Origins of VET research in Australia: the period 1974 - 1984
Research in VET began, as with so many things in VET in Australia, with the Kangan Committee report of 1974. The committee was established by the Whitlam federal government in 1973 to provide advice to the then Minister of Education, the Hon. Kim Beazley (Senior), on matters related to the development of technical and further education in Australia. It was chaired by Myer Kangan, the Deputy Secretary of the Australian Department of Labour and a renowned educator.
With the exception of curriculum development research, itself hampered by limited funding, little research into VET was being done in 1974 in Australia. Some research had occurred in State/Territory education departments, but most of the results were not published.
National research, conducted primarily in the higher education sector, did sometimes have relevance to technical education. Research in the schools and higher education sectors were also significant. Research in VET was, and remained until the mid-1990s, a road less travelled.
Of particular relevance to the growth of a research capacity was Kangan's proposal for a three-pronged attack to improve research effort in VET. First, it recommended the setting up of an 'Australian Technical and Further Education (TAFE) Technology Centre'. Its purposes were to 'adopt technology to vocational education, and research, develop and produce learning and other educational aids by itself or through others'.
It was intended that it should also:
- be a clearinghouse for research
- disseminate information from abroad
- commission relevant research
- publish a journal
- arrange for textbook publication
- train researchers
This was the first conceptual thinking about developing a coordinated national research capacity in VET in Australia, initially to occur through a dedicated centre. Interestingly, and at one time or another, all but one of these roles has been undertaken by the Centre that finally began operations in 1981. The sole exception was the publication of textbooks.
Hall (1994) reported that while nothing came of Kangan's recommendation at the time, it was resurrected by the Committee of Inquiry into Education and Training (the Williams Committee) five years later. That inquiry recommended the establishment of a National Centre for Research and Development in TAFE, which would be tasked to conduct projects in areas such as:
- planning and production of teaching materials
- analysing skills for occupations
- accrediting courses
- classifying courses and awards
- using technological aids in teaching
- development of self-paced learning programs
The TAFE National Centre for Research and Development (later to become the National Centre for Vocational Education Research - NCVER) was finally established in June 1980, after the Conference of TAFE Directors and the Chairman of the Technical and Further Education Council (TAFEC) prepared a proposal for the Australian Education Council (AEC) meeting in October 1979. At that meeting, a draft charter was accepted which made provision for the review of the Centre after three years. The Memorandum of the Articles of Association was signed by all Ministers of Education in June 1981. The Centre was created as a company registered in the state of South Australia and limited by guarantee on 2 September 1981 and started its national operations in November of that year.
Much of the early research activity of the newly created TAFE National Centre was centred on curriculum and materials development, training standards and skills analysis, audit and competency-based training research. In fact, much of the history of VET research in Australia parallels the history of NCVER itself (see NCVER 2002).
The second research thrust of the Kangan report was to recommend the allocation of funds for research quite separate from the funds needed for the proposed technology centre. This finally became a reality following the establishment of the Australian National Training Authority (ANTA) Research Advisory Council (ANTARAC) in 1994, following the 1993 report by Professor Rod McDonald and his colleagues from the University of Technology Sydney, entitled: No small change: proposals for a research and development strategy for vocational education and training in Australia. In the report, they characterized VET research at that time as a fragmented activity that was under funded and had little or no relevance to policy or practice in the VET sector.
A final focus in the early days was the establishment of a VET Clearinghouse for research, policy documents and other resources, whose most recent manifestation is the international VOCEDplus database. At that time the clearinghouse operated as a 'hub and spoke' system with clearinghouses at the TAFE National Centre and in all states and territories.
The publication of the McDonald et al. (1993) report also coincided with the establishment of the Australian National Training Authority (ANTA) with a brief to oversee the development of the sector. The presence of this single agency meant that the report's recommendations for a large increase in national funding for VET research could be acted upon quickly. This was in contrast to the general Australian Research Council (ARC) review of educational research in Australia (McGaw et al. 1992), whose recommendations for similar action were considered by a large number of agencies, none of whom had sole responsibility for action (Smith 2001).
