Part one “CBT” – T J Ryan Foundation: Key policy issues in vocational education and training (VET)

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There clearly needs to be a significant rethink of the current Vocational Education and Training policies, to ensure the sector meets the needs, not of the status quo, but of a rapidly changing economy. It should also be designed to ensure the sector’s learners, particularly the current generation of young people who fall into the age group most at risk of long-term unemployment, have the opportunity to find quality jobs – not only for today, but also to be able to adapt to the workforce of the future.

He (Dewey) strenuously argued that vocational education should not be about reproducing the existing industrial order, with its dehumanising and inequitable conditions, but rather should give workers the knowledge to transform work in the future.

Vocational education is more than training people for the workplace. Knowledge workers require sound foundations in maths science and communications and an understanding of technology. Our trade training curriculums therefor require modernisation.

For some time it has been recognised that training packages best fit those learners who are in employment, that is, those whose learning and assessment are directly job-related …. Training packages in some form may well remain suitable for these learners. But there are many other learners in VET whose intentions are not so well accommodated by training packages.

CBT with its focus on current job tasks does not meet the needs of the workforce and industry as it faces constant structural adjustment. VET programs need to focus on underlying theory and skills, so workers can adapt to inevitable change.

The T. J. Ryan Foundation is a progressive think tank focusing on Queensland public policy. The aims of the Foundation are to stimulate debate on issues in Queensland public administration and to review policy directions of current and past State governments on economic, social and cultural issues.

This Foundation focuses on evidence-based policy, and provides links to a range of public accessible online resources.

The Full Report is available here: http://bit.ly/1EsKUUg

by Peter Henneken AM BBus BA FIPAA FAICD Research Associate, TJRyan Foundation

Extracts to whet your intellectual appetite:

A POLICY OVERVIEW

This paper asks whether the current Vocational Education and Training (VET) policies are appropriate for the future Australian economy and labour market. The current VET system is premised on:

competency-based training – which focuses on what a person can do in the workplace following learning;

market mechanisms – which allow a range of training providers to compete for students and government funding; and

an entitlement model – which determines who gets access to courses.

The question is whether these policy parameters are appropriate at a time when Australia is undergoing fundamental economic change. This change requires us not only to remain productive but also to be in a position to manage structural adjustment into the future. In this environment workers need the underlying skills and flexibility to enable them to adapt and continue to learn. Vocational Education and Training learners, including those already in employment and those seeking employment, have diverse needs, which affect the appropriate policy settings. The current system does not take account of the need for a flexible workforce for the following reasons:

Competency-based training focuses on current work tasks and does not take into account the skills that will be needed in the future. Learning these new skills will require more broadly educated workers. Apart from the trades, there is generally a low match between the target occupation of Vocational Education and Training courses and the occupations in which graduates are subsequently employed. This raises questions about the benefits for learners who are not currently employed of a competency-based training regime focused on specific and contemporary occupational tasks.

Market-based arrangements may be effective in the trade and traineeship area, where the employer rather than the learner is the purchaser. However, in other areas there is an interplay between competency-based training and market strategies, which can legitimise shorter training. As the Australian Skills Quality Authority (which regulates courses) has observed, ‘competition’ is often achieved by reducing fees, providing shorter courses and using less qualified staff. This inevitably affects the quality of the training and has wasted a substantial amount of public funds. It has also disappointed and/or exploited a large number of current or prospective Vocational Education and Training learners.

The entitlement model proposed by the Queensland Government, provides a differential subsidy to encourage students to enrol in courses perceived to be more beneficial to the economy. The differential subsidy may shape enrolment patterns, but it overlooks the low link between courses Key policy issues in Vocational Education and Training 1/26 designed for particular occupations and subsequent employment. In designed for particular occupations and subsequent employment. In addition, these courses may not attract learners with a range of other characteristics that are attractive to employers.

It will be important to measure the efficacy of the proposed Queensland strategy in meeting relevant demand. Some would claim that there are a range of reasons for skill shortages, which cannot be addressed unless they are fully understood, and without working directly with employers. But the biggest issue with the ‘entitlement model’ is that current budget constraints mean that the only way to provide for all those ‘entitled’ is to increase the fees. The effect on learners is compounded by the absence of more effective loan arrangements for Certificate I to IV learners that take into account the subsequent career and salary experience of Vocational Education and Training graduates.

