March 2021
Author: Professor Stephen Billett
Prepared for the Australian Council for Adult Literacy

Prof Stephen BillettHistorically, Australian governmental interest in vocational education has frequently been premised on immediate responses to crises often piqued by perceived failings. The formation of vocational education nationally was premised upon wartime imperatives, and its reforms and governance serially shaped by social and economic crises, not of the sector’s making. So, the continuity, direction and standing of vocational education has been periodically shaped by moments in which it has been drawn from the shadows onto centre stage and held to account. However, unlike with Cinderella that spotlight includes it being told by others what to wear, what to do, how to do it and by what means. The most recent set of mandates to reform of vocational education in an era of crises associated with the impact of Covid 19 rehearses this tradition. As earlier, these mandates emphasise greater control from outside and improving existing provisions. These are

  • Strengthening the role of industry and employers;
  • Improving VET qualifications; and
  • Raising the quality of training.

Perhaps Cinderella might be baffled by the temerity of these suggestions.

For instance, after three decades of ‘industry leadership’ rather than the processes and outcomes of the vocational education system meeting the needs of those who have been given steerage, the perceived failures are not seen as arising from that leadership. Instead, the failures are from those whose actions have been directed, mandated and legislated under the aegis of that industry leadership. Somewhere here, the lesson doesn’t seem to have been learnt that leaders require followers. And, those followers need to believe that what leadership is proposing is worthwhile, robust, responsive and actually achieves the goals that are being set out. When comparing the Australian vocational education system with those that are held in high esteem elsewhere, this distinction becomes stark. Mature vocational education systems are premised upon partnerships with industry and employers at both national and local level, not being led to the ball by them being premised on bases of mandated national prescriptions. At the local level there is engagement amongst representatives of industry sectors, employers and those designing and teaching vocational education programs. These partnerships have been built and sustained over time and are bi-partite. Of course, those countries have different historical and cultural traditions than Australia. However, after 30 years of industry ‘leadership’ which has seemingly failed to achieve the outcomes required by those who ‘lead’ and make recommendations for the next round of reforms, surely it is time to ask some fundamental questions about what constitutes leadership of the vocational education system and how it is constituted and who is qualified to lead. Quite some years ago, I observed the curious and contradictory claim by industry representatives that vocational educators did not understand the business of business. This was a curious claim given that the teaching workforce largely comprising qualified and experienced occupational specialists. It also seems never to have occurred to these representatives that that they knew little about the business of education.

Perhaps the greatest current challenge for vocational education is its low standing in the community. In an era of high aspiration, globally, young people and their parents looking beyond vocational education towards higher education, with a series of consequences including skill shortages. So, there is a need to address the fundamental problem associated with societal sentiments about vocational education and the occupation it serves. This is something that vocational education itself cannot do alone. But where is the leadership? The task is far much bigger than “improving VET qualifications”. It requires long-term and consistent leadership and support from government, industry and professional bodies and those who employ (i.e. industry) to bring about this change. Tightening the screws, mandating outcomes, emphasising competence over excellence and making the profile highly industry-specific are likely to be quite counter to achieving these goals. Are these actions that will attract young people to vocational education and the occupations it serves? Is it these qualities that will avert their gaze from university entrance? Whilst it is unlikely that equivalents of standing will be achieved between the occupations that are served by universities and vocational education, much could be done to inform about, enhance the image of and do justice to those occupations. Also, and importantly, for school leavers who are undecided about their preferred occupational practice, vocational education with only occupational specific offerings slams the door shut on these young people.

Cinderella also might be puzzled by concerns being expressed about the quality of training by government and industry leadership. Wasn’t it they who mandated that the only professional preparation to be a vocational educator is a very short Certificate 4 level course, that was originally designed to give part-time teachers some basic instructional capacities. If you are selective, you might complete that course over a couple of weekends. Contrast these requirements to those of a Masters level qualification required not just for teaching in vocational education institutions in German speaking countries, but also for those in workplaces who have responsibilities for the training of apprentices (i.e. miesters).

Certainly, vocational education should be part of the antidote in the corona era, and it deserves to be centre stage for all of the right reasons. However, more than constant reactive policy announcements and reforms, Australian vocational education system should be championed, sustained and developed into a mature educational system that is not impoverished by overregulation, over privatisation, over mandation and de-professionalisation and other actions that further imperil it’s ability to be responsive and generate the kinds of adaptable outcome required. Rather than focusing on narrow reform agendas and improvements to vocational education that are best addressed by qualified and experienced educators and educational administrators, government and industry might well seek to address the broader environmental issues associated with the standing of occupations, building mature and reciprocal partnerships and providing an environment in which vocational education can be seen as being a viable post school option for the majority of young Australians, a ‘go to’ option for employers locally and nationally, and one that is positioned to be responsive to the educational needs of young people and employers and te communities in which they resides.

All of this might lead to a system that is able to respond to occurring crises on its own terms and in effective ways, and not being bossed and bruised by others, most of whom are far less qualified and experienced that those working within the vocational education system.