The third research thrust was to recommend that funds should be allocated for the training of technical college teachers in research methods. In particular, this was seen as a way of building the 'in-house' research capacity as well as encouraging practitioners to undertake their own action-based research projects.
A second report on needs in technical and further education was published a year after the Kangan report. This report suggested the setting up of a statistics working party. This was done and, after a variety of name changes, provided the antecedents of the National Training Statistics Committee (NTSC) in Australia. The functions of the NTSC were absorbed by the Data and Performance Measurements Principal Committee (DPMPC) in 2011. DPMPC ceased operating in 2014.
Maturing of VET research: the period 1985 - 2005
The period from 1985 to the present, and especially since the mid-1990s, saw a significant increase in the volume and scope of VET research occurring in Australia. From the mid-1990s, the role of NCVER, in particular, changed from being the major producer of research in Australia, increasingly toward a manager, knowledge broker and disseminator of research on behalf of the sector. However, it maintained its own active research program as well. It also became the custodian of the national VET statistics collection program and sought to integrate both functions to ensure that the best and most comprehensive advice on policy and practice was available.
The before-mentioned 1993 report, No small change… was a watershed in facilitating increased government funding into vocational training-related research. Historically, universities and colleges of advanced education (CAEs) had little research interest in the VET sector, especially as little funding was available either directly from government or through ARC. Also, the CAEs, traditionally the educational training ground for VET teachers, had little or no research mandate. There were few academic resources upon which to draw until the CAEs became or were amalgamated with existing universities. Most VET research capacity, therefore, was either undertaken at NCVER or in the State and Territory government departments concerned with VET.
Traditionally, research was not considered a major role of the VET teacher/trainer, so there was little practitioner research happening. With government money coming on stream earmarked specifically for VET research, universities in particular started to develop research concentrations focusing on VET, usually associated with teacher training or adult education faculties or schools. Researchers competed for nationally-competitive grants administered through ANTARAC until 1996 and NCVER thereafter. As time went on, other university research concentrations became involved, undertaking work of particular interest to many of the sector's stakeholders. These included social issues, including access, equity and disability, and the role of vocational education in helping foster economic and industry development. In addition, there was also a limited evaluative function to the 'research'; examining the impacts of policy initiatives amongst other things.
ANTARAC had oversight for determining research priorities and ensuring they were aligned to policy and practice. The work of the Committee (and later the National Research and Evaluation Committee - NREC, a sub-committee of NCVER's board in late 1996) was the first time that a major, national approach had been taken to closely define research needs for the sector. ANTARAC played an important part in starting to build a research capacity with an interest in VET. This interest began to develop not only in a range of universities but also in the VET sector itself.
In 1997, NCVER was commissioned by ANTA and the federal government to manage the new grants program and develop the first national strategy for research for VET to support it (NCVER 1997). The strategy covered the period 1997 to 2000 and identified both priorities for research and described approaches to be used to effectively disseminate the outcomes of the research. With responsibility for both the collection of national VET statistics and coordination of research in the sector, NCVER was at the time unique in the world.
A further research strategy was published in 2001 (NCVER 2001b). This strategy covered the period 2001 to 2003 and was developed to support Australia's national VET Strategy at that time: A bridge to the future: Australia's national strategy for vocational education and training 1998-2003. Since then annual research priorities have been determined and published. The contained priorities supported the then national VET strategy: Shaping our future: the national strategy for vocational education and training 2004-2010. The Board of the NCVER also had an important role in advising the federal and state and territory ministers on research priorities for VET.
The first two sets of research priorities had a number of elements in common: the economic and social impacts of vocational education; the outcomes of the sector; the quality of provision, including teaching and learning and future issues affecting the sector and its development. In addition, the first set of priorities focused on pathways from school to work, while the second was more broadly concerned with transitions from education to work. Other priorities identified in one or other of the strategies were:
- employment and the workforce
- innovation and the changing skills of the Australian workforce
- equity in VET
- the VET provider
- international comparisons of VET.