There clearly needs to be a significant rethink of the current Vocational Education and Training policies, to ensure the sector meets the needs, not of the status quo, but of a rapidly changing economy. It should also be designed to ensure the sector’s learners, particularly the current generation of young people who fall into the age group most at risk of long-term unemployment, have the opportunity to find quality jobs – not only for today, but also to be able to adapt to the workforce of the future.

Significant historical evidence and personal experience underpins these conclusions, reported in the appendix.

What is Vocational Education and Training (VET)?

An obvious starting point is to define VET as education and training that provides skills for work in particular occupations or occupational areas. But as Tom Karmel1 points out this ignores the fact that much university education in professional occupations is vocational. So maybe the distinction needs to include qualification level, which the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) provides for. Again this is breaking down with many universities also Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) and some TAFE’s offering degrees. Ryan takes a similar view:

Everyone seems to agree that VET is that part of the education continuum which has employability as a principal goal and its centre of gravity is in sub-professional careers, although not limited thereto, now or in the past, when occupations like accountancy, nursing, agronomy and many professions were based in VET – style institutions or even workplace training.

Employability is a principal goal of the system, but it needs to be defined by rapidly changing skills requirements. The real challenge for VET policy is whether it assists workers and employers adapt and adjust to the unrelenting pressure for change on the Australian economy and the labour market. These pressures and the consequent changes include:

1. Ongoing economic change and the resultant structural adjustment. The causes of this are continuing globalisation, technological and social change and consequent demands to increase productivity;

2. Constant job and career change and the need for workers to have the underlying skills to adapt and continue to learn;

3. Resulting pressure to increase productivity. The right sort of skills are an important driver of productivity. But skills will only be a such a driver if they are properly encouraged and utilised in workplaces;

4. Growing inequity and the impact on social cohesion. Again the right skills system and a merit-based culture can support opportunity and participation;

5. The changing workforce itself. At the structural level this means continuation of the trends to more casual, contract and self-employment. As well, Ageing and social change result in an older workforce and a higher proportion of women in work; and

6. The need to increase participation from an economic but also social imperative. As an example of the effects of structural change Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data shows that we now employ fewer people in agriculture and manufacturing than we did 30 years ago. On the other hand, we employ almost three times as many people in health care and social assistance, and more than three times as many people in professional, scientific and technical industries.

But it is also the qualitative that is important. Productivity demands mean that we will also have to work differently, with a range of ‘soft skills’ necessary. The greatest productivity is gained in workplaces with high worker participation and decision making, and team-oriented, integrated multi-skilling. V

ET policy needs to be considered and tested against these pressures, which this paper seeks to do.

As Ryan also suggests, when he talks of “the diverse needs of the VET student body…”, that it has always seemed useful to me to look at the range of programs/activities that VET undertakes. Without being absolutely comprehensive this includes:

1. programs for entrants and re-entrants to the labour market or those seeking advancement or career change;

2. apprenticeships and traineeships;

3. specific programs in response to structural adjustment;

4. recognition or upgrading of existing workers;

5. programs for the long-term unemployed and those disengaged from the labour market;

6. alternative year 12 and/or second chance higher education entry;

7. joint programs with higher education of various types;

8. specific responses to skill shortages;

9. workplace literacy and numeracy programs; and

10. adult and continuing education programs.

While the categories are not necessarily completely mutually exclusive, they do have different purposes, student characteristics and the extent of employer involvement. The balance of benefits between the participant, society and employer are different, hence different decisions need to be made about who pays. VET policy may be different for each category as purpose also determines content and curriculum. Purpose and participant may also determine the nature of effective providers and whether market mechanisms can add value.

This paper seeks to test VET policies against the various types of programs being run in the system. It is my contention that many of the VET policies may differ according to the different programs the system undertakes.

Does Competency-Based Training meet the purpose of Vocational Education and Training learning?

Competency-based training is accepted Government policy as the recognised process of VET learning in Australia. The Victorian Government website provides a definition: Competency based training is an approach to vocational education and training that places emphasis on what a person can do in the workplace as a result of completing a program of training or based on workplace experience and learning.

