Over the last year governments have changed the names and role of their vocational and higher education regulators from assuring quality to maintaining standards. This minor change in terminology is meant to indicate a major change in role. Quality is relative to goals which may be different and is somewhat subjective; standards are meant to be met by everyone and should be more objective. This should result in much better regulation of vocational education. However, there are at least 2 problems with current thinking about vocational education standards reflected in the Australian National Skills Standards Council’s consultation paper for its review of standards for regulating vocational education and training.

Excessive reliance on outcomes

The first problem is still excessive reliance on outcomes. Education may be considered crudely in 3 stages: inputs, process and output. Inputs to all education including vocational education comprise students, teachers and other resources. Educational processes include teaching, learning and at least formative assessment to guide further teaching and learning. Educational outputs include final assessment results, graduates and qualifications. This is illustrated in Figure 1. It is reductive, but it allows us to state simply the limitations of a preoccupation with outcomes.

Figure 1: a simple model of education

There would be several advantages if it were possible to maintain standards by monitoring just outcomes. But unfortunately no one anywhere in the world has been able to maintain standards by monitoring only outcomes. This is not due to teachers’ conservatism or disinclination to consider ideas originating from outside the profession: it is because the techniques for assessing outcomes aren’t yet good enough.

So standards are maintained by monitoring inputs, processes and outcomes. Each stage needn’t be given the same weight. Stronger monitoring of outcomes would lessen the attention needed for inputs and processes. The strongest way of monitoring outcomes is external assessment. But even where external assessment is used – such as for year 12 certificates in all states except Queensland and the ACT – it is still necessary to monitor inputs and processes because it is not possible to assess all that pupils are expected to learn: some pupil learning has to be inferred from appropriate inputs and processes.

Assessment in most Australian vocational education is much weaker: it is internal, local and may be rather subjective. While there are some gradual moves to strengthen assessment with external moderation, this is still relatively weak and correspondingly more attention needs to be given to inputs and processes if standards are to be assured. The National Skills Standards Council suggests in its consultation paper that more attention may need to be given to vocational education inputs and processes, but this is still tentative and too weak to curb the multiple failures of quality and standards that have been publicised recently.

Excessive reliance on employers

A second problem with governments’ current thinking about vocational education standards reflected in the National Skills Standards Council’s consultation paper is its seeking to increase even further its reliance on ‘industry’, by which is normally meant employers. While it is rarely articulated, this view rests on this argument:

  1. the (main) purpose of vocational education is to prepare graduates for employment;
  2. the quality of vocational education is therefore best judged by how well it prepares graduates for employment;
  3. the quality of vocational education is therefore best judged by employers (‘industry’).

The main purpose of all vocational education cannot be to prepare graduates for employment because certificates I and II normally do not lead to employment. Furthermore, the Australian qualifications framework requires all qualifications at all levels except level 10 (doctorate) to prepare graduates for study at a higher level. So an important purpose of all qualifications except doctorates is educational.

But even were we concerned only about the quality of vocational education inasmuch as it prepares graduates for employment, concentrating on employers’ views would not achieve the aim of assuring standards in vocational education, for four reasons. First, employers are several stages removed from the central issue: the quality of vocational education and the standards of students’ attainment. This is illustrated in Figure 2. Assurance of quality and standards is much more effective if it is as close as possible to the activities being assured.

Secondly, vocational education is only one of numerous factors affecting employees’ performance at work (Figure 3). While it may be obvious to an employer that an employee or a prospective employee doesn’t demonstrate a basic employment skill, this does not necessarily mean that the person doesn’t have the skill. They may not want to demonstrate that skill then, they may not concentrate enough to demonstrate the skill, they may be too nervous, or the organisation of work or the resources available may not be appropriate for them to demonstrate the skill in that environment and context.

The third reason why concentrating on employers’ views would not assure the quality of vocational education is that employers are not expert in the process that develops in people the skill to perform satisfactorily in work. Consider basic literacy and numeracy that may be needed to be a shop assistant. An employer may accurately observe that an employee is not able to make a list of stock items that are low, and may even correctly conclude that this is because the employee isn’t able to read the appropriate stock labels and transcribe them to a list. The employer may conclude that the employee can’t read and write, that they are functionally illiterate.

If the employee had completed year 11 or the Certificate II in Retail (the unit SIRXINV002A Maintain and order stock seems relevant) the employer may conclude that the employee’s previous education was deficient. The employee’s poor performance may have been due to the employee’s motivation, or to the organisation of work or its context mentioned above. But it may also have been due to a difficulty in translating a skill from one context to another. The employee may have demonstrated their competence in SIRXINV002A Maintain and order stock in a supermarket but may need help in translating their skill to an auto parts store. The employer would need some basic skill in teaching or training to identify and remedy this problem.

Fourthly, employers have different interests in the quality of vocational education, some of which conflict with or are inimical to the quality of vocational education. An auto parts retailer is concerned that their employees can maintain and order auto parts – they are not concerned with their ability to maintain and order other stock. So this employer may perceive as competent people who other employers may consider incompetent. Some employers obtain vocational education for their employees partly or wholly to get a subsidy for their employees’ wages. Many of these employers want the biggest subsidy for the least commitment of their employees’ time. They are thus interested in minimising vocational education, not assuring its quality: they are the last people who should be monitoring the quality of vocational education.

Conclusion

Australian governments and their agencies are making steady progress in improving the assurance of standards in vocational education. But they are still a long way from establishing a system that will correct the longstanding, substantial and pervasive failures of quality and standards first reported systematically by Kaye Schofield in the late 1990s (1999a, 1999b, 2000). Even the somewhat more robust system apparently contemplated by the Council of Australian Governments and the National Skills Standards Council would not be sufficient to protect against the rorts and short cuts encouraged by the extensive marketisation of vocational education currently being introduced by the Victorian Government. To prevent those abuses there would have to be rigorous inspection and monitoring of inputs, processes and external assessment.

-Gavin Moodie is a tertiary education policy analyst at RMIT.

Acknowledgement

This is based substantially on the author’s submission to the review of the standards regulating vocational education and training, which is available at

http://rmit.academia.edu/GavinMoodie/Papers/1736044/Submission_on_the_review_of_the_standards_regulating_vocational_education_and_training

References

Moodie, Gavin (2010) The quality of teaching in VET: framework, Australian College of Educators, Mawson ACT, retrieved 20 December 2010 from https://austcolled.com.au/announcement/study-quality-teaching-vet, 44 pages.

Schofield, Kaye (1999a) Independent investigation into the quality of training in Queensland’s traineeship system: Report. Department of Employment, Training and Industrial Relations, Brisbane.

Schofield, Kaye (1999b) Risky business: review of the quality of Tasmania’s traineeship system. Office of Vocational Education and Training, Hobart.

Schofield, Kaye (2000) Delivering quality: Report of the independent review of the quality of training in Victoria’s apprenticeship and traineeship system. Communications Division, Department of Education, Employment and Training (Victoria), Melbourne.

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