Australia has gone from VET leader and innovator in the Asia-Pacific region, to scandal and cutbacks. Professor Peter Noonan from the Mitchell Institute writes how Asia has leaped ahead. Now countries that once looked here for answers can share how they’ve met the challenge of raising the status of VET as an alternative to university for young people in terms of prestige and outcomes.
A regular commitment for senior managers in Australia’s Vocational Education and Training system in the 1990s was to brief visiting delegations from Asian countries about how Australia was building a high quality, responsive and larger national VET system through collaboration between the Commonwealth and the states and Australian industry.
Within the region, Australia was seen as a leader and innovator, in raising the status of and participation in VET and in building industry leadership into the system at all levels, from program design to system governance. How a national system was to work within the Australian federation, in which the states had primary responsibility for VET, somewhat mystified visitors from countries with unitary systems of government and more authoritarian decision-making processes.
A shared challenge across countries was how to raise the status of VET particularly as an option for young people in terms of prestige and outcomes relative to university. Indeed, this challenge was even more acute in countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong. In these countries, Confucian values of learning and family prestige, the education of post-colonial political and business elites in the top American, English and Australian universities and the absence of strong traditions of apprenticeship and skilled trades or of the equivalent of a TAFE system posed formidable challenges in building alternative pathways to university.
Visits to Singapore and Hong Kong in this period confirmed the magnitude of the challenges they faced. Responsibility for VET was fragmented between government agencies, there was no effective qualifications system, facilities were poor and industry engagement and formal on the job training limited.
The progress made by Singapore and Hong Kong in international tests of student performance in reading, maths and science are well known. Universities, particularly in Singapore, perform exceptionally well in world rankings relative to country size.
Currently there are no equivalent international student assessments of skills based subjects nor rankings of VET institutions or systems currently available. If they were, they would make fascinating reading, in terms of the progress made in Singapore and Hong Kong relative to Australia’s performance in VET over the past decade.
Specialised institutes offer alternative to universities
In Hong Kong, the Government had established the Hong Kong Vocational Training Council (VTC) in 1982 but it operated only a few campuses and courses for the first decade of its existence. Over the past two decades it has expanded significantly, to over 14 locations some offering specialised programs in areas such as maritime studies and an international hotel school and culinary academy. It now has over 50,000 full time and 250,000 part-time students, including around 5000 apprentices.
In most respects, VTC campuses and offerings are similar to those of TAFE institutes in Australia but there are also important differences. The VTC has an explicit mission through its Youth College and through broadly based Vocational Certificates and Diplomas on preparing young people including school age students for employment and higher-level studies. There is a strong emphasis of STEM capabilities as well as technical competence.
The introduction of a vocational Baccalaureate as an alternative pathway to the still highly academic senior secondary certificate is under consideration. Through its Technological and Higher Education Institute and School for Higher and Professional Education the VTC offers career oriented degree programs including with partner local and international universities. Through the Institute of Professional Education And Knowledge, the VTC offers postgraduate and professional development programs
Through this network of specialised institutes, the VTC is able to offer a comprehensive range of courses in areas of economic priority and for a broad range of learner cohorts and as an alternative to the still all-powerful pull of local and international universities. In recent years, the Hong Kong Government has significantly increased its funding for the VTC, for expansion of enrolments but also through capital investment and the opening of new sites to improve the image and prestige of the VTC.
The VTC even operates its own Symphony Orchestra and Chorus comprised of current students, staff and alumni to raise its profile and status and to emphasise the importance of the development of the ‘whole person’.
There is still an ongoing commitment to learning from international practice and to benchmarking student performance particularly through the International World Skills Competition.
The Hong Kong VTC combined these commitments at concurrent events held over the weekend of June 17 – 18, through an International Conference on Vocational and Professional Education and Training held in conjunction with the Hong Kong World Skills Competition. Conference speakers included the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Administrative Region and Andreas Schleicher, the Director of Education and Skills at the OECD, signalling commitment to the mission of the VTC from the most senior levels of government in Hong Kong.
What was particularly striking was that VTC students facilitated the entire conference including all introductions and moderation of questions and answers. This was not just to give students experience – it was a very public display of student capabilities achieved through VTC pathways. In a massive open venue to the conference, thousands of secondary school students and members of the public observed competitors in the World Skills Competition and participated in a range of hands on and interactive activities.
These events may not seem unusual in an Australian context but reflect the extent to which Hong Kong is determined to build its capacity for workforce skills development and to create alternative pathways to university.
Driving these objectives are a major concern about the combined effects of low unemployment, slowing of population growth, population aging, and the low status of occupations other than the professions. While Hong Kong operates a liberal skilled working visa program, it does not see large-scale permanent immigration, particularly from mainland China, as a means of redressing gaps in the skilled workforce. The willingness and capacity of university graduates to undertake jobs that are not seen by the community as socially prestigious is another factor.
A region investing in future skills
Hong Kong is not alone in this focus on raising the prestige and capacity of its vocational education and training system. Singapore has transformed formerly dilapidated Institutes of Technical Education (ITE) into three major regional institutes that have been effectively rebuilt as major world-class education and training facilities with a strong focus on future skills (including sustainability), new technologies and innovation.
Korea has also been investing in and upgrading its complex system of junior colleges and polytechnic colleges and has invested heavily in VET research through the Korean Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training (KRIVET), but has been less successful in building a coherent system of national standards and qualifications and linkages between the VET system and industry, particularly the major international companies remain relatively weak. Concern about the future of Korea’s burgeoning but under resourced higher education system and graduate capabilities in terms of the future needs of the Korean economy and society are also evident.
These three countries hold Australia’s national VET system in high regard, particularly for our flexibility, links between national competency standards and national qualifications, and expertise in policy development. But publicity around the VET FEE HELP scandal, enrolment declines, cuts to TAFE and the opaque and complex arrangements for national VET governance (including for the development of competency standards and qualifications) has damaged Australia’s reputation in the region.
It would be a paradox but perhaps a useful exercise for Australia to look at the contemporary roles of public VET institutions like the VTC in Hong Kong and the ITE in Singapore in thinking about the future role of TAFE as the public VET provider and as the backbone of the VET system in Australia.