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Education leader praises Asia’s VET sector

In the 1990s, Peter Noonan says, our VET sector was the envy of the rest of the Asia-Pacific. Now, the professor of tertiary education policy at Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute thinks it might be the other way round.

At a recent Hong Kong-based conference, he learned that Singapore and Hong Kong in particular have revamped their VET schemes and institutions. “They’ve brought in a national qualifications framework like Australia, but [have] also given [the sector] a lot of backing and support,” he said.

“They were very interested in the Australian experience of building a national system…because they weren’t dealing with state governments. But they also talked about the role of better alternatives to higher education.”

Heavy government investment in both Singapore and Hong Kong has resulted in a multitude of shiny, futuristic campuses offering similarly innovative courses, like those with a sustainability focus. “They’ve put a lot of capital investment into basically modernising and expanding the infrastructure. Particularly in Singapore, the campuses feel like 21st century educational institutions,” Noonan added.

This, in turn, has amped up the prestige of the sector, drawing in students who would have previously only considered a university education. For example, since 1982, the Hong Kong Vocational Training Council has hugely expanded. From offering just a few courses, it now has many scattered over 14 locations, and trains more than 300,000 students in areas like hospitality and maritime studies. In Singapore, the formerly dilapidated Institutes of Technical Education have been entirely overhauled, materially and in spirit.  Now, they emphasise future skills training, with a technology edge.

Though Noonan acknowledged that, even in these forward-thinking Asian nations, VET’s image is yet to be as attractive as that of a university’s. “Both countries are very strongly driven by a combination of traditional Western attitudes about the role of universities, but also Confucian cultural values about learning and academic education. There’s no doubt that university is still the aspiration of most citizens.”

While there are no statistics to internationally benchmark VET performance, unlike Australia’s, Asia’s looks promising. Noonan listed the problems afflicting our industry: poor quality providers, disinvestment – particularly by state governments, and a lack of leadership. Though he assured: “I don’t want to say that Australian’s VET sector in any way is a poor system, because it’s not…[it’s just] a contrast to…what I saw in Hong Kong.” All we need to do, he implied, is catch up to our regional neighbours.

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One comment

  1. Professor John Canning

    I’m a little concerned at some of the confusion the article above appears to engender – not the least of which the discussion is not being led by TAFE which traditionally would be the home of VET. In fact if you look at web sites accessible to overseas students this difference is still noted but as well sites such as studies in australia point out that some Universities are now offering VETs and the term is including wider studies such as medicine. Increasingly, however, I note that VET language is entering mainstream dialog across university topics and is influencing if not replacing traditional views of critical thinking and research. So there appears to be increasing competition between traditionally disparate education providers (not ony TAFE and Universities). I do not believe this is necessarily the same driver in Hong Kong or Singapore. Nonetheless, these changes are evidently driven by a need to increase funding from overseas students and to do so to cater to what traditionally might have been offered by TAFE since the majority of these students are undertaking such studies for purely vocational aspirations – the statement that in those regions higher education is valued has to be qualified with the fact that it appears valued because of the perception of prestige coupled with VET access rather than academic and higher level aspiration. It is therefore no coincidence that TAFE seems to have gone more and more under the radar in this area coinciding with perhaps more pressure for Universities to move into this space, effectively blurring the education space and its motivations. This also needs to accommodate the fact that many overseas students are not suitably qualified for traditional degrees and the implications that has on the value of our degrees and our visa qualifications over time.

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