For a long time vocational education and training (VET) was seen around the world as the ‘poor relation’ to university study. It was viewed as a second-chance stream – the training option for the poorer, marginalised people of society. But as economies slowly recover from the recession, and the focus shifts to improving productivity and filling skills gaps, attitudes towards VET are improving – particularly from a political stance. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is out to change perceptions of VET across the board so that young people and their parents also view it as a promising pathway to career success.

Chief of Youth, Literacy, and Skills Development Dr Borhène Chakroun says the organisation is intent on repositioning VET, making it central to lifelong learning, and therefore a more attractive option for people.

What is driving VET globally?

Dr Chakroun, who spoke at the New Zealand VET Research Forum in October last year jointly hosted by the Industry Training Federation and Ako Aotearoa – the National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence, says the increasing significance of VET is driven by several factors. The difficulty experienced by youth in entering employment is thought to have an impact, and there is an expectation that VET will increase employability.

The changing workplace is also a factor. Once upon a time, a person might have trained in his or her chosen vocation without the need to undergo further training. However, changing technology and workplace culture now demand new skills, which require people to consider up-skilling, re-skilling and multi-skilling.

VET is also being given priority on a large global scale. The recent UN Summit developed a sustainable development agenda with a broad range of priorities, including the importance of skills development and raising the profile of VET.

UNESCO’s global 2016–2021 strategy feeds into this bigger picture. The strategy is essentially about working with member states, including New Zealand, to support new policies that will enhance their approach to VET.

While a one-size-fits-all approach to VET is unfeasible, there are certain factors that are constant for all countries.

“While we need to be sensitive to the institutional setting of the country, there are important factors that are common to all countries as they focus on outcomes: economic growth, social cohesion and sustainability,” says Chakroun.

He says the demographic and socio-economic make-up of each country will have a bearing on their areas of focus. Some countries are concerned with youth unemployment. Others, like France, have a dual focus on increasing youth employment and older people looking to re-enter the workplace. Others still will be concentrating on their migrant community or minority groups.

How does New Zealand measure up?

While somewhat reluctant to comment on New Zealand’s situation based on his limited knowledge of its approach to VET, Chakroun believes New Zealand has solid institutional infrastructure in place to support a robust VET system.

He was particularly impressed with the Treasury’s Higher Living Standards framework and thought the main challenges were achieving buy-in from the various different departments and sectors, and translating it into outcomes.

Outcomes appear to be the area to which New Zealand needs to turn its attention. Chakroun gave the example of qualification completion rates sitting at 52 per cent as an area that should be addressed.

Michael Davis, who also spoke at Ako Aotearoa and ITF’s VET Research Forum, agrees the focus needs to be on the outcomes of VET.

“Everyone – not just New Zealand – needs to focus on outcomes, and not just outputs,” he says.

Like Chakroun, Davis thinks the “institutional architecture” is stable. The Tertiary Education Commission, as a central funder for industry training organisations (ITOs) and education providers, helps to provide equality of status among different education choices.

Davis says since the recession there has definitely been a shift that has seen employers introducing initiatives to encourage VET. However, he says the UK lacks the central facilitation role for this that is neatly provided in New Zealand by its ITO system.

Following a major restructure a few years ago, New Zealand now has 11 ITOs which set the national skill standards, lead the development of qualifications and generally play a central role in industry-related vocational education and training. The ITOs also work alongside senior secondary and tertiary education to provide industry skills standards and qualifications through Vocational Pathways.

Josh Williams, chief executive of New Zealand’s Industry Training Federation (ITF) agrees New Zealand is well placed to respond to UNESCO’s recommendations as long as industry and government work together with renewed focus on workforce skills.

Adrienne Dawson, also from the ITF, says the New Zealand VET Research Forum provided a useful opportunity to present current research and ideas to policymakers, researchers, vocational education providers and government agencies to promote collaboration, further research partnerships and fresh ideas.

