Is there an argument for rationalising the number of VET qualifications?

This recent publication from NCVER looks at international approaches to this process and asks what can we learn from this.

There are a lot of qualifications at present

A little while ago, 2016 to be precise, NCVER published a report that looked at the number of qualifications in use. What they found was that, of the 70 plus training packages in use at that stage, “20 training packages supported 90% of the enrolments and the remaining 57 training packages had 10% of all enrolments.” In fact, two training packages accounted for around 30% of enrolments!

In terms or qualifications, this report found that, of the 1600 qualifications that could be considered to be ‘in use’, just two hundred of them attracted some 85% of all enrolments. In fact, 14 qualifications account for around 25% of all enrolments. However, the remaining 15% of enrolments are spread around 1400 qualifications, and just over 280 qualifications had no enrolments at all over a two-year period (2014-2015).

All this raised the conception of developing a more limited number of broader qualifications: those with the potential to form streams or routes into related occupational areas, the argument being that such a design allows extra flexibility and transitions between occupations and training. This has been examined in Australia by Wheelahan, Buchanan and Yu (2015) and has been flagged for implementation in the United Kingdom (UK). One particular medium-term goal proposed here in Australia was “renovate VET qualifications to produce ‘adaptive capacities’ for work”. More recently such capacities have been flagged in the emphasis on 21st Century Skills which we have highlighted before in VDC News.

In this latest work, by Bridget Wibrow and Joanne Waugh, and called  “Rationalising VET qualifications: selected international approaches” found that a number of countries, including Finland, England, the Netherlands and New Zealand have also moved that way. The two main ways of doing this are, first, “reviewing existing qualifications and removing those not in use or [that] are duplicates.” In all cases this has led to a significant reduction in the qualifications ‘on the books.’ In New Zealand’s case they have reduced the numbers by 80% to 909, but Finland and the Netherlands have reduced theirs by about 30 to 50 percent. The UK has around 5000 qualifications in its sights because they have no, or low, enrolment numbers.

The second way is “reorganising qualifications into clusters, routes or vocational pathways” as Wheelahan and her colleagues have proposed. While there are a number of ways of doing this, Bridget and Joanne’s paper points out that: “the underlying principle is the same — to study a broad-based qualification, with the option of specialising later.”

The UK has adopted T level routes, which involve initial 2 years of study for 1800 hours with an associated industry placement in a range of subject areas followed by specialisations. You can get some more information about them in Bridget and Joanne’s paper or here.

In Finland, England and the Netherlands, the basic structure of each qualification comprises units related to general capabilities, and a technical component, covering vocational skills

relevant to several occupations. The emphasis on general capabilities may well have advantages for Australia as generic competencies, 21st century skills, or whatever you might call them tend to be underdone in this country at present and are generally not rigorously assessed or really assessed at all.

Rationalising and generalising qualifications may have significant benefits (and as many of you will know only a relatively small proportion of VET students work in their field of training after qualification – although the trades are a noticeable exception!). However:

“by grouping similar occupations according to common capabilities and developing training content based on these groups, individuals can train for a number of occupations rather than one, with the option of specialising down the track.”

What are the lessons for Australia then?

First, rationalisation may open up employment options. It will also mean that qualifications can be more broad-based and flexible. Bridget and Joanne also suggest that:

“a reduced number of qualifications in the VET system, units of competency, skill sets and micro-credentials will be increasingly important for providing skills specific to an occupation and for allowing a quick response to emerging skill needs or regional needs.”

One possible ‘fly in the ointment’ they point to, though, is that:

“An additional consideration for Australia, not raised in the international research, is that qualifications for some industries are embedded in industrial awards, with implications for industry engagement and timelines on any VET rationalisation or clustering work.”

Let’s see what happens and if the VET sector and others are up for some change.