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April 05, 2019 at 11:15 am

The baby is twice as big as the bath

Since the announcement of a major vocational education shakeup, there have been frequent comments on the relationship between babies and bathwater.

In the proposal, today’s Industry Training Organisations (ITOs) would lose the role of arranging workplace training and apprenticeships to vocational education providers, including a new national institute formed out of the separate polytechnics.

We think that would be a big mistake.  

As I’m an advocate for those ITOs, you could file this under the category of “he would say that, wouldn’t he?” But with that interest declared, let me have a crack at what the future vocational system should look like. 

We should make it easier for learners to move in and out of providers and workplaces. We should share high-quality education and training programmes across the country, and make all the achievement portable. We should consistently adhere to industry standards no matter where or how someone is trained.  

And, most definitely, we should have a fair funding system that equitably supports learning on-the-job, off-the-job and digital.  

In particular, employers who are paying the wages for the “life-long learning experience” should be paid a contribution for the short-term loss of productivity and recognition that another employer may well become the main beneficiary of the workers' increased skill and knowledge.

This last move alone would transform the level and quality of productive collaboration between experts in vocational education providers and the industry experts who manage and support workplace trainees and apprentices. It would single-handedly result in a significant increase in the number of employers willing to offer formal workplace training.

Measuring success

We should also have a real vision and some measures of success.  

Imagine, for example, if over the next five years, we doubled the number of workplace traineeships, from 100,000 to 200,000. And doubled the number of apprenticeships, from 50,000 to 100,000. And doubled the number of employers offering traineeships and/or apprenticeships, from 25,000 to 50,000.

If we did that, per capita, we’d be training as many as in Switzerland. We’d have lots of people doing block courses in regional vocational providers, training as part of their employment, not training so they can then look for a job.

That makes sense in a "future of work" context, where over the course of a technologically disrupted career, people will need to upgrade their skills over time.

That also makes sense when the birth rate is at a record low and there aren’t enough school leavers to fill well-publicised skills shortages.

It makes sense when we have near full employment and, when so many in the workforce are vulnerable, and have low literacy and numeracy skills, and when international productivity comparisons stubbornly refuse to improve; in fact, continue to decline.

It still makes sense even if unemployment is high because there will still be many more people inside an ageing workforce than outside of it.

If all this makes sense, it also makes sense to let industry bodies continue to determine the mix of training that suits all workplaces. The educator should be a provider, not be in charge of workplace training.

And fundamentally, that’s the catch in what is proposed. Industry bodies would advise the government and the education providers on what should be taught but no longer work with employers and employees on the ground to arrange the mix of training that would meet their needs.

Single institution 

In the reform discussion so far, it's tempting to focus on the structural proposal to have all 16 institutes of technology and polytechnics combined into a single institution.

That's a huge move, no doubt about it, and a big deal for those communities, who, like industries, have not been given much time to think it through. It will be quite a change process and high risk to have – as officials advised the minister – a single point of failure. 

I note in passing that the reform document cites New South Wales. Four years ago, the 10 publicly funded TAFE colleges were similarly merged into one.  

Last year, $A240 million was lost, $A51 million the year before that. Employers report that the one TAFE doesn’t share apprentices' schedules or results, and official data show apprenticeship completions have more than halved since 2014.

That might not happen here but why would we flirt with it?

However, let’s put the polytechnic change in perspective: Newly released data from the Ministry of Education shows that in 2017, 65,310 polytechnic enrolments were defined as vocational. More than twice that – 138,010 – were engaged in ITO training agreements through their employers.  

The baby is twice as big as the bath. The ITOs supported 46,540 to complete industry qualifications, the polytechnics 23,315. The ITO system is doing well but we know it could do better. And the polytechnics as education providers need to do much better.

Fundamentally, these reforms should not be driven by the financial stability of polytechnics. 

ITOs share the government’s aim of a unified, integrated and coherent system. But we believe it is fully available without the loss of the industry voice on the ground. The demand side – industry, employers and employees – is the reason for a vocational system and no matter how it is configured will ultimately experience the benefits or not.

Providers are necessary but they are the supply side. Their efforts must connect with actual labour market needs. 

The largest group that need upskilling are not in the polytechnics or in the schools; they’re in the workforce now.  

These reforms should introduce and implement policies that make it worthwhile and easier for more employers to train people. We should be strengthening, not dismantling, the industry-led training and apprenticeship system. It’s efficient, cost-effective, matched to industry needs and deploys skills in the real economy. 

We should be incentivising employers to increase their participation, not destroying a system that is training twice as many as the polytechnics.

But I would say that, wouldn’t I?