Business has demonstrated a preference for ideological and naive VET imperatives


More than 5000 training providers, including 61 TAFE colleges, are registered to run vocational education and training courses in Australia. They outnumber the nation’s universities by more than 100 to one and their total enrolments are more than double the 1 million Australian students in higher education this year.

But unravelling the multitude of layers that make up VET is like peeling an onion – they seem to go on forever and it’s not long before tears start to fall. Publicly funded vocational education is best known through the courses run by the TAFE institutes as well as by some universities and secondary schools, and by agricultural and technical colleges.

Less familiar are the thousands of private VET providers that include training organisations, business colleges, industry associations and individual employers. To add to the complexity, the VET sector is administered by eight state and territory governments plus the Commonwealth, which, under the former Labor government, allocated more than $3 billion in tied grants to state VET programs for the 2013-14 financial year.

TAFE is the largest education and training sector and its colleges have more than 1000 campuses across urban, regional and remote locations in Australia. Many of the institutes also offer their courses throughout the Asia-Pacific region and other offshore regions.

At a meeting in Adelaide (2014), Mr Mackenzie met the chief executive of one of Australia’s top 100 companies. He was told the company had been registered as a training provider in Victoria but pulled out because “they didn’t want to be part of the shambles or to have their reputation damaged by half the providers who are registered here”.

Opening the VET market to the private sector began in Victoria under the former Brumby Labor government with the aim of luring more fee-paying foreign students. The private providers were paid according to their course enrolments and the number of hours taught and the current Coalition government continued the practice.

It seems curious that a reform process based on addressing demand-side needs is so immune to interests that increasingly represent the demand side: students, their families and communities.

Even in addressing its own purposes (i.e. work readiness), business has demonstrated a preference for ideological and naive imperatives that have proved inadequate. Along the way, the goals for vocational education and standing of its institutions, practitioners and students have all been transformed, probably to their detriment.

Guided reading and extracts from: Billett, S (2004) From your business to our business: Industry and vocational education in Australia. Oxford Review of Education 30 (1) 12-33

*Stephen Billett worked in vocational education as a teacher, administrator, teacher educator and in policy formation. He now works in higher education researching work and work-related learning from social and cultural psychological perspectives.

Educational practices of business

When considering the quality of the focus and the impact of business on the Australian vocational education system, a brief evaluation of two significant initiatives (i.e. CBT and Key Competencies) and also how the broader national interests have been addressed is instructive (i.e. small business and individuals). The two initiatives are illustrative of key decision making by business. Industry supported the imposition of competency-based training (CBT) on all vocational education courses, claiming its capacity to develop a skilled and adaptable workforce. In time, CBT came to distinguish vocational education from other educational sectors (Moran, 1997).

When vocational courses are enacted in schools (or elsewhere) the adoption of CBT is mandatory. Similarly, business has identified schemes of key competencies — work skills that are claimed to transcend different workplaces — and represent them as important educational goals, for instance when extending vocational education into schooling. Competency-based training The widespread introduction of CBT is illustrative of the enactment of policies and practices that are uninformed by and indeed detrimental to the very educational goals that business partners support. As previewed, government mandated the implementation of CBT. It comprised national industry competency standards that were behavioural in design and used to shape the intents (i.e. aims, goals and objectives) of vocational education courses, and the assessment of what was learnt. Graded assessment was replaced by non-graded assessment for all levels of courses. National agreements led to these arrangements being mandated. It is not possible to offer a certified course that uses titles as proper nouns (e.g. Certificate, Diploma) without adhering to these measures. Both employers and trade unions supported the behavioural approach to education.

However, focusing on observable behaviour as a basis for instruction and assessment denies the very thinking and acting processes that underpin the competent vocational practice they were seeking to generate. Two decades of research in the field of cognitive psychology – the cognitive revolution – on what constitutes expertise, much of it based on vocational activities, was either ignored or dismissed by both parties. Among the research findings are the importance of the capacities to understand the task, select the most appropriate strategy to successfully complete the task, monitoring progress and evaluating achievement of the task’s goals (Glaser, 1989). However, these kinds of qualities are remote from where CBT focuses.

