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Challenges in Australian Education

by guest blogger Katie Fitzgerald

This is part two of an interview with Dr. Phillip Rutherfordone of the world's leading experts on VET/CTE training and education systems, conducted by Katie Fitzgerald of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium (NASDCTEc) and part of our ongoing series examining international education systems. 

Q: Every system has its challenges—what are yours? What are some solutions you are looking to implement?

A: What was once one of the best CTE/VET systems in the world is now considered to be slipping by those who work within it. In the 1990s, the purpose of CTE was to prepare people for careers or lifelong learning. The system was based singularly around the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the workplace and the successes it achieved were measured by how well individuals and teams improved and, by extension, the economy grew.

But that has changed. Today we have a system that is very similar to that which existed in the 1980s when the notion of workplace competence was centered only on what could be taught for the a specific workplace, not what was needed of a competent worker. There is reliance on the qualification as the indicator of competence, and as a result, supervisors and managers have to work hard to identify the gaps new employees have in their skills and knowledge, and provide additional resources to bring their competence to a level acceptable to the employer.

All VET systems have this objective: To help students get a job, get a better job, get better at their job, or when all else fails, to create a job. But there is not a great deal of evidence in Australia that this is happening. There are numbers that tell us how many students have undertaken VET courses, or the total of vacancies being filled having increased or decreased, but these statistics don't tell us how well our economy is growing as a result of the VET system.

As a result, many private training providers have become disillusioned with the way the Australian system is structured and managed. They don't like being monitored by the federal government and having to reframe the programs they offer to meet the quality criteria of external auditors. This is especially true of those training providers whose main focus is on the skills needs of their students and their current or future employers.

From what I've seen, the best VET/CTE systems around the world have a very complex system that is made up of many moving parts, all working in tandem, to provide a whole system that begins with a vision for the national economy and finishes with an evaluation of whether or not this vision is being achieved. Our system has become very linear—beginning with the development of curriculum (with little or no needs analysis), progressing to the hands of training organizations that conduct the course, and finishing with students who are expected to apply their new skills and knowledge in the workplace. The implication of this is that being qualified is the same as being competent. More needs to be done in the Australian system to turn this belief into reality.

The real challenge is this: If the VET system in Australia is to survive, will it be better to start all over again, or cut it right back to the basics and begin to rebuild? There are many who are calling for the former as they don't believe it can get better, but there are also many who, like me, know how well it can work and can see that within the current system there are many good elements that can be saved. 

Q: What advice do you have for other systems attempting to reform their VET/CTE systems? What are some of the policies in Australia that could assist others in overcoming the challenges they face in VET/CTE?

A: Right now there are over 150 different VET systems in the world. Some are very linear and concentrate only on low-level training and others are highly complex and aimed at national and international competitiveness. Very few give as their prime focus the needs of the workplaces in which graduates of CTE/VET programs expect to be employed. As a result, after more than 25 years experience pursuing the promise of an integrated and workplace-centered education and training system, few countries can point to their CTE/VET system as being the prime reason for economic success. This, after all, should be the purpose of every CTE/VET system but there is little evidence of this either driving the systems found around the world or achieving what such a system should achieve.

I have either designed or been involved in the creation of VET systems adopted by several countries, and in each case I have strongly encouraged the key decision makers to focus on one thing—the purpose of the system. Once the purpose is defined, and everything put in place to ensure that both the purpose and the system continually adjust to meet evolving economic and individual needs, then what will emerge is the type of system that the country requires. It will do more than just train people; it will ensure that people are given the support (including training) to achieve objectives important to themselves, their employers, their communities, and their country.

A national system has to be aligned against national interests which, by extension, should also be those of the states. In Australia we have a fair way to go before this ideal is achieved but we continue to look to the U.S., Japan, Switzerland, and other countries for solutions to our shared challenges. 

Follow NASDCTEcHeather, 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.

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