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Dr Bryan West is Founder and Managing Director of Fortress Learning. Founded in 2009, Fortress Learning (RTO. 31974) specialises in the delivery of TAA and TAE programs. His working life has spanned both private and public sectors, and primary through to tertiary and community education. More recently, Dr West has initiated a program of empirical research in VET and is pursuing opportunities related to teacher training in developing nations.
Dr West discusses the broad challenges facing VET in Australia and why cooperation is the only way forward:
Vocational education and Training (VET) has been the most effective part of Australia’s educational system for a number of years. The unique partnership between government, industry and trainers which has been created in Australia regularly outperforms the haphazard vocational education offered in most countries. Our standardized system of certification ensures that trained personnel are consistently available to the private business sector, while ensuring that the level of training that they receive is consistent across the country.
That doesn’t mean that Australian VET isn’t facing any challenges. While overall the system is working well, like any human system, it’s not perfect. Registered Training Organizations (RTOs) are constantly challenged to provide training which is applicable, relevant and thorough, while maintaining costs which are affordable to their customers.
We can break the challenges which face VET down into several distinct areas; each of which needs to be addressed on a constant basis, by trainers and RTOs across Australia.
Even though the VET Quality Framework lays requirements on trainers and RTOs for meeting certain requirements in training, inconsistencies in training provided does exist. This problem is augmented by the involvement of public schools into vocational training. The general perception in the industrial sector is that schools which are involved in VET are unable to provide the same level of training as RTOs.
This perception is based upon the resulting level of competence seen in learners who have received their VET through school vocational programs, when compared to those who have received training from an RTO. The schools are not able to provide the same learner to trainer ratio, which ultimately affects the quality of the training provided.
Schools which provide VET are required to either become certified as RTOs or partner together with an existing RTO for the VET they provide. While these schools are in fact meeting the requirements of the VET Quality Framework, the results are not spectacular.
Even quality within RTOs can vary. While all are required by the VET Quality Framework to meet the same training standards, the system does have some variance. Learners who have received certification from two different RTOs may not have the same level of ability, simply because of difference in training style. One may be more theoretically oriented, while the other is more hands-on, affecting the learner’s ability to accomplish the necessary tasks on the jobsite.
While RTOs have curriculum which they are currently using, development of new curriculum or improvement of existing curriculum is a time-intensive and expensive process. With the rapid change of technology in the workplace, curriculum which is considered effective can quickly become outdated and obsolete. A limited number of companies produce this curriculum, leaving the burden on the RTOs.
One possible solution to this problem is the development of a national curriculum base. However, even this would face the same problems of funding, time and the challenge of revising the curriculum to keep it current.
Since Australian VET is designed to meet the needs of industry, trainers are given leeway in selection of curriculum, so that their learners may be properly prepared to meet the needs of the specific industry in which they will be working. Standardization of curriculum eliminates, or at minimum greatly reduces, the ability of trainers to customize their training programs to meet company needs in their areas.
Assessment of learners is the most subjective part of the VET system. While training packages and units of competency provide guidelines as to what qualifies for competency, the guidelines are subject to interpretation by trainers. This allows for variance from trainer to trainer.
Trainers who are strict in assessing the knowledge and skills of their learners provide a more thorough educational experience for the learner, at the cost of making more work for themselves. Since they can’t effectively charge more for their services and still remain competitive, they are limited in how strict they can be in their established requirements for certification.
Schools who offer VET are even more challenged in the area of assessment and certification, as they are pressured to graduate their students on time. This pressure readily leads to compromises in the level of attainment expected of their learners.
Australian VET has always held workplace learning to be an important part of any training program. The need for learners to experience the tasks they are learning in as realistic a work environment possible has led to utilizing workplace learning extensively.
This is most easily implemented when RTOs are providing training to a company, where the company is the customer and not the learner. As part of the agreement between the company and the RTO, use of company equipment and facilities, either during working hours or after hours, provides an excellent hands-on opportunity to the learners.
For RTOs who are dealing directly with learners as customers, schools, and RTOs that are not providing training to a specific company, the availability of realistic workplace learning can be a challenge. The need in these cases is to find placement for the learners in industry, where they can practice the skills they are learning in their vocational training.
VET is much more resource intensive than general academic education. The difference in trainer/learner ratio, the cost of equipment, and the cost of materials to practice on all make VET a much more resource intensive educational process. Funding this is a constant challenge for everyone involved in VET.
Much of VET funding is provided by government, either or the state/territory or federal level. As with all government funding, there are limits to what is available, limits which are below the need. This causes problems with determining which learners need the funds most, how to distribute available resources most equitably and in determining what is a fair and reasonable fee for an RTO to charge for their services. While funding VET is an investment in the country’s future, there are still challenges in finding the necessary funding.
In addition to the issue of funding, the other major resource concern which faces VET is the availability of properly trained and certified trainers. VET is considerably different than general education and the needs and requirements for trainers are considerably different as well. Without adequate trainer availability, VET can’t continue to grow.
While VET faces a number of very real challenges, that doesn’t reduce the effectiveness of the VET system, nor the need for it to continue. In no way should our existing system be “watered down” to reduce any of these concerns. Rather, everyone involved in VET must realize that these challenges exist and work towards finding equitable solutions for them.
The VET system is based upon cooperation. The only way that we will find workable solutions to the challenges that we face is by working together, each segment of the system doing their part to improve the overall system. Laying blame is not necessary, rather it is better that we all look for solutions.
As VET moves forward, we can expect that the challenges will grow, not lessen. Each challenge we manage to overcome merely opens the door to a new one. Yet, in the process of meeting and overcoming each of these challenges, the learners are better served. That makes the effort worthwhile.
VET for secondary school students: acquiring an array of technical and non-technical skills (report)
Vocational education and training in Australian schools: issues for practitioners (article)
Strengthening Skills: expert review of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training System (VET Joyce Review)