Why I think the VET System should be based on capabilities not competencies


…that VET must prepare students for a broad occupation within loosely defined vocational streams rather than workplace tasks and roles associated with particular jobs (Buchanan 2006).’

In 2005, at a time competencies were still considered “the way” for the Vocational Education and Training System, I mentioned the capabilities concept to the Department of Human Services Victoria, as a possible way to address concerns that were raised about the notion of common competency standards across the health workforce (Competency standards for health and allied health professionals in Australia. (page 44 – http://tinyurl.com/lud8srr)

For example, a framework and list of practitioner capabilities required to implement the United Kingdom National Service Framework (NSF) for Mental Health was published in 2001 (Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, 2001). Capability is defined by the following dimensions:

• A performance component which identifies ‘what people need to possess’ and ‘what they need to achieve’ in the workplace

• An ethical component that is concerned with integrating a knowledge of culture, values and social awareness into professional practice

• A component that emphasises reflective practice in action

• The capability to effectively implement evidence based interventions in the service configurations of a modern mental health system

• A commitment to working with new models of professional practice and responsibility for lifelong learning

It is argued that practitioners need more than a prescribed set of competencies to perform their role and that ‘capability’ extends the concept of competence to include the ability to apply the necessary knowledge skills and attitudes to a range of complex and changing settings.

The more recent paper, “Rethinking Skills in Vocational Education and Training: From Competencies to Capabilities” by Wheelahan and Moodie, (2009, link below), critiques existing notions of skill and qualifications in VET in Australia to make the case for change, but tries to go beyond that as part of a discussion about what we should do differently.

As is evident, the purpose of this paper is to be provocative, however, I agree with it.

CBT is under challenge because of perceptions that it cannot produce autonomous workers who can hold their own and contribute to innovation in a changing economy and society.

The authors “regard the paper as the next step in the conversation about alternative ways of envisaging skills. Preparing the paper has been a challenge because while there is a well developed critique of existing VET policy and VET’s competency‐based training (CBT) qualifications, it is more difficult to develop coherent and well formed alternatives that go beyond general exhortations to do things differently.”

The key argument in the paper is:

‘…that VET must prepare students for a broad occupation within loosely defined vocational streams rather than workplace tasks and roles associated with particular jobs (Buchanan 2006).’

The paper proposes for consideration a framework based on the capabilities approach developed by Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen (1985, 1992) and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum (2000). The capabilities approach is increasingly used in international and national public policy (Robeyns 2005; Henry 2007, 2009).

Capabilities refer to people’s capacity to act, while achieved functionings refer to the outcomes that ensue when they choose to use their capabilities to achieve a particular goal. A complex set of capabilities provides individuals with the basis for making choices in their lives, whereas functionings are the outcomes when they exercise choice. A particular set of capabilities can produce any number of outcomes. continued

A capabilities framework relates the conditions individuals need to engage in work and to progress through a career with the requirements of broad occupations. It focuses on what people need to be able to do to exercise complex judgements at work and what they need to be able to do in the future, rather than on workplace tasks and roles that have been defined for them or based on existing or past practice. This approach recognises the diffuse study and employment destinations of VET graduates, while also recognising that we need to enrich vocational qualifications by recognising the depth and complexity of vocational knowledge, as this is a core component of capability. This is recognised in UNESCO’s 2004 Hangzhou Declaration which called for greater scholarship on vocational disciplines (UNEVOC 2004).

This paper emphasises the importance of theoretical knowledge for vocational qualifications. Access to theoretical knowledge is a fundamental component of capability. It is essential to support the development of vocational identities and practitioners who draw from and contribute to the knowledge that underpins their practice. VET qualifications will need to face both ways to the knowledge base of practice and to the practice of work (Barnett 2006). At present, VET qualifications mostly focus one way, to the practice of work and as a consequence diminish the complexity of that work.

Clarke and Winch (2007) explain that governments focus on the productive capacity of society; individuals focus on preparation for their working life and progression in the labour market; and employers focus on the immediate needs of their firms. They explain that these are conflicting interests, and as a result, the VET system represents a compromise and at the same time reflects the power attached to each of these different interests (Clarke and Winch 2007).

The framework developed in this paper provides a new way of thinking about skill in VET. It proposes a move away from competencies to capabilities.

Rethinking Skills in Vocational Education and Training: From Competencies to Capabilities -Wheelahan and Moodie, 2009, http://tinyurl.com/km65vdp

How to fix the VET System: Urgent VET Culture, Legislative and Policy Challenges, http://linkd.in/1cmddxd




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