October 8 to 10 saw nearly 800 delegates from 35 countries meet in Melbourne for the 2018 World Congress of the World Federation of Colleges and Polytechnics.

VDC was there too.

A full program

The opening ceremony saw a welcome to country by the Djirri Djirri Dance Group and keynotes focussing on the future and changing skill requirements. This was a recurring theme throughout the conference. Other themes included the future of teaching and learning, the future of colleges and polytechnics and, importantly, exploring how to make sure that ‘no one is left behind’ in this future.

The big issues

A few big issues continually emerged during the congress. The first was the future of work and the effects of automation, big data and digitisation on occupations. A second was the skills people would need to survive and succeed in this emerging environment. This means that learning needs to be ‘lifelong’, and so the way learning is designed and delivered needs to facilitate that. A third was the ways in which education and training, and institutions, will need to change to remain relevant in this emerging world.

The changing nature of work

Work is changing in a milieu of globalisation, changes in demography, shifting economic power, rapid advances in technology and the ‘gig economy’ and new forms of organisation which one keynote speaker described as more virtual and ‘uber like’. There are also growing levels of inequality. What this means is that some skills and jobs will be reduced or even disappear. New ones will emerge, though. Speakers emphasised that while these changes may appear scary, there are opportunities lurking there too when you look hard enough.

The key in this new world is work that people can do but machines and computers cannot. Three occupation areas remain in demand. These include systems integrators, that is, those individuals who bring together the component sub-systems into one system that is able to deliver the overarching functionality. Others are tradespeople and technicians (in certain industries) and those occupations which require personal involvement and emotional intelligence. Key personal qualities across the board will be adaptability and resilience, but how do they get, foster and maintain these sorts of abilities?

Moving to lifelong learning and embracing generic skills

Speakers suggested we are getting things the wrong way around in terms of what we are teaching:

“we’re teaching competencies that are easy to automate, and at the same time we’re neglecting foundation and generic skills.”

This means that we have to “look beyond, or underneath, the concept of ‘occupations’ and to analyse what it is that people actually do within a specified occupation.” This really does challenge the way we develop and describe ‘competence’ in our system.

We are also stuck, speakers suggested, in seeing VET as a front-end loading operation for children and young adults rather than fostering attitudes that focus on learning throughout life. Some speakers also believed that we needed to move beyond the concept of qualifications as a sorting and selection mechanism and move to one more concerned with what people “know and can do”.

All of this challenges notions of VET: what it is, how it should change and what it might become. In the plethora of bad press about VET and its providers, though, its transformative powers shone through at the Congress. The ability of institutions to transform themselves and the way the sector transforms the lives of others were amply demonstrated in the presentations. Providers “spoke about how they are finding new ways of working that involve genuine flexibility, collaboration, tailoring to needs of industry and to individual students in the context of their family situations and communities.” And, as the overview of the final day of the congress pointed out so tellingly:

“students and ex-students told us how this has happened for them. We heard from students and graduates who had started their own businesses, travelled, bought their own house, become members of a board, improved their self-esteem and overcome significant barriers which they attributed to their TVET experience and support from employers and colleagues.”

The TAFE Directors Australia newsletter will also feature further items from the Congress so stay tuned. Their first summary can be found on their website. Maybe even sign up to receive it.