

Put more simply, he points out that ‘at base, there is a pressing need for policy makers to ask “what is VET for”, and more specifically, “to what extent is VET vocational”?’ He argues that only when a rational balance between a student-centred and industry-focused system and between educational quality and managerial demands is developed will it be possible to chart a coherent future direction for VET. I agree, but would add that it is RTO leaders, managers, teachers and other support staff that have to contend with, and balance, the variations in student and industry views. Thus, there is an argument that they are the ones most likely to effect lasting change. They are where the policy ‘rubber’ actually hits the road!