The behavioural principle that continues to be applied here is that, if you cannot observe and measure something, you cannot be sure it is occurring (Bijou, 1990). The promise of measurable performances was uncritically accepted by business and by trade unions as a means to secure desired of workplace performance. However, this may well have reflected a greater and more important imperative for industry: making teachers accountable through administrative devices that could be used to control teachers and afford judgements about their performance (Jackson, 1993). That is, teachers were to be subject to the very educational measures they were asked to implement. In an evaluation of the processes and outcomes of the first decade of CBT in Australia, which involved engaging industry representatives, curriculum developers, teachers and students in two industry sectors (Hospitality and Clerical) across two states (Victoria and Queensland), it was found that CBT and its regulatory regime played a limited role in developing adaptable skills (Billett et al 1999).

The key contributions were arrangements that mandated recent industry experience by teachers and secured greater industry input into the intents and content of courses, thereby aiding their relevance, as noted by Chappell, Hawke and Schofield (2002). Overall, the study found that it was the kind of experiences provided for students, the teachers’ vocational experience and their capacity to generate an ‘effective curriculum’ that most likely secured adaptable knowledge. There was little evidence that the measures put in place by government at the behest of industry materially assisted the development of adaptable knowledge. Often, it seems that vocational teachers had to work around the prescribed industry processes to secure the very outcomes that were claimed for CBT (Baverstock, 1996). Rather than the curriculum being ‘teacher proof’, teachers had to subvert or augment the intended curriculum (i.e. syllabus documents) to achieve the goal shared by both teachers and industry: to assist students develop robust vocational knowledge.

For instance, the move to self-paced modularised curriculum units had to be mediated by teachers. While some (high performing) students were able to work independently on self-paced modules, many students were neither prepared for nor possessed the capacities to study independently in a domain of knowledge within which they were still novices. Mealyea (1985) reported similar findings more than decade earlier. Graduate destination surveys (NCVER 1997) have endorsed the significance of teachers in learning the kinds of knowledge that have permitted TAFE graduates to secure employment and career advancement. So, more than the ‘intended curriculum’ (e.g. the documents, behavioural objectives, mandated content), what students actually experienced and learnt from was the ‘enacted curriculum’: the experiences provided by the teachers and their abilities to develop capacities that allow students to adapt what they have learned outside the educational institution. Attempts by business and others to make the curriculum ‘teacher proof’ stand hollow before such evidence.

Key competencies Business has repeatedly proposed the generic competency route as a means to develop capacities that are common to all workplaces and to address the constantly changing demands of workplace requirements. Ghost (2002: 63) exhorts educators to “recognise the constantly changing skill requirements of industry. What may be relevant today to enterprise’s skill needs may have no bearing on the same enterprise’s skill needs in five years time.” The latest generic competencies currently being proposed by business are called employability skills. They build upon the Mayer Key Competencies (Mayer, 1992) that were derived through discussions with employers about workrelated skills. Similarly, these new sets of generic competencies are a product of consultation with employers. According to Ghost (2002), these competencies were informed by recent international research, through focus groups and interviews with 40 small and medium sized enterprises and 13 detailed case studies in large enterprises. These competencies predictably include communication, teamwork, problem solving, planning organisation, technology, learning, self-management, and initiative and enterprise skills.

Ghost (2002) proposes that schools have to make young people ‘job ready’. This of course is a difficult task, when the occupational choice of the young person is still nascent and the particular requirements of enterprises are often quite unique and need to be understood before job readiness can be secured. The strategy adopted in Australia, the United States and Britain is to identify and teach a set of generic skills that are optimistically held to be common to and applicable across workplaces. These skills are assumed to be enduring, thereby permitting an individual to maintain the currency of their vocational practice. Interest in identifying generic skills is one of the few instances where research conducted during the ‘cognitive revolution’ – a period of intense scrutiny of human performance by cognitive psychologists — has seriously influenced policy. However, it was an inept choice.

A key goal of some cognitive psychologists (e.g. Ericsson & Smith, 1991) was to identify general problem-solving strategies: heuristics that can be applied generally regardless of circumstance, context or discipline. However, these have not been found to be successful (Beven, 1997; Stevenson, 2002), except at the broadest level (e.g. think before you act) (Evans, 1993). Indeed, a key outcome of the ‘cognitive revolution’ is that individuals’ memory, rather than their processing capacity underpins competent performance or expertise (Glaser, 1989). The knowledge individuals need to learn is referred to as being domain specific: related to a particular area of activity (i.e. particular paid vocation), which is in contrast to the generic skills approach. It is a profound understanding of a particular set of activities distinguishes competent workers from less competent workers (Glaser, 1984).

