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VET review: Professor urges schools to ditch VET/uni dichotomy

A Murdoch University professor has criticised schools for encouraging students to choose between a VET or university pathway.

Barry Down, a VET and student engagement specialist, says this dichotomy has become unrealistic. “The reality is that society requires smart workers and citizens with a broad range of capabilities (including practical and thinking skills) more suited to the 21st century,” he said.

In the lead-up to the government’s review of the VET sector, announced on Wednesday, he is urging policy makers to consider his point of view, predicated on today’s job market and generational change.

“… Secure and rewarding work is rapidly disappearing,” he said. “Young people themselves want to be involved with real-world tasks, problems and questions.”

Echoing the findings of a recent UNICEF survey of 14 to 16-year-olds, Down said that teens regard much of the school curriculum as irrelevant, and want more practical learning. “Some progressive schools are already doing this. At Big Picture Education Australia, [for example,] students attend workplaces two days a week where they pursue their interests, guided by an expert mentor.”

Employers, too, want vocational employees with practical and intellectual skills. Down described a conversation he had with a kitchen cabinet maker: “He said he didn’t want an apprentice chippie that cut things any longer … he wanted an apprentice that could design, create, draw and communicate for supplies in China using technology.

“Most careers involve practical as well as intellectual elements …”

Yet he conceded that convincing schools of this is a “big task”. “The university pathway is generally perceived as the gold standard … schools need to do a lot more in terms of elevating the status of VET … the [VET] review is a wonderful opportunity to do that … in that schools could be urged to integrate [practical and intellectual skills] more closely.”

He thinks persuading parents won’t be as difficult. “I talk to many parents. Their primary concern is to see their child pursuing school in way that satisfies their child’s needs and interests.

“The VET sector has historically played a key role in supporting second chance learning opportunities and broader social outcomes,” he added.

“It is important to recognise these core values to ensure that all citizens, irrespective of their circumstances, have access to a well-resourced education and training sector.”

Also responding to the review, Craig Robertson, chief executive of TAFE Directors Australia (TDA), held a similar view to Down’s. He endorsed recent comments made by former Prime Minister John Howard: considering the future of work, tertiary education has become ‘lopsided’, with too few students pursuing VET qualifications and too many pursuing university ones.

Even universities agreed with Down’s proposition that VET and universities shouldn’t be isolated from each other. “VET providers and universities cannot be considered in silos … The IRU urges both political parties to … look at the big picture of tertiary education,” its executive director Conor King said.

Yet VET stakeholders, including TDA and the Australian Education Union, are concerned that the review won’t be comprehensive due to its short timeframe: submissions are due on 25 January, and the final report will be delivered in March.

“Rushing a half-baked VET review through over Christmas to report in March is a sign of a government that is panicking to have something to say about vocational education in the lead-up to the federal election,” AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe said.

Per its terms of reference, the review “will focus on how the Australian Government’s investment in VET could be more effective to provide Australians with the skills they need to be successful throughout their working life. It will also focus on ensuring Australian businesses, including small and family businesses and businesses in rural and regional areas, have the skills they need to support their business growth.”

It will be led by Steven Joyce, the former New Zealand Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment.

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  1. So in effect we could be looking at returning to Colleges of Advanced Education, which would provide advanced pathways combining cognitive knowledge and practical capabilities for vocations (including business, accountancy, law, nursing etc, so not just the traditional tradies pathways). And on the other side of the coin, Universities could and should return more to fundamental research pathways, whilst providing some of the knowledge that they uncover to those Colleges where applicable…

  2. The problem is the ATAR system, not the schools. In order to to qualify for an ATAR you need 10 Board Developed units at Year 12 (and hence at least 12 at Year 11). That is full time. A first degree is now the equivalent of a school leavers certificate. Almost every young adult has one so to be competitive in the jobs market, almost all young adults are forced to have a degree. So 15/16 year olds are forced to choose what is needed for the ATAR and give up the vocationals.

    It is easily fixed. Just work out the ATAR over a lower number of units, say the top 6/8 units and make at least one vocational subject (and/or a personal Startup) a requirement for the ATAR. That way students still qualify for university or can take another path at 18.

    I always needed two types of jobs, my main career and the transportable job/s I did on holidays, between jobs and while travelling. Its important for folk to keep working “between” for their emotional and financial health. And our economy would benefit from the flexibility.

  3. It is true the High Schools are pushing students down either the Red Path or the Blue Path. And if you are not deemed good enough they discourage your children from following the OP ‘red’ path. Especially with the half cohort graduating in 2019. universities will be affected by the decisions made by the High Schools. As they are only interested in recording stats for having students with a high OP. Nothing fair here.

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