Focus on VET reform


The global technological, economic, and social changes transforming work have prompted discussion internationally into how vocational education and training (VET) can best meet today's skilling needs and tomorrow's challenges. This issue of Focus on presents current research discussing VET reform and review occurring in Australia, the UK and the US. While not discussed in this Focus on issue, it is noted that the New Zealand Government introduced the Education (Vocational Education and Training Reform) Amendment Bill in August 2019 as part of the Reform of Vocational Education.


A number of recent reports and discussion papers have considered how VET can best meet future skilling needs, including a government-commissioned review of VET, and discussion papers and reports published by industry and higher education institutions or peak bodies. A common thread through many is reference to the 'Bradley Review', released in 2008, which drove many significant changes to both the higher education (HE) (predominantly) and VET sectors. Notably for the VET sector, the Review provided the groundwork for significant reforms.

In Strengthening skills: expert review of Australia's vocational education and training system, the Hon. Steven Joyce examined how the national VET system can better meet Australian job-seekers and employers needs now and into the future. While still in the early phase of implementation, the 'Joyce Review' will drive a new vision for vocational education in Australia as a modern, applied and fast-paced alternative to classroom-based learning. It is also set to bring about significant changes to the architecture of Australia's VET system, through more than 70 recommendations in a six-point plan to:

  • Strengthen quality assurance
  • Speed-up qualification development
  • Simpler funding and skills matching
  • Better careers information
  • Clearer secondary school pathways
  • Greater access for disadvantaged Australians.

The 'Joyce Review' does not venture or recommend linkages between VET and HE as it was out of scope of the Review's terms of reference.

Reimagining tertiary education and training: from binary system to ecosystem argues Australia's tertiary education and training needs a major overhaul to create a coherent national system and as such, will help to better equip Australians for a changing world. Ten recommendations are presented that aim to re-enliven the Bradley Review.

Others have taken a different approach. Future-proof: Australia's future post-secondary education and skills system, by the Business Council of Australia, recommends a shift from a provider-centred system to learner- and employer-centred system that offers suitable lifelong learning to all Australians in VET, HE or both. Its five broad recommendations focus on maintaining the unique characteristics of both VET and HE sectors, moving from current siloed funding approaches to a single funding model, developing a single-source platform for market information, creating a shared governance model and creating a culture of lifelong learning.

Reforming post-secondary education in Australia: perspective from Australia's dual sector universities offers a unique perspective drawing on their institutions experiences of offering both VET and HE. It calls for reforms to the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF), modernisation of VET qualifications, a coherent funding framework for both VET and HE and an extension of work-based learning. The report also features a range of case studies from each university. In Rethinking and revitalising tertiary education in Australia, the authors urge action based on the recommendations of the AQF Review currently underway. They also recommend extending work-based learning and make other recommendations under the title of 'rethinking' and 'revitalising', arguing their range of reforms would ultimately pay for themselves.

Fit for purpose? Reforming tertiary education in Australia by Bruce Mackenzie suggests that Australia's existing tertiary structure has led to a hollowing out of skills within the Australian economy and if allowed to continue will lead to becoming internationally uncompetitive. He argues that for Australia to remain competitive reform must begin, as it has in Nordic countries, Germany and the nascent initiatives in the United Kingdom, at the upper secondary level. 

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United Kingdom

The report FE and skills across the four countries of the UK: new opportunities for learning notes that the four countries that make up the UK operate by and large within a common economy and labour market. Their governments, however, are becoming increasingly divergent in their policy approach towards technical and vocational, further and higher education, and skills development in general. The report provides an overview of the major changes taking place across the UK, for example: regionalisation of further education (FE) colleges in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and area-based reviews in England; a new apprenticeship model in England and the UK-wide apprenticeship levy; moves towards a post-16 tertiary approach in Scotland and Wales; different ways of funding FE and HE; and reforms to technical education in England.

In England, the policy focus on technical and vocational education signals its importance to the Industrial Strategy and the push to increase productivity. Vocational qualifications have been undergoing reform since the 'Wolf Review' in 2011. However, further reforms are underway based on the 2015 'Sainsbury Review' recommendations and contained within the Post-16 Skills plan, with the legislative framework provided by the Technical and Further Education Act 2017. The overall aim is to establish the technical education route, comprising apprenticeships, college-based programmes and approved technical qualifications, as a coherent, high-quality alternative to A-level qualifications and the undergraduate degree. Also, the 2017 Careers Strategy acknowledges the importance of high-quality career guidance to inform employment and educational choices for both young people and adults.

