Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Julia Gillard's proposals for Australian Vocational Education and Training

In Sunday Essay - Julia Gillard's proposals for Australian higher education I looked at Julia Gillard's latest proposals for the university sector, the start of her response to the Bradley Inquiry. The day after her speech to the Universities Australia she spoke at the Big Skills Conference, extending her preliminary response to the VET (vocational education and training) sector.

The core of the Commonwealth Government's response is set out in two paragraphs in the speech bolded in the original:
To build these vitally needed pathways between universities and VET, I announce today that the Government will commission the Australian Qualifications Framework Council to improve the articulation and connectivity between the university and VET sectors to enable competency-based and merit-based systems to become more student-focused.

Today I am also announcing that the ambit of Skills Australia will expand to encompass the full scope of Australia’s labour market needs, to give advice to the Commonwealth about the effectiveness of both the university and VET systems in meeting the broad range of Australia’s skill needs.

Before going on, there is a wording shift here that I had not picked up before, the distinction between competency and merit based systems. No doubt it has been around for a while, but it is new to me.

I am not quite sure what the distinction implies. However, if I interpret it correctly, it equates to the difference between the VET and University sectors.

The capacity to do is central to competency. You are either competent or you are not judged against a particular standard. There are no rankings of greater or lesser competency. By contrast, university qualifications allow for variations in ranking in courses between students. I don't actually like the wording because it seems to imply that competency is not connected to merit.

The first point to note about the speech is that it continues the theme of education for national efficiency. In a sense this is more clear cut in the VET sector with its direct focus on skills formation. Even here, however, there is a problem in that our systems no longer properly accommodate those who want to study out of interest independent of any work outcome.

I actually think that this an important issue, although it is beyond the scope of this post. Part of the richness of life comes from personal interests, the deepening of personal knowledge, study for the sake of study. We need to accommodate this.

The first of the Minister's proposals deals with the role of the Australian Qualifications Council.

For the benefit of international readers, the Council oversights the Australian Qualifications Framework. This was originally established to facilitate articulation across the education and training sector from school to the highest university awards. To this end, a hierarchy of qualifications was established starting at Certificate I; all courses could then be linked to this hierarchy, in theory widening student study options and ensuring national consistency.

The Minister's wording is interesting because it links two very different things - improved "connectivity and articulation between the university and VET sectors" with "more student-focused."

I am not sure what this means.

Subject to one reservation, I support the idea of better articulation between the university and VET sectors because, properly done, it should both free the system up and improve student choice.

My reservation lies in the way the AQF has worked in the past. In combination with other Government actions, it has arguably made our systems more rigid, the opposite of the original intent.

Where I have a real problem with the Minister's words lies in the linkage with student focused. I am not sure that I understand the implications of this. It sounds nice, but I am suspicious because it may reflect an underlying confusion about the role of the AQF leading to the grafting of disconnected things onto the framework structure.

Note to readers

It is 6.20 and I have to get ready for work. I will finish this post tonight.

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