The Productivity Commission’s five-year review, Shifting the Dial, recommends reforms in vocational education and training (VET). These are based on ‘the key premise…that skills formation is one of the central pillars for productivity improvement, even if its benefits are not immediately realised’. That caveat is important: neither skills acquisition nor other knowledge gains are easily quantified, nor are their effects on individuals straightforward. Nevertheless, as the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show, more and more Australians are seeking post-school qualifications. Most do so because they want a job and decent income. Some are mesmerised by learning and marvel at the wonder of human endeavour and the natural world. They are not thinking about productivity statistics yet may turn out to be vital assets in guarding our civilisation.
How do the bean counters contain the costs to the state, the individual and the employer of these educational pursuits? The Productivity Commission suggests breaking the teaching-research nexus and recognising students as consumers. This is a dangerous path. Buying education is not, as Tom Karmel notoriously pointed out some years ago, like buying bananas. A student can’t be sure that, even after careful consideration, the course they choose is the right one for them. That isn’t to say they shouldn’t be well informed about the option and the potential benefits or costs of their choice. Moreover, they should be screened for aptitude and appetite to stay the course.
In the new world of work, which heralds machines doing routine tasks and people solving problems, learning the how without the why is not enough. In other words, inquiry and evaluation must be integral to all tertiary teaching and learning. This is precisely the time not to break the teaching-research nexus. Good teachers are scholars.
Arguing this is not a defence of the status quo. Tertiary education in Australia needs to change. We must work out what is a fair student subsidy across the system; and, as the Productivity Commission suggest it’s time to improve assessment in VET. But first let’s ask if we have the educational structures we need and whether we can find a more sophisticated signal of the worth of education than earnings versus debt.
This exercise will involve tough questions. Do we have too many universities? Do we have too many universities doing the same thing? Do we need more higher education providers, especially in regional areas? Should they be universities or can TAFEs better serve those communities? Should any or all of these institutions specialise? Have we got our qualifications right? Are we seeing costly credentialism and clinging to rigid occupational standards? So many questions and no simple answers. That’s why I back the call for a comprehensive review of tertiary education before the reform process gets kick-started again.
What I do know now is that the nation’s prosperity will not be helped by corralling research or insisting on quantifiable outcomes from all publicly funded research. We need diversification and we need to embrace excellence. We must tolerate risk and make decisions about what the nation can afford to invest in basic research, without strings attached, and in applied research tied to solving real-world problems, and in the humanities and creative endeavour. All have the potential to lift productivity and enlighten our minds.
The institutional settings for these endeavours are already changing, with part-time, online and work-integrated learning firmly part of the mix. And, despite the dents to VET’s reputation and funding, prominent voices are calling for the end of the VET-university divide. Achieving that will require nurturing not jettisoning research in VET institutions. Scholarship, reflective practice, experimentation and knowledge brokerage are needed in the sector. VET educators undertaking such activity will nurture critical thinking and creativity in their graduates and contribute to innovation in the workplace.
Many VET professionals have the educational basis on which to develop an applied research capability in their organisations; some are engaged in research already; few are well supported by the system. When the Australian Government considers the Productivity Commission’s call to improve VET teacher capabilities and effectiveness, it must think about this in terms of demands for a new type of graduate able to combine technical expertise and sophisticated thinking to get the job done. One place to look for inspiration is the UK’s Scholarship Project in further education colleges, which is exploring how to bridge the academic-vocational divide by promoting forms of practical wisdom and building scholarly engagement into curriculum. Don’t take it out.
Francesca Beddie’s latest research, with Linda Simon, investigates applied research capability in VET. See VET applied research: driving VET’s role in the innovation system (NCVER, 2017).