… The competency standards in a Training Package describe work outcomes. Each unit of competency describes a specific work activity, conditions under which it is conducted and the evidence that may be gathered in order to determine whether the activity is being performed in a competent manner.

Training is said to be “industry led” because the Training Packages are developed by Industry Skills Councils, whose Boards comprise employers and, in most cases, unions.

Major unresolved weaknesses, ambiguities and tensions” (in VET)

Moodie outlines some of the potential benefits of competency-based training: if successfully introduced it is efficient in targeting only the requisite skills; it needs to be focused on the changing needs of work and hence continuous learning; training is competency achievement not timebased; and prior learning in various situations can be recognised.

However there has been considerable debate about CBT including the particularly “purist” approach taken in Australia. In his list of “major unresolved weaknesses, ambiguities and tensions” (in VET) Noonan places at number one: Key aspects of VET pedagogy and provision remain contested but unresolved, in particular, the nature of and application of the competency-based training framework and whether VET should be ‘industry, learner or provider driven’.

A useful framework of the issues with CBT is set out by Wheelahan and Moodie under five headings which are broadly paraphrased below:6

Even with adjustments over the last 10 years to the CBT framework, units of competence are still tied to the specific Units of competence describe the work activity, the skills and skill levels needed, what knowledge and skills are needed to perform the activity and what evidence is needed to prove that a person is competent. Because units of competency describe the outcomes of learning separate from the process of learning, “this process of specification encourages reductive processes of learning that tick of outcomes, rather than holistic learning”.

Hence there is a lack of a coherent and theoretical knowledge base that can accommodate the significant changes in the economy and labour market that will affect almost all jobs.

The other problem is that it also encourages a narrow view of jobs, with potential implications for job quality, workforce motivation and productivity. Buchanen et al make a similar point as quoted earlier, about the current narrow approach to competence.

Bannikof suggests that senior industry leaders, both employers and employees: have always said they want broadly educated workers who can think, who can go on learning on the job and can independently apply their skills and knowledge in different and changing work contexts.

2. The outcomes of learning are tied to descriptions of work as it currently exists. They focus on the processes and practice as they are currently, and hence stifle innovation and change.

This is hardly a recipe for dealing with the significant changes occurring in the economy and the labour market. The same point is made by Moodie in other contributions:

It is also hard to see how training students merely in the competences currently used prepares them for emerging and future challenges.

Similarly Karmel:

The present model of training packages and the model of competency-based training which underpins it, have advantages in providing a common skills language but may hinder effective innovation because of the focus on current competencies rather than future innovation.

And The Economist, in a review of international education policy, says one of the lessons for education policy makers is:

Educate for the future, not just the present: Many of today’s job titles, and the skills needed to fill them, simply did not exist 20 years ago. Education systems need to consider what skills today’s students will need in future and teach accordingly.

3. CBT does not provide access to underpinning knowledge. Knowledge is tied to specific functions and activities in the workplace. Knowledge and theory are only to be taught as relevant to specific functions and context , not in a general sense as being able to explain and be used in a range of contexts. This must restrict autonomy and judgement and further reinforces a narrow view of jobs.

Hodge takes concepts from John Dewey, the American humanist philosopher, to discuss the notion of how work, together with a broad vocational education, could develop workers and contribute to a productive economy and social advancement:

He (Dewey) strenuously argued that vocational education should not be about reproducing the existing industrial order, with its dehumanising and inequitable conditions, but rather should give workers the knowledge to transform work in the future.

He adds:

In the dynamic concept of the vocational, worker development entails the continuous transfer of knowledge between work settings, and it is Dewey’s concept of training in science, or exposure to theory, that articulates with this part of the vocational.

Buchanen et al make a similar point, but broaden the concept to general education:

General education provides the foundation for all higher levels of education and learning. It entails the acquisition of common knowledge, promotes skills transferability, and importantly enables workers to engage their intellectual capacities to adapt to work-process, organisational, technological and social change.

Mackenzie, discussing alternative models for trade training, adds:

Vocational education is more than training people for the workplace. Knowledge workers require sound foundations in maths science and communications and an understanding of technology. Our trade training curriculums therefor require modernisation.

