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Paralysis by analysis

29 August 2014

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I was recently introduced to the term “paralysis by analysis”, which put me in mind of the vocational education and training sector. VET must surely be the most officially inquired into, reported and advised on – and “reformed” – activity in Australia.  At any time, in recent years at least, there some sort of government initiated inquiry going on in one of the nine jurisdictions (the Commonwealth and eight states and territories).

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 analysis paralysis

Commonwealth industry minister Ian Macfarlane recently announced the appointment of a five-member Vocational Education and Training Advisory Board, charged with providing  feedback to the government as it continues reforms to the sector.

He  said, in particular, that  the government is focussed on” ensuring industry has a stronger voice in the VET system”, so that it “is efficient and effective in delivering the job-ready workers that industry needs”.

You have to read the sub-text of that as being industry doesn’t   have a strong influence in VET and that it is not   efficient and effective in delivering job- ready workers.

It irritates me considerably that the VET sector is subject to this seemingly never ending cycle of inquiry and reform (although it keeps a legion of “experts” and consultants in work writing submissions and reports).    It doesn’t actually paralyse the sector but the constant chopping and changing and shifting of priorities is highly disruptive and burns up and lot of energy that might be put to better use.

As long as I can remember (which is quite a while), the enduring criticism of the VET system has been that it isn’t sufficiently “industry-connected” and that many VET graduates are “underprepared” for the workplace.

As to VET’s “industry-connectedness”, there are thousands of officially-sanctioned training packages, most usually developed by industry skills councils (ISCs), with substantial input from the relevant industry. Industry representatives sit on ISC boards and their various advisory committees. John Hart, the chair of the newly established advisory board, is one of the six board members of Service Skills Australia ISC and chairs its Tourism, Travel and Hospitality Industry Advisory Committee.

One valid criticism of ISCs is that, by and large, they tend to comprise bureaucrats: either government officials and representatives of peak business groups and of trade unions.  People from the shopfloor, people actually running and/or working in a business enterprise, are few and far between, as are people with continuing everyday experience in training.  The same criticism could be made of Macfarlane’s new board (without, of course, any trade union representative).

My own experience with both public (TAFE) and private RTOs is that they punctiliously seek to involve “industry” in the development of their training and assessment tools and, usually, in the practical components of training (namely, work placements). And it’s shopfloor industry, not boardroom industry. So if an RTO is delivering hospitality training, it will be dealing with restaurant owners and managers on a regular basis, rather than with the Restaurant and Catering Association.  It’s very direct industry consultation.

There’s a pretty simple reason for this: effective industry consultation is a fundamental condition of registration as an RTO and permeates the National VET Registration Standards, on which rests the registration of an RTO and therefore its entire business.  For example, the “Essential Standards for Continuing Registration” stipulate that

Strategies for training and assessment meet the requirements of the relevant Training Package or VET accredited course and have been developed through effective consultation with industry.

And it’s difficult to fudge because the principle of “continuous improvement”, also enshrined in the National Standards, requires a planned and ongoing process by which an RTO systematically reviews and improves its policies and services to achieve better outcomes for clients and to meet changing needs.

When the auditors comes calling, an RTO needs to be able to prove that it has been engaged in this process through the registration cycle to maintain its registration.  As John Howard put it in relation to election preparation, “you can’t fatten a pig on market day”.

As to “underprepared” VET graduates the main purpose of any training course, as Macfarlane recognised in announcing his new advisory board, is to get people “job ready”, to get them to a basic level of competency so that they can contribute to an enterprise and not be a danger to themselves or others.

By and large, all the evidence is that RTOs serve that purpose.

Surveys show that both VET students and employers are generally satisfied with the outcomes of training and that the Australian VET system is well regarded internationally (this is not to argue that there can’t be improvement –  see “continuous improvement” above!)

Generalised criticisms on this score seem to be based on unrealistic expectations that a person undertaking a VET course will emerge a fully formed expert practitioner in their field.  As in any field, most people will require both work experience and life experience to realise their potential. We should no more expect a recent graduate of a cookery course to perform the role of sous chef at Vue Monde than we would expect a recent graduate in medicine to be performing complex neuro-surgery – indeed, God save us from inexperienced cooks and doctors, until they’ve developed their respective skills and understandings.

The real problem in VET – and in which perhaps lies the beginnings of a real skills crisis – is chronic underfunding of the sector.  Despite some spectacular VET budget blowouts in recent years, notably in Victoria, public investment in VET has been declining for years and increased private investment (that is, increased fees) hasn’t made up the shortfall.

Having suggested that the VET sector has been reviewed and reformed almost to death, the best thing minister Macfarlane might do is initiate a comprehensive national review of VET, along the lines of the Kangan Review of 1974 (that’s right 40 years ago), to advise  advise nine Australian governments on the development of VET in Australia and to make recommendations for the financing of the sector.

But that’s a story for another day.

An edited version of this article by Brendan Sheehan was first published in The Australian on 27 August 2014 as  Critics of vocational education tend to overlook the positives

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