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Australian Education Gives All Students Skills for the Workplace

by guest blogger Katie Fitzgerald

Career and technical education (CTE) in Australia is quite different from American systems in that it is a requirement for all students so they graduate with credits toward or a completed vocational certificate to help them find a job. This interview with Dr. Phillip Rutherford, one of the world's leading experts on VET/CTE training and education systems, was conducted by Katie Fitzgerald of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium (NASDCTEc) and is part of our ongoing series examining international education systems. 

Q: What is the progression of vocational education and training (VET)/CTE in Australia?
A: The VET system in Australia is unique in that it was among the first in the world to identify, on a national basis, the skills and knowledge required of competent employees in the workplace. Competent, in this respect, meaning not only the possession of certain skills and knowledge but also the proven ability to apply these in different situations and contexts, individually as well as in teams (where necessary), and in a managed, self-directed, and self-motivated way.

This enabled employers to have greater control over what was taught to potential employees and helped smooth their pathway into the workforce. However, over the years the processes have become more aligned with what adult educators are capable of teaching as opposed to what workplaces need, and have begun to lose the direct connection to the workplace. So even though VET in Australia continues to focus on trades and entry-level professional skills, those who teach within this system are expected to be in continuous touch with what current and future employers want from graduates of their courses even though that is not always possible. 

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One unique feature of Australia's VET system is that the standards against which vocational curricula are developed are based on the skills and knowledge required within individual industries, and are created to meet the needs of specific industries and trade sectors. They are not aligned against individual workplaces but are sufficiently flexible to enable trainers to contextualize their programs to meet the needs of local and regional employers.

Student skills and knowledge can then be assessed, on the job and under realistic working conditions. Once students meet the standards—whether through the studies they undertake as part of the course or by bringing forward skills and knowledge they gained elsewhere—they receive the same certification as someone who entered the training program directly.

Q: What percentage of the student population participates in CTE/VET?
A: Students in Australia completing their secondary studies go either directly to university as undergraduates or into the labor market. Therefore, under law, all students must take part in VET studies, either integrated with their academic subjects or as stand-alone apprenticeships or trainee programs as part of their secondary education.

VET is taught in schools as a means of giving all students part or all of a vocational qualification (certificate) prior to entry into the workforce. Like the U.S., each state in Australia has a slightly different approach to VET where some schools have comprehensive VET programs which they run themselves or programs which are conducted by an external training organisation and provide students with real workplace experience. Regardless of where the program is conducted, the standards remain the same wherever they are studied across the country.

Q: What sectors/fields of study does it encompass? Which are most popular with students?
A: The Australian VET/CTE system encompasses almost every trade, para-professional, or professional field found in the workplace. The only areas not covered are those for which students must attend university to study such as engineering, medicine, and dentistry. Therefore, students are able to study any subject they wish, just so long as the school has the capacity to support them.

The choice of fields usually depends on student interest and the competencies required in those areas where they intend to seek work. For example, in rural areas subjects of study such as agriculture, water control, horticulture, transportation, and nursing are very popular, while in urban locales subjects such as IT and management tend to attract the most students. There are also a lot of international students studying in Australia and they pursue skills that they can utilize when they return to their home countries.

Q: How is CTE/VET funded in Australia (publicly, privately, by federal or local funds, etc.)?
A: Funding for VET comes from three sources. For VET in secondary school programs, funding comes from the state government and is subsidized by families and, in some cases, employers who train and assess students in the workplace.

National programs, such as programs for unemployed people and the socially disadvantaged, are funded by the state government as a study assistance loan. This is in effect, a loan paid by the state to the student (but paid directly to the training provider) that the student does not have to repay until they achieve an income above a certain level.

Finally, individuals, and/or the organisation with whom they are employed, can pay on a fee-for-service basis. VET in Australia is not only taught in schools, but also by public and private training providers who serve secondary students, employees of companies, and individuals who sign up to learn new skills or enhance those they already have. School-based apprenticeships and traineeships are generally run in conjunction with a private training provider. The government largely funds the creation of the curriculum against which all VET training is conducted, and provides a quality assessment of training providers registered to offer nationally-accredited courses. The training is conducted by qualified trainers who are employed by either public colleges (known as Technical and Further Education, TAFE, colleges) or private for-profit or not-for-profit training organizations.

CTE is integrated within a framework or hierarchy of qualifications (certificates) known as the Australian Qualifications Framework. This framework starts with foundational knowledge and skills and increases in industry-specific knowledge as students move through their education and training. For example, Certificate I focuses on entry-level skills, Certificate II on skills for competent or experienced employees, Certificate III on skills for supervisors or those who need greater depth of understanding and so on. The VET hierarchy has eight certification levels with the last two integrated with undergraduate degrees providing students with the opportunity to earn Bachelors and Doctorate degrees. The certification structure is funded by the federal government, which provides financial support to industry bodies at the state level that create and administer the curriculum for each vocational or professional area.

Q: What are the major goals of VET/CTE in Australia?
A: There have been many objectives of the VET system but the most recent one is more of a statement of purpose than objective: "....enable students to gain qualifications for all types of employment, and specific skills to help them in the workplace."

While it isn't the most inspiring goal, we consider it to be accurate and achievable. As can be seen, however, this purpose has more to do with what the trainer or educator does than what the student achieves as a result.

Come back on Friday to read about the challenges facing the Australian VET system and how the government is working to overcome them as well as advice for US systems. 

Follow NASDCTEc, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter. 

Dr Rutherford has been central in the introduction of VET systems in many countries, including the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

Photo credit: torres21/flickr

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