In 1997, the Australian VET Research Association (AVETRA) was founded. It was established with initial financial assistance from ANTARAC and NCVER. It is committed to furthering the contribution of VET research to the development of Australian VET policy, promoting independent and significant research in VET and promoting training in research methods for those working in or with the VET sector. A history of this association, which continues to this day, was published in 2008. Miller (2008, pp.4-5) notes:
In 1997 the system made a concerted effort to shift towards national consistency and increased responsiveness to the needs of industry and employers. This followed a period in which national data collections were improving rapidly through the work of NCVER.
At the same time, ANTA established a program of national key centres for VET research to enable concentrations of expertise in VET to be funded to undertake three-year programs of research into specific aspects of VET policy and practice. Three centres at the University of Technology Sydney, Monash University and the University of Tasmania were initially funded in 1997, with a fourth established at Melbourne University and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in 2000. The work of the centres has been very important in building research capacity in VET as well as in exploring major issues in the VET sector such as the economics of VET, workplace learning and rural and regional issues.
Much of the research occurring during the early and mid-1990s centred around research into government and industry policy, the economics of training, labour market issues (especially research covering skills analysis, occupational trends and industry skill requirements), profiles of students and trainees and research into teachers and trainers. On top of this, research into curriculum development and delivery (pedagogy), a tradition of university faculties of education, was ongoing (McDonald et al. 1993).
Research into VET in Australia was now increasingly driven by the needs of the stakeholders of VET: in particular, governments, policy makers and industry. The research themes related more closely to economic and social policy imperatives. With the advent of national statistical collections and student outcome and tracer surveys, quantitative research as well as major longitudinal studies became increasingly commonplace in Australia and allowed the system to gauge the efficacy of particular policies and programs. The national VET statistics, surveys and research, for example, underpin the Annual National Report of the VET sector produced by the federal government for many years and which is tabled in the Australian Parliament.
More recently, there has been greater focus on particular clients of VET, in particular, Indigenous Australians and those with a disability or facing learning or social difficulties. There is also interest in international benchmarking and comparative research to understand how well Australia is performing internationally or to gain insights about how Australia's system might be improved. Australian research centres (including the NCVER) have increasingly been participating in important comparative research with overseas counterparts, including through the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organisation (UNESCO), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Research in VET was defined strategically around 'themes' for the first time in 2004; these being determined through extensive consultation with key stakeholders in the VET sector. The five initial research themes NCVER used, and which was the basis for consultation on research priorities, were:
- students and individuals
- the VET system
- VET in context
- industry and employers
- teaching and learning.
Other approaches to conducting research were introduced, including systematic reviews and consortium-based research.
Major syntheses of entire bodies of research on particular critical topics occurred increasingly in Australian VET. For the first time in Australia, NCVER adopted a systematic review approach (based on the Cochrane Collaboration approach in the United Kingdom) to answer important policy questions by identifying and critically appraising available research evidence. In this way, the research can become a more valuable tool for decision-making for policy and practice (Anlezark et al. 2005). The three systematic reviews conducted examined training to meet Indigenous Australian's aspirations, skill development activities for mature aged people that lead to improved employment opportunities and productivity and finally education and training to meet the needs of small business.
NCVER, with federal government funding, introduced a 'consortium' stream to its VET research program. This approach maximised scarce resources and was intended to increase research productivity and quality through collaboration between a number of institutions and key researchers on topics addressed by each consortium's work. The approach was considered to be more resource efficient, and provided for longer term and strategic research on issues of significance for the VET sector.
Each consortium involved researchers drawn from two or more organisations. The length of projects was between two and two and a half years and a total of over $1.3 million was allocated to the two key projects around:
- tailoring VET to future work skill needs
- supporting VET providers in building capability for the future.
Both these bodies of work produced a significant number of publications. The second of these two consortia, in particular, was very active in its dissemination. Harris and Clayton (2010) produced a paper assessing the impact of the consortium's research program. They concluded in particular that VET research was not immune from broader research impact movements such as demonstrated within such frameworks as the Research Quality Framework (RQF) and Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA), and increasingly, VET researchers needed to also keep a 'weather eye' on the impact of their research.
