As pointed out in the first article in this issue of VDC News, the Employment White Paper is a rich document for those of us in VET. In particular, Chapter 5 is concerned with investing in skills, tertiary education and lifelong learning. This article highlights this chapter.

Commonwealth Minister for Skills and Training Brendan O’Connor addressed the National Press Club on 3 October and focused on skilling the nation for the future. In his speech he covered a lot of ground, starting with the vision of the Kangan Review in the 1970s to being critical of the role successive governments have played in casting “TAFE, community providers, and the VET sector adrift from its purpose of national prosperity” and creating sector which “has endured underfunding, de-regulation, loose rules of VET market entry, a lack of national cohesion and an obsession for competition at the expense of collaboration.” The press releases and commentaries have been popping up left and right too.

Amongst other things, the focus the Minister highlighted in his Press Club speech are the conclusion of a national skills agreement, and the creation of TAFE Centres of Excellence “to increase the collaboration between universities and the VET sector and deliver the skills and knowledge our labour market and economy requires.” (VDC News also highlighted the issue of whether we should set up Centres of Excellence.)

He also mentioned the work of the Qualifications Reform Design Group too, noting that:

“I have asked the group to look at how we keep the best of what we have where it is working, and how we can adopt different approaches in industries and jobs where it makes sense.”

Ultimately, Minister O’Connor suggests “we need to make it easier for workers to gain transferable skills so they have more mobility and more choice” as well as recasting VET “to make it less fragmented and rigid, and more responsive and user friendly.”

What’s in Chapter 5 of the White Paper, though?

High quality and responsive education and training systems are pivotal to creating a resilient workforce, the paper suggests, and what’s needed is an education system that equips people “with the capabilities and skills necessary to respond to changes in the labour market.” This means supporting people to develop “core occupational and employability skills.” A good, but not overly prescriptive, skills forecasting system is needed, therefore. A lot of this work will fall to Jobs and Skills Australia (JSA) and the newly formed and industry led Jobs and Skills Councils (JSCs).

VET has a major role to play

“The VET system is a major pathway to deliver the future workforce,” and will play a significant role in meeting the rising demand for quality care and support services, increased use of digital and advanced technologies and the net zero transformation highlighted in the first article in this issue. (The chapter also goes into a fair bit of detail about each of these priority skills areas.)

However, the paper suggests a more coordinated approach to the VET system by government and industry is needed.

Priorities include helping school leavers make better career choices, expanding course and qualifications options – including the development and implementation of shorter courses and credentials, lifting VET completion rates across the sector, expanding digital expertise, improving options and availability of workplace learning and elevating the status of VET programs and pathways. However, as the chapter notes:

“perceptions and attitudes about VET pathways and lack of awareness about rewarding career pathways can contribute to people choosing higher education over a vocational qualification. This has consequences for students whose expected returns to training would be greater from VET than higher education, and for shortages of in demand vocational occupations.”

These are issues VDC News has touched on before in these pages, most recently on career guidance here.

Lifting training quality

Lifting the relevance and quality of training in VET must be a priority in meeting future skills needs, the chapter points out. What’s needed are VET qualifications that are up to date and support quality in training outcomes. This is why the Reform Group’s work is so important.

In addition, the chapter sees TAFEs as central to this quality improvement process and they “can lift the quality of VET by trialing innovative teaching and learning approaches, developing new curriculum and course materials, and supporting VET workforce initiatives.” But they need to feel free enough to be able to do this.

As the chapter points out: one of the core differences between higher education and VET is higher ed’s ability to self-accredit courses, but’s VET’s lack of this freedom “does not allow for the same level of flexibility to meet new industry or local labour market needs.” This is where trust and freedom battles it out with regulatory restrictions and a compliance mentality.

Finally, the chapter calls for better collaboration between VET and HE and adopting a more “whole of tertiary system approach.” This is hard at present, the chapter points out, because of “differences in funding, information or regulation, a lack of credit transfer or the perceived status of the different pathways.” The Universities Accord may offer some ways forward, however – so we’ll be keeping an eye on what emerges there.