“Our international keynotes gave us the opportunity to benchmark ourselves against what is being thought about and done internationally in the VET space, as well as position ourselves in the overall picture.”

Putting VET on an equal footing

Part of the difficulty is changing perceptions of VET, and specifically its relationship to more traditional ‘academic’ education options.

John Rogers, who heads up the Skills for Health in the UK, believes we shouldn’t try and split VET and academic education.

“For me, it’s always a continuum,” he told delegates of the Careerforce Workforce Development Conference, held in Wellington in November last year.

Tina Sims from the Ministry of Education, also spoke at the Careerforce conference about the need to challenge perceptions, particularly at school level.

Sims says it is common for many secondary schools, particularly single-sex high-decile schools, to claim “We’re an academic school” or “All our school leavers go to university” when tracking data will often reveal a different story. In one example, the data showed that at one such school, actually 56 per cent of school leavers went to university. In fact, Sims says that overall just 30 per cent of school leavers take the university route, and of these a fifth drop out in their first year.

Students shouldn’t be restricted to an academic path or a vocational pathway. If people in established jobs and careers are finding it necessary to upskill and pursue professional development opportunities, then shouldn’t this approach to skills-based education begin at the school level.

Sims says there are some exciting new approaches under consideration for year 13 students. Instead of the traditional five time-tabled days at school, it is possible that year 13 students might have the chance to incorporate more flexibility into their week. Their curriculum options could be broadened to allow them to embark on some Level 3 tertiary study and/or employee experience on top of their school-based subjects. This approach may incorporate study towards a Vocational Pathway. Ultimately, it allows students to participate in year 13 student life – the ball, the First XV, leadership opportunities, and so on – while tailoring their study to set them up for their next step.

Work-based training

Michael Davis, who heads up the United Kingdom Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), believes more could be done to capitalise on apprenticeships. He is a big advocate for taking a work-based route into a vocation.

The challenge is making people aware that there isn’t a glass ceiling for work-based careers, he says.

The UKCES published a Growth Through People report which identified a number of priority areas for the UK governments to address.

Among these is a focus on ‘earning and learning’ – essentially studying while on the job. Davis says there has been a dramatic shift towards apprenticeships in the UK, with businesses and unions in agreement that apprenticeships provide a genuine pathway into a career.

The emergence of degree-level apprenticeships is an exciting development, with people being given the chance to achieve a degree over four or five years while on-the-job. Not only do they achieve a high-level qualification, but their education is aligned with the requirements of their chosen vocation.

Davis says that while getting the degree – or diploma, certificate or other qualification – is important, the focus is to look beyond qualification attainment to what outcomes VET brings people.

In keeping with similar initiatives in New Zealand, he says technology now allows them to track earnings after qualification. The use of comparative data is helpful to people in making informed decisions about which vocational and educational pathway they pursue.

Looking forward

One of the most significant things emerging from the UKCES report was that employers need to take ownership of skills development, and work together – with government support – to drive it forward.

It seems the collaboration and innovation advocated by the world VET experts is on the cards here. In November, the Government announced a Productivity Commission inquiry into new and emerging models of tertiary education. The inquiry is expected to take into account the needs of a rapidly changing and dynamic workforce.

“We will prosper, both socially and economically, when we seriously invest in the skills of our working population, through workplace education and training,” says the ITF’s Josh Williams. “We need to encourage delivery models that link the world of education and the world of work, and a coherent system that efficiently delivers relevant skills.”

However, Dr John Polesel from the University of Melbourne says VET is often used as a tool by government to fix problems, like skills shortages or unemployment. He suggests we are risking the learning of young people by focusing on narrow vocational competencies instead of broader generic competencies and the broader cultural base of knowledge. Polesel believes the curriculum needs to be broader to allow for better and more positive tertiary-level or workplace-based training. “Change will require ensuring the pedagogy used is relevant to a broader range of kids,” he says.

Change is certainly afoot in the VET space. It is a relief to see VET slowly shake off the second-tier stigma and leverage its status in the education hierarchy.

Source: Education Review

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