In 1998, Selby Smith et al. undertook the first comprehensive work to examine the impact of research on VET decision making in Australia. They found that firstly, the idea of a one-to-one relationship between research and decision making was problematic. Secondly, the relationship between research and decision making differs greatly on perspective; with the research viewpoint tending to be narrower (the 'key hole' problem), while for the decision maker, the role of research is more diffuse. And thirdly, the strength of the relationship between the researchers and the decision makers influences overall research impact. Subsequently NCVER has also looked at research impact (see next section).
From its earliest days the national managed program of VET research has placed great emphasis on research utilisation and dissemination. Agencies such as the NCVER actively promoted research to industry and the wider community through targeted stakeholder forums, development of value-added research products and services, and special briefings. To ensure maximum coverage and access to research information, the world-wide web was being used extensively, including on-line forums and 'webinars'.
NCVER adopted an increasing knowledge broker role on behalf of the VET sector in Australia and continued to work closely with a variety of education and community partners to make for a more dynamic training system (Guthrie 2002). Special resources are now available for researchers including the NCVER international bibliographic database, VOCEDplus, which currently has well over 75,000 entries from many different countries. This database has become increasingly refined, and its utility greatly improved in recent years because of an increased focus on improving its ease of use and 'searchability'.
More recent developments: the period 2006 - 2016
This period saw the development of a range of initiatives aimed at addressing emerging concerns around the breadth and spread of researcher interest in VET research. Significant effort was made to make VET research more attractive to multi-disciplinary research teams and connecting training issues with broader economic, labour market and societal concerns.
The NCVER building researcher capacity initiative, supported by the Australian Government Department of Education was introduced in 2007 to assist in 'growing the next generation' of VET researchers; especially those who were practitioners. It did this by encouraging early career researchers, VET professionals and experienced researchers from outside the sector to undertake research in vocational education and training.
In support of this, NCVER allocated funding over three years to four programs: the community of practice scholarships aimed at novice researchers undertaking a workplace-focused research project managed by Berwyn Clayton, Geri Pancini and Hugh Guthrie from the Work-Based Education Research Centre at Victoria University; academic scholarships aimed at VET professionals undertaking an academic course of study such as Honours or Masters by research managed by Roger Harris from the University of South Australia; a fellowship scheme; and the VET researcher of the year award. In addition, a mentoring program was conducted through which the community of practice participants received mentoring from experienced researchers. This was run by Llandis Barratt-Pugh and others on behalf of AVETRA.
A review of the community of practice program in 2010 (Bartram, Stanwick and Loveder, 2010) found that it assisted participants to produce research that had real impact in their organisations. The mentoring program offered through AVETRA also greatly supported these participants to make contacts with experienced VET researchers and professionals and enhanced their networks overall. It was less clear whether the initiative resulted in adding substantially to the pool of experienced researchers more generally, however. Nevertheless, a number of the participants went on to higher level studies. It also encouraged a view that research, broadly defined, should be part of any good VET practitioner's armoury of skills.
In recent times, and in addition to the work of NCVER and AVETRA, other professional bodies have become established (or played a major role) to generate interest and share practice in VET research such as the VET Practitioner Research Network (VPRN), VET Development Centre (VDC), Women in Vocational Education (WAVE) and the promotion of research through provider bodies such as TAFE Directors Australia, the Australian Council for Private Education and Training, Community Colleges Australia and state and territory-based TAFE and private provider associations.
In the early 2010s, the importance of measuring research impact became more apparent in education, especially as it related to research into vocational education and training (VET) and the extent to which research can meet the needs of industry as well as having an influence on Government policy and practice. NCVER developed a research impact model (Stanwick, Hargreaves and Beddie, 2009) which aimed to measure the impact for various stakeholders in the training system. This (model) was later refined by Hargreaves (2016) and applied usefully to the large suite of research and analytical work around Apprenticeships and Vocations. The report indicated that while the interplay between research output and policy and practice is never straightforward and there are many factors influencing policy decisions, connections do occur.
