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The comparison of a Danish concept with its Australian counterpart shows how much seemingly similar training concepts can vary. Don’t let the names fool you.  By Mary Leahy
The terms may be similar but the Danish idea of kompetence, or competence, is radically different from the Australian concept of competency.
In September, I visited a large vocational school in Copenhagen. Our host Benny Wielandt was eloquent in his praise of the Australian vocational education and training system. He also expressed great enthusiasm for competency-based training. However, over the course of our conversations it became apparent that there are important differences between the Danish understanding of competency-based training and the version found here in Australia.
Benny described competence as the product of a tacit interaction between three knowledge domains, which he characterised as the heart, the head and the hands.
The heart refers to personal attributes – the attitudes and values a person brings to their work. These are specific rather than generic. They will vary across different broad occupational areas. For example, the values and attitudes needed for care work will differ from those desired in logistics.
The head describes knowledge. This is not limited to the fragments of information needed to complete discrete work tasks. Instead it refers to a body of knowledge that informs work practice and is central to vocational or professional identity.
The hands point to the specific skills required to do the job. They may be manual or technical.
Competence is not the sum of these domains; it is formed through a synthesis of the heart, the head and the hands. Without all three, Wielandt argues, a person may have a qualification but not be competent.
I am yet to see a Danish policy document or European report on the Danish system that explicitly refers to heart, head and hands but the image captures the type of vocational education and training found in countries such as Denmark and Germany.
Under the European Qualification Framework, which has been adopted in Denmark, competence is defined as “the proven ability to use knowledge, skills and personal, social and/or methodological abilities, in work or study situations and in professional and personal development”.
There is a cognitive component that depends on the conceptual knowledge developed in an area of practice (head). The functional component covers the things people should be able to do in their work and as an engaged member of society (hands). Finally there is the personal component, which includes personal and professional values and ethics (heart).
When competence is built on all three components, a person is equipped to work in new as well as familiar situations. The European idea of competence is linked to expectations that employees will have responsibility and a degree of autonomy.
How does this compare with the Australian idea of competency?
According to the Standards for Training Packages, units of competency specify the standards of performance required in the workplace.
There have been shifts in the way competency is defined here. The most recent iteration is intended to be a broader concept that pays greater attention to the importance of knowledge. Although the direction of the revision is to be welcomed, competency is still narrower than the European concept of competence. The increased emphasis on knowledge is an improvement but it is still limited to the applied learning required to complete specific work tasks.
This applied knowledge supporting a unit of competency is excised from the larger body of learning related to the area of practice. Competency-based training of this type does not foster an understanding of the relevant larger body. There is no sense that this knowledge is developed through debates within the field or that it may be contested. There is nothing to prepare students to participate in such debates whilst they are studying or once they are employed in the area.
In Australia, any discussion of a broader, more holistic version of vocational education and training usually elicits one of two responses: this is what we have already or this is what we were promised when competency-based training was first introduced. Occasionally someone will whisper that there are differences between the occupational areas and that some never fully embraced competency-based training.
Certainly the reality of this training is partly determined by the way it is funded and the reporting requirements. However, even if a more pure form of Australian competency-based training were possible it would remain tied to specific work tasks. This precludes the aspects of competence that refer to social engagement and personal development.
There is something missing in both the Danish and Australian types of vocational education. As described above, both competence and competency refer to the attributes of the individual. However, a person’s capacity to work is also determined by the conditions in the workplace. This includes the number of staff, the way work is allocated, the resources available in the workplace, how risk is managed and the way responsibilities are divided. Similarly, an individual’s ability to participate fully in society may be constrained by disadvantage and social and economic institutions that perpetuate unequal access to important opportunities. These factors need to be addressed in a robust model of vocational education.
It is instructive to look at international education and training systems. We may examine the extent to which the structure of a system expands or limits the opportunities available to different groups of young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. We may identify promising programs that appear to address successfully the same urgent educational issue plaguing our system.
There are also risks.
To draw any meaningful conclusions when we compare education systems we need to take into account differences in institutions, culture, the purpose, status and history of education, the strength of external influences, and the relationships between education and other significant social and economic systems. However, before considering these factors we need to make sure we are talking about the same thing. Danish kompetence is not competency by another name.
Dr Mary Leahy is an academic at the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne graduate school of education.

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