A compilation ‘think piece’ by Hugh Guthrie

This is a bit of crystal ball gazing on my part, but here goes! Some of this is easy because there are quite a number of government initiatives and other pieces in the works. However, Claire Field cautions against the continual cycle of reform and change that we have seen in VET over the last many years. Her ‘think piece’ with its cautionary focus was published in the Australian Financial Review in September 2022. It’s still worth a read.

Skills reforms, changes and – hopefully – improvements

An overview of the proposed skills reform agenda can be found here, and there is also a VET reform roadmap. And, of course, VET funding reform is very much in the cross hairs of VET policy makers and key stakeholders as part of this picture as is the federal government’s white paper ‘Working Future: The Australian Government’s White Paper on Jobs and Opportunities’.

Implementing the new National Skills Agreement.

On 16 October 2023, National Cabinet agreed to a new 5-year National Skills Agreement (NSA) to strengthen the vocational education and training (VET) in Australia. The agreed inaugural national priorities under the NSA are gender equality, Closing the Gap, supporting Net Zero transformation, sustaining essential care services, developing Australia’s sovereign capability and food security, ensuring Australia’s digital and technology capability and delivering reforms to improve the regulation of VET qualifications and quality.

There are also a series of skills plan at the state level, for example Victoria’s 2023-24 can be found here and South Australia’s here.

Key VET reforms

Qualifications reform

Most notably, there is an initiative being undertaken by the Qualification Reform Design Group, whose work so far is summarised here and which we have already covered in this newsletter. It will also be interesting to see what emerges from each of the new Jobs and Skills Councils and the ongoing work of Jobs and Skills Australia, who have a neat and useful summary on the emerging reform agenda that you can find here. We all know that qualification reform is an area that needs a hard look at given consistent concerns over the nature of training packages, their design and quality, and implementation process. If nothing else, there seems to be a mood for greater flexibility in the way qualifications are conceived to enable local and specialised needs to be better met without falling foul to over-prescription and compliance issues.

And let’s not forget the issue of micro credentials, for which there is both support and concerns. We have covered extensively in these pages over the last few years. Next issue will take another look at them – be warned!

Completion rates

Poor completion rates have been an issue in VET for as long as I can remember, and there is a strong desire at present to lift them. A factsheet summarises the initiative to improve completion rates and there will be “work on the National Code and best practice guidance … in 2024 in consultation with apprentices, employers, industry, unions, TAFEs and training providers, and apprenticeship service providers.” We’ll keep an eye out for that!

Foundation skills

As another article in this issue shows, foundation skills and their delivery are an important issue in VET, combining as they do English language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) – including listening, speaking, reading, writing, digital literacy and use of mathematical ideas – and employability skills. They are therefore a key part of the present reform agenda because it’s believed too many people have low levels of them – especially LLN ones. This impedes their employment and life options. So, this is yet another area we will be keeping an eye on throughout 2024.

Quality reforms

These cover the implementation of the revised ASQA standards for RTOs and piloting of these revised standards has begun. In addition, all will be keen to know about the moves towards self-assurance for RTOs are progressing. One thing that will be critical is a move away from a compliance rhetoric to one that is truly focused on the quality of what VET providers do.

Tied to the quality reforms is the content of the VET workforce blueprint which we are still waiting to see. Things are in the works, and there is a steering group supporting it, but there is nothing yet in the public domain. However, what we do know is one of the keys to high quality VET is a high-quality workforce with strong vocational currency and pedagogical skills and with good access to a strong and comprehensive program of continuing professional development.

TAFE Centres of Excellence, which are nationally networked, are another quality initiative we are keeping an eye on. Their role is to

strengthen capability and capacity of the VET system to provide high-quality and responsive skills training for critical and emerging industries, including the transformation to a net zero economy, sustaining essential care and support services, ensuring our digital and technological capability, and sovereign capability. They will be the exemplars of quality training and learning.

One thing I have wondered is if there is a role for a generic and networked Centre of Excellence focused specifically on the quality of teaching, learning and assessment. Worth a thought perhaps given the range of individuals and groups within the sector concerned with this fundamental element of RTO quality?

Reviews of the sector

There have been a few of these in the works and a number of the reviews are in the public domain. A number have been quite influential in helping shape VET reforms at the national level, for example the Joyce Review. However, there have been others at state and territory level, for example the Macklin Review in Victoria. Notably TAFE NSW is currently under review. An interim report should be imminent, with a final report due mid this year.

Tertiary sector integration

There are moves towards and more joined up tertiary education in Australia and, in particular, the outcomes of the Universities Accord process. The interim report published by the panel overseeing this review concludes that to successfully tackle our big national priorities, our higher education sector needs to become much, much stronger. For VET, however, the issue is addressed in one of the terms of reference guiding the Accord panel, which seeks to:

Explore possible opportunities to support greater engagement and alignment between the vocational education and training (VET) and higher education systems. In particular, the panel will have regard to the experience of students in navigating these systems and ensuring a cohesive and connected tertiary education system.

As Jobs and Skills Australia note, the Accord’s interim report “identifies 10 possible system shifts over the next decade. The first listed shift that it envisages is a more integrated tertiary system, with a commitment to access for everyone and achieving significant growth in pursuit of national skills and equity targets. Other shifts identified include for example: the transformation of teaching and learning, with an ambitious commitment to [the] student experience and the use of technology; reskilling and lifelong learning provided though more modular, stackable qualifications, including micro credentials, with full scaffolding of pathways; population parity in participation by 2035; and First Nations at the heart of higher education.”

We have looked at the Universities Accord in VDC News too, see our article on the discussion paper here, noting three discussion questions:

  • How should better alignment and connection across Australia’s tertiary education system be achieved?
  • What role should reform of the AQF play in creating this alignment? and
  • What would a more effective and collaborative national governance approach to tertiary education look like?

Reforms to apprenticeships

There are significant shortages in key trade areas. The VET reform roadmap specifically promotes “apprenticeships and other employment-based training, including pre-apprenticeships, and undertaking reforms to boost geographic mobility and labour supply.” This includes lifting participation and completion rates. However, there is more to this and that is the diversification of the apprenticeship approach to embrace a broader range of options for employment-based education and training, including those at higher AQF levels and into higher education in order to meet emerging workforce needs – including the so-called higher apprenticeships (see this article by RMIT’s Mish Eastman) and increasing female participation in existing and often male-dominated trades.

And finally, VET in schools

VET programs are an important part of senior secondary offerings, enrich the student experience and open a range of post school pathways. There have been a range of reviews of VET in schools, which have “raised concerns with VET delivered to secondary students, including:

  • inconsistent quality of delivery of courses and outcomes for students
  • industry concerns with the value of VET qualifications delivered to secondary students
  • limitations of current data collections. These make it difficult to measure investment, quality and outcomes and to develop evidence-based policy to achieve the best outcomes.

We’ll keep an eye on what is happening at both the state and national levels around this issue, and some background is provided here.