Stakes higher than ever for VET sector review

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

There's no question in my mind that the VET sector needs an overhaul, and the recent announcement of a wholesale government review has been welcomed by many. But for me, one question looms large: Will they get it right? 

During my time in the sector, I've seen smaller reviews come and go without making the large-scale change that will make the difference to not only students, but industries and the economy as a whole. Now with skills shortages upon us or looming in many of our trades and key sectors, and disruption impacting every industry, the stakes are high.

For me, there are some key areas that will need to be addressed if the review is to achieve the outcomes the sector needs to succeed, and one of these is increasing engagement with industry. The whole purpose of the VET sector is to provide students with the competencies Australian industries need to thrive, so hearing from those at the coalface is vital.

Microbusinesses need a voice

We are experiencing immense disruption across all industries and undertaking a VET sector review now creates the opportunity to develop a sector that is responsive – if the right voices are given airtime.  Often, in these reviews, industry engagement involves reaching out to peak bodies but, while there is validity in their opinions, this approach is missing a key audience.  

Microbusinesses are key employers of VET graduates; small business tradespeople or family-run businesses, for example. They are at the frontline, and if the review is to be successful, in my opinion, they need a seat at the table too. 

Once there is clarity around what is needed at the coalface, there is also an opportunity to increase sector agility and streamline process to respond appropriately. 

Innovation must be encouraged

 I've talked before about the challenges presented by lengthy course review processes and rigid regulations and addressing this is an important piece of the puzzle.

Current regulations are often black and white and checklist-based, with compliance at the centre of decision-making.  And while compliance is important, it's often too focused on the journey, rather than the destination. When dealing with a competency-based system, like VET, the question should be as simple as "does the student possess the competency" instead of getting caught up in how they got there.  This is only exacerbated by regulators being chronically underfunded and understaffed, leaving little space for new ideas to be considered.

The regulatory environment is, in my opinion, stifling innovation, as providers are afraid to try anything outside the box, lest it be deemed non-compliant.  But in a time of such great disruption, innovation is necessary to keep Australian industry competitive in a global and fast-paced market. In fact, according to research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, around 50 per cent of all economic growth is driven by it

Technology has to be at the centre 

Today, every industry is impacted by technology, and the VET sector needs to better incorporate existing and emerging technologies into course delivery.

The rise of robotics and artificial intelligence across every industry is only set to grow.  What was once limited to technology companies is rapidly becoming part of everyday life in a broad spectrum of industries, just look, for example, at how virtual reality is set to transform the retail experience

In fact, all our industries are impacted by technology in so many different ways.  In our heavy trades, machinery is advancing so rapidly, and VET students need access to these technologies if they are going to become competent users of them in the workplace. 

Much of this comes down to one of the other key issues for me: Funding.  In many cases, students are learning their trades on dated equipment as providers don’t have access to the funds required to upgrade them. 

Funding disparities a challenge 

Education is widely thought to be the key to navigating our digital future and keeping Australia competitive in a global marketplace, so it's no surprise that universities and schools have seen increases in funding over recent years.  What is surprising, however, is that the VET sector overall has seen a decrease. 

Spending is largely ad hoc and funding models are decided at a state level, meaning that there are disparities across the country, creating an uneven playing field.  Rural and regional areas are often the victims, not getting adequate funding to deliver local education options – only accelerating the decline of local populations as people migrate to metropolitan areas in search of employment and training opportunities, and exacerbating a raft of social issues in the community.

It's not just in funding – the VET sector faces an uneven playing field when it comes to attracting school leavers too. 

School systems need to support VET 

Our current high school system is geared towards one outcome:  the ATAR, a ranking that only applies to university admission.  Add to this that school ranking measures university entrants as a key metric, it's easier to see why the system is actively encouraging students toward university options, thus painting VET courses as a poor cousin. 

Contrary to this mindset, more than half a million new jobs in the next five years won't require a degree, and VET offers school leavers such a variety of opportunities, it is key that students are encouraged to consider these options.

There are many opportunities to be realised 

Holding such a large-scale review at a time when disruption is changing every facet of our workforce is a good thing.  There are many areas to examine, but also many opportunities.   

The key to success lies in having the foresight and fortitude to do things a little differently, not just rolling out the same old playbook.  If the review can put innovation and future-proofing at the forefront, the outcome just might have the impact required to strengthen the VET sector and drive economic growth into the future.