There are three main aspects to the reform of the skills system: (1) the introduction of employer-led apprenticeship standards and an apprenticeship levy introduced in 2017; the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments have all set targets to increase the number of apprenticeships; (2) the development of 15 T Level routes, scheduled to start delivery in 2020 – these are broad post-16 qualifications designed to sit alongside apprenticeships and A levels; the newly established, employer-led Institute for Apprenticeships will regulate quality across apprenticeships and all technical education; and (3) area-based reviews aimed at reducing the number and increasing the financial viability of FE colleges.

The Independent panel report to the review of post-18 education and funding [Augar review], the first since the 1963 'Robbins report' to consider both parts of tertiary education together, looked at how to create and fund a coherent post-18 education sector that would deliver value for both students and taxpayers.

T Levels research: how are providers preparing for delivery? examines the preparations of providers for delivery of the first three T Levels in Digital, Construction, and Education and Childcare, from September 2020. The research found broad support for the move to introduce T Levels, general confidence in staff expertise and capacity for delivery, challenges around future student recruitment, and a need for continuing support and funding for new providers delivering T Levels in the future. A qualified success: an investigation into T-levels and the wider vocational system suggests that previous attempts to introduce new technical qualifications, such as Diplomas and GNVQs, failed to make clear how they were supposed to fit with, and operate alongside, other qualifications and programmes. The report concludes that T-levels have the potential to make a valuable contribution but only if these issues are addressed.

Getting apprenticeships right: next steps conveys the employer perspective on the government's goals of increasing the quality and quantity of apprenticeships in England to three million starts in 2020, and of widening access. It calls for government to give the Institute for Apprenticeships the independence and power required to be able to fulfil its role in reforming and regulating the skills system.

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United States

The value of apprenticeships has gained traction in the United States over the past few years and a major reform is underway, with the launch of Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs) by the Department of Labor (DOL). The aim of these apprenticeship models is to encourage businesses to take a bigger role in the system, using their expertise to ensure individuals build workplace-relevant skills and knowledge based on standards set by the industry. These IRAPs and other aspects of apprenticeships are discussed in Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion: final report to the President of the United States. The report recognises that apprenticeships can contribute to solving the current skills gap in the US, and thus the Task Force focuses on approaches to establish apprenticeships as a positive career pathway. Recommendations are provided on education and credentialing; attracting business to apprenticeship; expanding access, equity, and career awareness; and administrative and regulatory strategies to expand apprenticeship.

In response to the US Government's Presidential Executive Order Expanding Apprenticeships in America that will increase federal funding for apprenticeships and ensure greater industry involvement, several recent publications explore this announcement: Making apprenticeships work: five policy recommendations presents a vision for apprenticeships and the wider education and workforce development system to ensure workers are prepared for the future of work. Specifically, the report reacts to the announced increase in federal funding, proposing how the funds can create a national apprenticeship initiative that delivers on the Government's vision of creating an additional 5 million apprentices by 2022. In doing this, the report provides policy recommendations in the areas of promoting digital apprenticeships; reimagining service providers; clarifying funding; building programs by industry; and encouraging public sector leadership. In Industry-driven apprenticeship: what works, what's needed four case studies relating to quality industry apprenticeships are detailed. The publication reviews what has been learned about these independent programs and presents a framework for incorporating them into an apprenticeship system going forward. The case studies reveal that businesses don't participate in the current government-run apprenticeship system due to perception of a lack of value and prefer to collaborate with local education providers and industry associations.

Apprenticeship models are further explored in Apprenticeships and community colleges: do they have a future together?. This report considers how community colleges, a current mainstay of career and technical education (CTE) in the US, can play an active role in the development and expansion of apprenticeships to meet the needs of employers. After an overview of apprenticeships and how they work in other countries, this report investigates reform required for community colleges to become suitable partners in delivering apprenticeships. It concludes that to assist the expansion of apprenticeships, community colleges need to undertake internal reform to then best serve students and employers and compete against private-sector providers.

In Reforming the American community college: promising changes and their challenges the authors analyse the challenges facing community colleges that have prompted an agenda of reform. These include low completion rates for qualifications, finance and governance issues, the social role of community colleges, improving student outcomes through clear pathways, restructuring career and technical education, articulation across sectors, and reshaping development education. The report argues that institutional problems and barriers currently prevent community colleges from performing at their peak, and while reform measures can assist in addressing these issues, the sector must also address demographic, financial and political challenges.

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Published: October 2019