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Small packages for big skills

Why cumbersome training packages need radical surgery not band-aids. By John Mitchell.
New ideas are often destabilising and uncomfortable, so we humans tend to find ways to pay them lip service, while quietly continuing on with the old ways. Possibly the best example of this in the VET sector is the way we have postponed major improvements to the design of training package, hoping the problems will quietly disappear.
The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations has decided to confront some of the uncomfortable issues in VET by convening a major national conference in Sydney in early March, called Big Skills. DEEWR aims to bring together major national and international players with an interest in skills and training to debate issues, think differently and stimulate change in the Australian tertiary sector.
To ensure there is debate at the conference about the future of training packages, DEEWR has invited to the conference the lead author of the recent OECD review of VET, ‘Learning for Jobs’, Kathrin Hoeckel. A policy analyst with OECD, with masters degrees from Munich University and the London School of Economics and Political Science, she is responsible for country reviews of VET in Australia, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, England and Wales.
In her OECD report, Hoeckel was straight to the point. “Given the range of problems affecting training packages, radical reform is needed,” she wrote. “They have outlived their usefulness.”
I contacted her recently in Paris to see whether she wanted to add to her comments in the review and was surprised by her passionate response.
One of Hoeckel’s main interests is that the design and approval of new or revised training packages be faster and more efficient.
“We propose a radical reform of training packages, drastically cutting back on the process of setting them up and making the whole process much more efficient and responsive to the changing needs of industry and the outcome more user-friendly.”
She believes that the lengthy approval process involving many stakeholders is too costly.
“It is time consuming and requires substantial logistical effort – something that is difficult to manage in a country the size and diversity of Australia. The content might be out of date if designing and updating takes too long. A fast changing economy needs quick reactions from the education system to accommodate skills needs.
“New innovative industries with special skills needs might be hampered in their development if the process of setting up new training packages takes too long.
“If the process results in very long comprehensive documents, training packages may be used by stakeholders only selectively.
“There is even a risk that training packages may simply not be used at all or that providers – as some told the OECD team during our study visit in Australia - will offer higher education qualifications instead, because training packages for VET seem unmanageable.”
Hoeckel points out that training packages are under-used. “About 80 per cent of all publicly recorded enrolments in 2006 were in just 180 qualifications out of the 1709 qualifications available. And 70 qualifications were not used at all.”
Outlived their usefulness
To partly calm the nerves of those VET people who focus on the inconvenience of changing training packages, Hoeckel says “our intention is not to encourage Australia to abolish the concept of training packages altogether”.
“The principle of having a national framework for competencies of VET occupations should be maintained. But their format should be revised radically.”
“Training packages were set up for a reason in the 1990s and have made important contributions to putting in place a truly national VET system in Australia. Now that this national system is firmly established, they have somewhat outlived their usefulness and become a burden because of the way they are designed and the process through which they are produced.”
For these reasons, she and her colleagues are recommending “making better use of this kind of tool to improve the responsiveness of Australia’s VET system to labour market needs, and to avoid waste of resources and frustration and disengagement among stakeholders”.
Hoeckel also recommends that the term training packages be dropped: “A change in terminology should accompany this reform to indicate that a real change is taking place.
“The term training packages sounds as heavy as these documents often are, whereas the term ‘skills standards’ centres the attention on the skills needed for a given profession and states their function – to set standards that ensure quality.”
It will be interesting to see whether the participants at the Big Skills conference embrace immediate surgery for training packages or politely reject the OECD diagnosis.
###See www.deewr.gov.au/skillsconference2009 and http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/27/11/41631383.pdf
Dr John Mitchell is a VET strategist. Contact [email protected] and see www.jma.com.au

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