A year of living dangerously for vocational education and training in Australia

Jan 14, 2022
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Australia's summer break has postponed our reckoning with Omicron's impact on VET to February, yet overseas experience indicates we will face significant challenges.(Image: Unsplash)

Will the Covid-19 Omicron variant devastate vocational education and training (VET) again in early 2022? Early indicators are not good.

Despite high vaccination rates, Omicron Covid cases have risen to unprecedented levels in Australia and overseas, especially in New South Wales, with all states except Western Australia following suit.

Even though most states appear to oppose lockdowns to prevent Covid spread, it’s clear that many people are participating in “soft lockdown” or “lockdown lite”. “Even though they haven’t mandated everyone stay home, so many people are in self or mandated isolation, this is a lockdown in all but name,” reports a Sydney event promoter. Australia has no choice and must “ride the wave” of Omicron and press on, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says.

Australian vocational education and training (VET) has been on a roller coaster since the commencement of the pandemic, with much training shifted online, and many students withdrawing from training in 2020 and 2021, especially in the two “lockdown” states of Victoria and New South Wales. This phenomenon particularly affects the most vulnerable and disadvantaged students, especially notable with Indigenous learners and people with a disability – and has impacted adult and community education (ACE) providers, with drops in government-funded VET students from 2019 to 2020 of 20 per cent both nationally and in NSW, and 35 per cent in Victoria.

This decrease resulted because of a heavy reliance on classroom training – much of the foundation skills, and aged, disability and child care training (as well as many trade skills) needs to be done in person, but also because disadvantaged groups are often the first to leave training in a crisis – such as COVID-19 – and the last to return. They do not have the same financial or other resources to participate in remote or online learning, due to lack of proper digital tools and poor internet connections. “Many adults do not have the skills, understanding or access to technology to succeed in education,” says Australia’s Reading Writing Hotline. As Omicron makes its impact felt virtually everywhere in Australia as we head into 2022, the pressure on VET will be felt beyond Victoria and NSW into previously unaffected states.

Internationally, “social distancing requirements have disrupted the traditional face-to-face provision of education and training,” reports the World Federation of Colleges and Polytechnics. Challenges include disruption in assessments and examinations, with practical learning outcomes particularly impacted; and difficulties for learners in acquiring hands-on experience due to inability to access work-based learning placements, such as in Australia’s hard-pressed aged care and child care sectors.

Trainers have dealt with increased workloads associated with pivoting to remote learning, and training providers – especially in regional and rural Australia – are facing an increasing trainer shortage. These challenges combine with a VET system that has become “skewed from its primary goal of producing skilled workers and has become a market, where the needs of industry and students are secondary, trumped by the demands of private trainers to deliver a profit,” write Andrew Dettmer and Ian Curry, of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.

Australia’s summer break has postponed our reckoning with Omicron’s impact on VET to February, yet overseas experience indicates we will face significant challenges. New York’s Cornell University had required double vaccinations for all students and staff, and achieved a 98 per cent plus vax rate. But the university still shut its main campus in mid-December, after more than 900 students contracted COVID (mostly Omicron), sending all 26,500 students home to do final examinations online. (Full disclosure: I received my undergraduate degree from Cornell.)

It’s not just Cornell. Princeton University (99 per cent student vaccination rate) and University of Pennsylvania both told students to leave campus in mid-December. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, numerous North American colleges and universities will start their classes online in January when students return from winter break. Anita Barkin, co-chair of American College Health Association’s Covid-19 taskforce, is cautious about on campus learning plans in an uncertain epidemiological future: “Given the evolving pandemic scenario, it is very difficult to make promises,” she said. The UK University and College Union said in December that continuing in-person teaching would “put staff and students in unnecessary danger”. Most Australian universities look like they will follow suit.

Even if the Omicron wave passes quickly – and that’s a big “if”, based in large part on data from the UK, South Africa and the US, all with significantly greater pre-Omicron COVID infection rates and acquired immunity – the impacts will be uneven around the country. The current wave will surely dent confidence in early 2022 participation in most indoor activities, making many learners reluctant to return to in-person training. “Google mobility reports show that … even now that ‘living with COVID’ is the norm and lockdown is over, the mobility numbers demonstrate that pre-pandemic behaviours will not return while mandatory quarantine looms,” reports Crikey.

Council of Small Business Organisations Australia CEO Alexi Boyd says that “community anxiety and confusion can still have a negative effect on small businesses by causing consumers to change their travel and spending habits.” Noticeably smaller crowds attended recent Boxing Day sales, especially in Sydney and Melbourne.

The public mood is “one of worry – that NSW is out of control, that cases are skyrocketing, as has happened in the UK, many parts of Europe, and the US. The spread of the virus is already baked into the next two weeks’ case numbers,” writes Anne Davies.

We need a comprehensive strategy to ensure that Australian training continues strongly in 2022, to deal with public perceptions of the limited (and belated) public health measures, a national PCR testing mess and unavailability of personal rapid antigen tests. Without this support, Australia’s labour shortages – particularly in the crucial aged and other care sectors (an issue identified many years ago) – are likely to worsen, as training pipelines may narrow.

Six essential and inter-dependent measures are necessary to counter the impacts of Omicron on Australian training in early 2022:

  1. improve the air quality of training environments and classrooms – few of which were designed for a COVID world – through proper ventilation, powerful HEPA air filters and CO2 monitors;
  2. provide free rapid antigen tests to training staff and students through their providers – especially the not-for-profit ACE providers and TAFEs, which engage more lower-income and vulnerable students;
  3. re-double efforts to reach the 1 in 4 Australians who are digitally “excluded” and the 11% of Australians who are “highly excluded” from digital life, to close the “digital divide” that disproportionately impacts lower income people, regional and rural residents, and the less well-educated;
  4. recognise that COVID-19 is not going away any time soon, and invest resources in hybrid and blended models of VET learning;
  5. address the training workforce challenges through scholarships and industry mentoring for prospective trainers; and
  6. most crucially – implement a comprehensive outreach and support program to re-engage students in training, focused on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

This last measure means assisting not-for-profit ACE providers and TAFEs to employ dedicated support staff with community development, social outreach and counselling skills. Australia has a strong history of improving participation and success in VET for disadvantaged learners, which includes building strong relationships with employers and other community service agencies. Now is the time to start planning for re-engagement of vulnerable and disadvantaged VET learners; both our economy and our society depend on it.

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