4. Competency-based training is based on the simplistic notion that processes of learning are identical with the skills to be learnt.

Wheelahan and Moodie attribute this to behaviourist learning theory, so that if someone is observed performing a task it is assumed that they have the knowledge to understand what they are doing. In the first instance this defies logic as the assumptions made in doing a task may get the correct outcome in the vast majority of cases, but does not accommodate an exception. It also simplifies the learning process, where an understanding of the underlying theory allows the worker to apply responses to new situations.

Even though Competency-based training certifies that particular outcomes have been achieved, it does not necessarily instill credibility in a broader sense.

This issue is highlighted by the apparent reluctance of some higher education institutions to not recognise some VET qualifications, partly because of the issues raised above and partly because of perceptions of quality, discussed below. It may also be reflected in extremely low placement rate into employment in some VET programs. A similar point is made by Noonan:

The intrinsic value of qualifications (to learners) also reflects the distinct approaches to teaching and learning offered by providers and to the reputation that individual providers are able to build with learners and enterprises.

So what should the future be for competency-based training?

Tom Karmel looks at matches of intended occupations for VET programs and the actual destination occupations for graduates who are employed. He finds the match at over 60% for trades workers, including over 80% for construction and electro-technology trades and over 70% for carers and aides. For other areas the match is quite low. He concludes:

The focus on ‘skills for industry’ and training packages makes complete sense for those courses which are quite specific – the trades and carers and aides. But this is a minority of VET training and one could question the industry-focused approach where demonstrably training is of a more generic nature”.

Simmons is even more direct:

For some time it has been recognised that training packages best fit those learners who are in employment, that is, those whose learning and assessment are directly job-related …. Training packages in some form may well remain suitable for these learners. But there are many other learners in VET whose intentions are not so well accommodated by training packages.

Wheelahan and Moodie make a similar point about the fit between qualifications and occupations being quite loose except in regulated trades and professions. They claim that 30% of Australian workers have qualifications not relevant to their job.21 Noonan also argues for differences in pedagogy, the nature of programs and assessment across the continuum of VET offerings:

If we begin to view vocational education and training as a continuum of offerings through distinctive forms of qualifications, requiring distinctive pedagogy and assessment, then a view about the future of VET, grounded in a contemporary definition and understanding of occupational and professional competence can emerge. This will create the potential for different forms of institutions and types of qualifications across providers in the broader tertiary sector.

I understand that Queensland is to add job placement performance requirements to contracts for delivery government programs. This may be useful in getting providers to work more closely with employers. However, there is constant ‘churn’ in the labour market and consequently even better placement rates don’t negate the argument for broader programs. In addition it will be difficult to specify this requirement in an effective way, for example what jobs will be counted, are adjustments made in downturns and how long will graduates have to be employed.

Conclusions on competency-based training

1. CBT with its focus on current job tasks does not meet the needs of the workforce and industry as it faces constant structural adjustment. VET programs need to focus on underlying theory and skills, so workers can adapt to inevitable change. Workers need to learn problem-solving, communications and team skills so that they can contribute to the productivity agenda. They need to be taught in a practical environment and generally relevant to particular occupations or groups of occupations.

2. Outside the trades there is generally a low match between the target occupation of VET programs and the occupations graduates are subsequently employed in. This is another argument for broader based programs.

3. Programs for those in employment might be more specific. Long experience has taught me that programs for the long-term unemployed should use a case managed “job first strategy”. This  involves work readiness experiences followed by placement into employment and training for specific tasks.

4. Specific training in some cases, might also be the approach for upgrading but the notion of competency for apprentices and trainees needs to be broadened. The German and Dutch notions of competence suggested by Buchanen et al25 and tied to preparation for a vocation rather than narrow performance outcomes, involves more holistic skills. Wheelahan and Moodie outline the German notion of ‘kompetenze’ as involving three areas, broad knowledge and problem-solving based occupational skills, personal qualities and values and social relations and communications.

5. Adding job placement performance requirements to contracts to deliver VET programs is useful, if only to encourage providers to work more closely with employers, but it doesn’t negate the argument for broader programs.

 

 

 

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