Moreover, an understanding of the situatedness of performance is emphasised in recent accounts of competent performance (Billett, 2001; Engestrom & Middleton, 1996). All of this is in stark contrast to the generic approach proposed by business. What comprises competent communication, teamwork, problem solving, planning etc in one circumstance may be quite different across workplaces, even when the same vocational practice is being enacted. The capacities to communicate, work with others, solve problems, plan and so on need to be understood in a particular workplace context. The competencies to communicate in a retail organisation might be quite different from those in a medical practice, or across medical practices. In essence, generic competencies are inadequate because they are twice disembedded from practice.

Firstly, these kinds of competencies have to be understood in terms of particular vocational practice. That is, what these competencies mean in terms of nursing, retail work, metal fabrication, beauty therapy, professional cookery and so on. Secondly, because vocational practice is far from uniform in its application, competent performance in the same vocational practice might require quite different approaches to teamwork, communication, planning etc. For instance, compare the requirements of nurses working in a major city hospital with counterparts in a small country hospital, or health worker in an indigenous community or in a remote mine site. In each circumstance there will be requirements to work with others, to communicate, to plan and organise, but in different ways. Therefore, understanding and practising effective performance in one nursing situation cannot be guaranteed to provide effective performance in another. This suggests that a more bottom-up or localised approach to curriculum development is required to understand the diverse nature of vocational practice and to prepare students and workers by illuminating something of the diversity of potential applications.

There will always be aspects of occupational performance that will be robust: adaptable to other circumstances. The exercise of specific procedures (e.g. use of the keyboard, electrical power points, using scissors to cut hair) will probably transfer across workplaces. However, adaptability is less likely to occur when there is a need to account for diverse requirements for performance. Accordingly, the most problematic generic competency is problem solving. As a generic skill, it proposes that if individuals can learn problem solving heuristics they can solve problems across different or changing work environments. Yet, such is the breadth of the problem solving process that it defies commonsense to be proposed as a generalisable skill.

Problem-solving requires a consideration of the domains of activity and the context in which the problem exists and is to be solved. What might be an elegant solution in one setting might be wholly inappropriate in another. Moreover, the concept of generic competencies is founded within a view of human performance based on adaptability as cleverness: a capacity to manipulate cognitive processes. However, as noted, this is a limited conception and not borne out in the evidence. To be effective requires knowledge of the domain of activities and circumstances in which the performance is to occur (Stevenson, 2002). These often go beyond that which constitutes technical tasks and the kind of competencies outlined above, and comes from engaging in and knowing about vocational practice. For instance, in one hairdressing salon to be an expert hairdresser required knowing the names of relatives and their relationships to the elderly clientele who came to the salon, as much for social contact as to have their hair dressed (Billett, 2001).

Cleverness, or the capacity to manipulate knowledge, alone is insufficient to secure these capacities, because participating and learning in the particular practice was required. Therein perhaps lies the key to understanding the kinds of goals that Ghost (2002) claims industry wants. Instead of identifying and seeking to learn generic competencies, quite the opposite approach might be more generative of robust capacities. That is, to understand first what constitutes instances of practice and their requirements for performance, then, try to assist students understand what constitutes ‘working with others’, ‘communication’, ‘planning and organising and so on in the context of the particular practice. From there, students might come to understand something of the variations of these attributes across a range of vocational practices thereby facilitating adaptable knowledge; through an understanding of a range of instances of practice. These can assist their adaptation to other situations and circumstances.

In another context and for other purposes, such a practice-based approach to rich learning might also be helpful in assisting school students learn about the ‘world of work’. Their part-time work experiences could be used as an effective resource in classrooms to understand the requirements for participating in working life. The diverse experiences and instances of apprentices’ practices could also be shared in classrooms to intentionally illuminate and assist an understanding of the diverse applications of the apprentices’ chosen vocational practice. So, through advocating for CBT and generic skills, business seems to believe that highly specific content guided by statements of observable behaviour and generic processes can sit happily side-by-side in facilitating adaptive learning, despite evidence to the contrtary.