In 2015, NCVER introduced a Research Prospectus presented under an organising framework of four areas of research focus:
- participation and outcomes
- learning and teaching
- the place and role of VET.
The prospectus was updated subsequently to a dynamic and online resource providing direct access to the status of all active research projects, including links to project descriptions, work-in-progress where appropriate and early results. The important thing to note, too, is that research themes have remained broadly similar in focus since the first strategy was published in 1997. This is a clear indication of their perennial significance in VET policy and practice.
During this time, even greater effort was made to connect key stakeholders to the decision-making process for research including regular dialogue on research priorities, engaging the users of research in the studies, especially as critical friends, and seeking ministerial sign-off on research priorities and focus.
In 2016, a significant change occurred in the way that research project decision making was to occur in VET with the introduction of the Senior Skills Officials Network (SSON) Research Working Group. Chaired by a senior manager in the Commonwealth government, the working group continues to play an integral role in the selection of research projects that closely align to national and state and territory policy issues and broader national workforce development concerns.
So where are we now? - 2016 to the present
Present developments in VET research have focused on linking the huge store of data and statistics in the system with research to assist in addressing important system issues and policy questions. Investigating opportunities for data linkage across agencies and data collections is very much on the agenda in order to understand more fully the benefits and consequences of participation in VET programs.
Another area for development is in the way that the results of research are being communicated. Greater use is being made of short, punchy summaries, social networking, infographics and specialist research tools such as the NCVER VOCEDplus Pod Network which provides a once-stop-shop for research, analysis and intelligence by 'harvesting' VET research and resources on key topics. Topics include teaching and learning, equity, foundation skills, pathways, youth transitions, career and workforce development, policy and governance, industry, apprenticeships and traineeships, quality and standards. There is also a range of 'Podlets' which are even more specific and cover a wide range of sub-topics. A very recent development has been the Timeline of VET Policy 1998 – 2017 which helps people to understand the scale of change and the individual policies, programs or initiatives that have shaped VET at both the national and state and territory level.
Future directions and challenges for VET research in Australia
VET research has come a long way in Australia in the last 40 years, from just a few isolated researchers and disparate concentrations of research activity to a coordinated major program of research that links more closely with VET policy and practice. Research now plays a more important role in system improvement and national reporting and will continue to have an influence over teaching practice and quality improvement.
Having said this, there are still criticisms in some quarters that VET research is still not having sufficient impact on national and state training policies. As early as the early 2000s, (Smith 2001) reported that the traditional 12-18-month project-based model of educational research neither suited the needs of the busy policy maker who has to react quickly to changes in the policy landscape, nor the more immediate and 'practical' needs of the VET practitioner. However, as Selby Smith and his colleagues noted in 1998 (pp. 2-3):
…the idea of a one-to-one relationship between research and decision-making generally has been discredited. Rather, the perspectives that have been emphasised in the literature are that the larger impacts of research are more often indirect than direct; delayed rather than immediate; more minor individually but major in combination… Research contributes to the 'climate of opinion' and the development of 'ideas in good currency'. Of course, these perspectives do not imply that individual studies necessarily have no impact.
The way in which stakeholders prefer to access research findings is changing. Research 'products' that synthesise a range of research and provide evidence of the outcome of particular policy interventions are greatly valued. Replacing traditional research publications with shorter, more targeted publications (especially with use of infographics) that can be easily accessed and used in the sector, is being seen as an important strategy in making better use of existing research.
Communicating the outcomes of research will continue to present a challenge, however. Ensuring the key messages are in a form that is accessible to industry and other key stakeholders, for example, will mean using new and innovative strategies to get the word out, such as tailored stakeholder forums and briefings, and use of information and communication technologies and portal developments like the National Industry Insights report. Well targeted messaging is key.
Of significant importance to the future of VET research in Australia is the need to train the next generation of researchers. