Current state of VET reform in Australia

Speech
  • Assistant Minister for Education

8th Annual Skilling Australia Summit
– Securing the future prosperity of our economy and nation

Novotel on Collins, Melbourne, Tuesday 1 July 2014

Introduction

Good morning.  I am pleased to join you for this Skilling Australia Summit.

We’re all here today because we all know that Australia’s future productivity and competitiveness depend on a highly skilled and well-trained workforce.

It is vitally important for the future of our nation that we train young people to be qualified and experienced to meet the skills needs of the future.

By matching skills to demand we will not only achieve a productive and competitive economy, but also stronger communities in which young people have a good job and a positive future.

The shape and nature of work and skills is changing.  Australia needs to look at skills for the 21st Century and prepare the future workforce accordingly.

As Assistant Minister for Education, my responsibility is for VET in schools, including Australian School-based Apprenticeships.  In this policy space, I work closely with my colleague Minister Ian Macfarlane who has responsibility for national VET policy, and the funding and regulatory arrangements.

While obviously there are many similarities between the issues and concerns in the reform of VET outside of the school context, my remarks will focus solely on the progress we’re making in the schools’ space.

I have a deep passion for vocational education and training because of my personal experiences prior to serving in Parliament.  I’m a qualified pilot and I achieved my qualifications through the TAFE system. My other experiences as an air traffic controller, aerial stock-mustering pilot and shearers’ cook have also reinforced the importance of training people so they are well-qualified to meet the needs of employers – but I also know that no amount of training can replace on-the-job experience.

With this perspective in mind, I am pleased to have responsibility for improving vocational pathways for students.  Obviously, it is an important component for economic growth, future productivity and global competitiveness.  But perhaps most importantly, we can never forget that it is also a key element in ensuring economic independence and prosperity for future generations.

So I’d like to share with you what we’re doing to strengthen VET in schools – so that we can deliver the skilled workforce and the strong communities we need.  A strong Vocational Education and Training in Schools (VETiS) system can and will set our future high school graduates on the path toward gainful employment and economic independence.

I’d now like to run you through the current state of play with reference to VETiS, the challenges we face in this sector, the progress we’re making, and the national dialogue we need to have if we’re to elevate the status of VETiS.  In doing so, we can ensure a strong and contemporary VETiS system.

VET in schools

I’m increasingly excited by the potential for studying vocational education in Schools – but we have some work to do.

The latest data from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) indicate that around 16% of Australia’s 15-to-19 year olds are enrolled in a VETiS course, with that number dropping  to just 1.5% for school-based apprenticeships.  The statistics around the numbers of school-based apprentices are increasingly concerning, especially when school-based apprenticeships provide the most direct pathway between school and work.

The reality is that we’ve seen a reduction in traditional occupations of manufacturing or labouring towards a more service-based economy, with a corresponding move by students away from trades and skills in favour of university qualifications.

Even so, only 40 per cent of 2012 school leavers went on to study at university in 2013.  Schools need to cater to a majority of young people who are staying in school, but not necessarily planning a university future.  Schools must provide alternate pathways for these students - not every high school student wants to go to university, and not every job requires a university degree.

The nation’s schools must provide a high quality vocational pathway that engages students and prepares them to take on the high-skill roles our economy demands.

To address these trends, we need a first-rate VET in Schools system that is as equally valued and celebrated as the university pathway.

A strong system has to be industry focused and ensure that graduates are getting high-quality, on-the-job training that equips them with the skills industry needs.

It should provide opportunities for students and businesses to engage with each other through activities such as part-time work, structured work placements or school-based apprenticeships.

Employers consistently tell me that a student’s work experience is as valuable – perhaps even more so – than their qualification.

Stronger links to industry will make VETiS more responsive to the needs of the economy by encouraging the uptake of training in skilled occupations, particularly in growth industries and those experiencing skills shortages.

Our current conundrum

The current state of play presents many problems – but it also presents many opportunities.

I hear the frustrations:
- the frustration of teachers who are acting as career advisers and don’t have time to focus on the career element of their teaching load;
- the schools who tell me they can actually lose funding if they take on VETiS;
- the employers who want block release (ie weeks rather than single days) for students undertaking work experience or apprenticeships;
- and the schools who are trying to juggle the various interests embedded in their timetabling;
- as well as the employers who tell me they have to pay a VETiS apprentice more than other apprentices.

And I haven’t even started to unpack the issues regarding inconsistencies between different states and territories’ VETiS systems! But I’ll come back to that later.

Addressing these issues is not easy - but we won’t be deterred by simply knowing how difficult it is.  We will instead focus on the opportunities.

We can build stronger partnerships between schools, local businesses and industry.  And we can focus much more on quality.

I see three pillars in the VET in Schools system: the schools, the training sector and industry.

Successful VET in Schools programmes require collaboration between all three of these pillars with governments.

I also believe passionately that VET in schools must be valued as a first class pathway for secondary students.

It should never be considered a second best option – students pursuing the vocational pathway should never feel as though they’re on the B team.

Having identified this conundrum while in Opposition, on becoming Minister I convened a national roundtable in February this year with representatives of the three pillars I mentioned before.

This national roundtable was the starting point in a series of consultations in each state and territory to provide a better understanding of the way VETiS is operating in each jurisdiction.

Roundtables have been held so far in Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia.  And I’m looking forward to convening a roundtable in Tasmania tomorrow.

There have been several key themes arising from these discussions, which I will touch on now.

The purpose of VETiS has been a theme at all roundtables so far, with a disconnect between the way schools and industry view VETiS.

Education providers see VETiS as contributing to student engagement and retention, Year 12 or equivalent attainment, breadth of subject choice and post-school pathways.

Meanwhile industry groups have identified pathways to employment as the primary purpose.

Roundtable participants have also expressed fundamental concerns about the quality of provision and outcomes of current programmes.

Industry representatives have indicated that existing vocational education programmes could better equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to successfully transition into further education, training or employment.

While there is some good practice occurring, participants also identified the need for clearer pathways from VETiS to further vocational training and employment, and the need for high-quality career advice for students.

They have called for stronger links with industry to ensure that VETiS meets the needs of employers and addresses skills shortages.

They’ve also identified the challenges presented by a disjointed system that is different from one State and territory to the next.  We need to ensure national employers have confidence in the quality of delivery across jurisdictional boundaries.  Furthermore, as we progress the national infrastructure initiatives in this year’s budget, a VETiS system limited by State and Territory borders simply will not do.

We also need to reduce red tape such as that around teacher registration for instructors.

There is also a difference between VETiS delivered by institutions in a classroom and VETiS delivered through school-based apprenticeships and meaningful work placements.  Work placements are seen as vital in providing high quality training to ensure students are job ready.

And while there are numerous ways of achieving work placement during school years, the school based apprenticeship is amongst the best. At each roundtable so far, I have asked participants how we can increase the school-based apprenticeship numbers.  I have ensured that this features in each of the roundtables because the figure I mentioned earlier – the 1.5% of 15-19 year olds in school-based apprenticeships – is a number that is simply too low.

We’ve got to make sure that VETiS graduates have what employers need – and employers repeatedly tell me that work place experience is integral.  In fact, employers often value real workplace experience, a positive attitude and work ethic more highly than the qualification a student receives.

Finally, participants in the consultations have agreed there is a need for a contemporary national framework for vocational learning and VETiS.  And this was formalised at the Ministerial Council meeting in April.  I cannot emphasise enough how significant it is that all States and Territories have agreed – with the Federal Government – to update the VETiS Framework which was developed in 2001.

This is evidence that we have a national commitment to developing a contemporary framework which provides an opportunity to showcase the importance of vocational pathways.

Our collective work to update the Framework also provides an opportunity to achieve a greater level of national consistency, clearly defined roles and responsibilities, reduce complexities for employers and reduce red tape.  This work will lead to a significant transformation of the VETiS system to ensure it is the system that is needed for our times.

As the platform for vocational education and training in schools, a contemporary Framework should set the tone for VETiS, break down the barriers that currently confront it and set out aspirations for a sector that has so much to offer.

The Ministerial Standing Council has established a Working Group to update the 2001 Framework.  It includes representatives from each state and territory, industry, training and Catholic and independent Schools.  The first meeting was in Canberra last week, and from all reports, it was an incredibly collaborative and productive meeting that set the agenda for work to come.  They’re off to a great start, and will provide an update to the Ministerial Council in August, with the aim of an updated Framework at the Standing Council’s last meeting for 2014 in December.

Together, we have begun to chart a course to achieve our goal of a stronger VETiS system.

The Working Group is responding to specific terms of reference, including:
- A focus on quality
- Greater integration of VETiS within schooling
- A clear distinction between vocational learning (for life) and VET in Schools (for a job)
- Improved student preparation for participation in VETiS
- Stronger links with industry
- Promotion of VET in Schools as a first class pathway
- Streamlined regulatory arrangements and reduced red tape
- Promoting consistency.

Youth unemployment – Launceston

As I turn my mind to tomorrow’s roundtable in Tasmania, I am very conscious of the opportunity of VETiS - not just to address but prevent youth unemployment.

We need to get the next generation involved in trades and training while they’re at school and deciding on a future career.  We need to give students the option of getting involved in the workforce while they’re in school so that we create seamless pathways for those who do not aspire toward university – pathways that start with training and end with a job.

This is a discussion that is very necessary in Tasmania tomorrow.  Nationally, youth unemployment (that is 15-24 year olds) is at 12.9 per cent.  On a State and Territory basis, Tasmania’s youth unemployment is highest, at 17.3%.  Youth unemployment in Launceston and the North East sits at the state average (17.2%), higher than in Greater Hobart, which sits at 15.9%.[1]

As Assistant Minister with responsibility for vocational education and training in schools I am very pleased to have the opportunity to work with all of you to collaboratively to set today’s cohort of school students on a path toward satisfying employment and – ultimately – help bring these youth unemployment numbers down.

Yet - as a nation - we need a cultural change in order to ensure that: parents and students aspire toward VETiS pathways; schools carve out their expertise in these areas; and employers seek out VETiS graduates.

But to get there – we need to undertake a mature, open and national dialogue on what is needed in order to lift the status of VETiS.

And in recent weeks we have certainly seen that dialogue move forward.

I was pleased to see Jennifer Westacott, the CEO of the Business Council of Australia prominently state that we “cannot afford to see [VET] as the ‘also-ran’ of the education system”.

Westacott further described VET as “a crucial piece of the national armour we need to protect Australia’s economic competitiveness and social cohesion”.

And warned that “if we undervalue VET, we will abrogate our responsibility as a nation to maximise people’s potential to have good and rewarding jobs, and the capacity to take up new ones over the course of their lifetime”.[1]

I was also very pleased to speak last week at the joint ACCI (Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry) and ACPET (Australia Council for Private Education and Training) National Skills Summit in Canberra.  It was wonderful to see industry and education providers driving this important debate - just as it is to be here today with such a vast range of the VETiS stakeholders, universities, chambers of commerce, industry skills councils and TAFEs.

You are all an important part of this national dialogue and you all have a role to play in elevating the status of VET and VETiS so that we achieve a stronger system that sets us all up for the challenges ahead.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I urge the three pillars of VETiS – schools, the training sector and industry – to work with all levels of government to develop an agreed vision, principles and implementation strategy for the next phase of VETiS.

The consultations underway for VET in schools and VET reform you heard about yesterday will help inform this process, and will have a significant influence on the next wave of policy development in this vital area of training people so they are qualified to meet employer demand and specific skills shortages.

I believe we have an exciting opportunity to establish a strong VETiS system that is industry focused and ensures that graduates get the high quality, on-the-job training that equips them with the skills industry needs and sets them on a path toward economic independence.

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