Perhaps the confusion underpinning such beliefs arise from a degraded understanding of vocational practice. Vocational education has long suffered from low status that is arguably a product of misunderstanding about the complexity and demands of vocational practice, ignorance of its purposes and sectoral interests that are well served by suppressing its standing. Certainly, the uncritical acceptance of CBT and Key Competencies do little to present a convincing case of businesses’ competence as an educational decision-maker. Instead, their actions reinforce perceptions of vocational education as being narrow and utilitarian. It might be expected that industry organisations and enterprises, whose well-being and continuity are based on their workers’ vocational knowledge and practice, would be better informed and directed to enhance the status of vocational practice and its preparation.

Unfortunately, business has failed to champion the significance, richness and complexity of vocational knowledge or vocational education as a worthwhile endeavour. Instead, vocational education has been promoted as highly utilitarian and focused on needs other than those whom invest time in and participate in its programs. It also denies the importance and complexity of vocational practice. The voice of business will probably always be reluctant to acknowledge the complexity and demands of vocational practice, as it may prompt and legitimate requests for higher levels of remuneration.

This reluctance exposes a structural limitation of an industry led vocational education system.

That is, a key source of national leadership and advice has contradictory goals of constraining the standing of vocational skills as much as their development. In all, the narrow view of education goals and provisions advanced by business has done little to elevate the standing of vocational education, attract interest in it by enterprises and students (whose preference is for higher educations) or secure adequate level of government funding to avoid the marketisation of vocational education.

Vocational education: everyone’s business

However, it is not only in the important fields of determining what should be taught and assessed, and how, where business has had a major impact. Business leadership has only addressed certain sectional interests. Others, including much of the business sector, have remained neglected. Standing out in terms of those whose needs seem not to the addressed include small business and individuals who participate in vocational education programs. Small business needs The leadership of vocational education by business appears to have been antithetical to the interests of small enterprises, which employs about half the private sector workforce (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2000).

Although often chided for having relatively low levels of expenditure on vocational education, small businesses consistently report that the kind of provisions on offer are often inappropriate, ill focused and inaccessible (Roffey et al., 1996). Small business consistently reported to consultancy companies hired by government (Coopers and Lybrand, 1994, 1995) and independent researchers that their needs are not being met by national modularised curriculum delivered through taught courses. These reflect the needs of large enterprises. Small business operators repeatedly state that they are not to be merely small large businesses, instead, they have different needs and requirements (Field, 1998).

The standard, nationally generated modules and courses, even when flexibly delivered, fail to address small businesses’ needs for pertinence and context-related learning (Roffey et al 1996). What small businesses want are courses tailored to their needs, available locally, as a well as instructional processes that are pertinent to the issues they are facing and the context in which they operate, and offered in ways that support rather than disrupt the small business operation (Coopers and Lybrand, 1994). These kinds of requests are antithetical to the orthodox practice of taught courses based on national competency standards. Moreover, the market-based provision of vocational education works against small businesses, particularly those distributed widely and with small staff (Billett, 1998).

Small businesses are relatively unattractive to a marketised provision of vocational education and training where economies of scale are principal concerns. While achieving an effective vocational education provision for small business is inherently difficult, the marketisation of vocational education has assisted in rendering it more so. Therefore, it seems that the very educational processes and practices promoted by business are antithetical to the needs of a significant sector of the Australian economy. Students in vocational education Students’ interests have been overlooked by a focus on (big) business interests. This client group was almost wholly ignored in all the reforms and restructuring of courses in which they were to participate.

Anderson (1998) claims that in 1200 consultations about the training reform agenda, only one identified instance of consultation with students, in this case a student body. This omission illuminates the narrow focus taken by business and industry (and governments). This practice even seems counter to what might be considered good business practices by ignoring the needs of a principal client group. It also contradicts the very principle that underpinned the training reform: being responsive to the demand side, which comprises more than just large business and union interests. Students are key consumers and increasingly sponsors of vocational education programs also constitute the demand side, as do small business workers and operators.

Yet, these interests are rarely consulted. Since the early 1990s there has been significant reduction in government funding support for education (already lower in Australia than most OECD countries), (Burke 1998) and also growing evidence of a lessening commitment by the private sector institutions (e.g. decreases in number of apprentices actually employed by enterprises). In contrast, the private investment by individuals in all sectors of education in Australia grew. Burke (1998) notes that through the 1990s the private outlay on the education rose, while the government expenditure as a percentage of GNP declined. Furthermore, this period was one of growth in participation in education and training within Australia. This means, less public funds were being expended through a period of increased participation, with the augmentation of the sponsorship coming more from the individuals than the public or private sector sources.

For students and workers, prescriptions for vocational education that arise only from surveys of employers are unlikely to fully capture their needs (e.g. Billett 1998), and how they can best be met. For the long-term unemployed, educational goals other than the development of specific skills might be important. For these individuals, developing a more confidence sense of self and purpose may be more valuable. Similarly, for young indigenous students there may be goals and needs than those that business might identify. Schwab (1998) questions the assumptions that all students make decisions about maximising the private rate of return. He claims the cost benefit analysis for education may be different for indigenous than other Australians. “There are significant social costs to educational investment for indigenous people that influence their decisions to participate. Some of these costs result from social disadvantage, others are derived from cultural difference. For example, many of the most indigenous people have lacked the opportunity for the whole suite education until relatively recently and it is still common, for individuals to be the first generation to undertake study in their communities.”(1998: 94)

So, it seems curious that a reform process based on addressing demand-side needs is so immune to interests that increasingly represent the demand side: students, their families and communities. Business has also actively militated against workers’ learning of vocational knowledge. The Australian workforce is becoming more contingent: part-time, casualised and contracted (Chappell et al 2002). Some claim the overall relationship between employers and employees is being transformed through these kinds of employment practices. Certainly, the international evidence (Brunello, 2001) suggests contingent employees are less likely to receive employer expenditure or sponsorship for their skill development. The point here is that assuming national leadership for an educational sector brings with it responsibilities beyond those of a select set of sectoral interests. It needs to be extended to those whose who are actually committing time and effort to this endeavour.

Making education businesses’ business

Making education businesses’ business If business (and their governmental partners) want to make education their business, then they might be well served by developing a more informed view about the richness and complexity of vocational knowledge, and the kinds of educational goals likely to secure this knowledge and, of course, advocating for the sector and securing a more adequate base of educational funding. They also will have to be more inclusive of the broader national interest. The consensus approach to vocational education and training policy practised in northern Europe seems a more mature approach than the Australian model.

A criticism of the European approach is that the consensus-based processes can be quite slow. It requires groups of interest to be consulted and concurred with about proposals before they are implemented. This involves engagement with and securing consensus among a range of interest groups. By involving those who speak for teachers, workers and employers, implications for policy implementation as well as their goals are discussed and elaborated.

However, it is claimed that ultimately what is implemented enjoys broad and enduring support, therefore less likely to be resisted by those who have implement it or be subject to constant change and modification. The model adopted in Australia is for the administration of change by governmental fiat (Seddon, 1998). Klee (2002) lists as a virtue the number of governmental reports and major policy changes that underpin the Australian training reform agenda. She views these as evidence of governmental interest in vocational education and training. However, behind each of these reports is mandated change that comes as a prescription for practice rather than something to be negotiated with those whom it affects. So, instead of a more measured and consensual approach to policy formation, that aims to assist with continuity and broad commitment to change, the Australian vocational education system is pressed by governmental fiat to deal with unilaterally conceived changes.

Yet, this approach defines what we know about human action and behaviour: how people construct their views and act. When pressed into activities in which they have no belief, individuals’ engagement is likely to, at best, reflect superficial compliance (e.g. Wertsch, 1998). Moreover, each new fiat often displaces something only recently implemented, thereby dissipating interest and commitment. Over time, this may well generate residual weariness in those who are supposed to energise the sector. For instance, Ghost (2002) as a spokesperson for business, in proposing a new set of generic competencies – employability skills – details the inadequacies of another recent innovation: training packages.

He points to the inadequacy of the intents of these packages (i.e. the current competency standards) and their organisation (i.e. the need to utilise more than one training package within schools) in securing these generic skills. Yet, it was only recently that government introduced these packages on request from business to ensure greater pertinence of training to enterprise needs. Businesses’ easy condemnation of training packages suggests the waste of significant investment in funds, effort and goodwill by those who have to administer, implemented or engage with them.

Would individual businesses tolerate such profligate behaviour with its funds, resources and clients?

Working to achieve commonly shared goals

To those who less than thirty years ago set out to establish technical and further education as a responsive, but independent, educational sector focused on addressing both broad and narrow vocational goals (‘learning to live’), the impact of business must seem slick, superficial and grotesque. More than readdressing the balance between the interests of the vocation and vocational education, there is a need to engage with the those whom the system seeks to react to, while working to achieve commonly shared goals of developing vocational knowledge that is important to individuals, the communities they live in and the workplaces that employ them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s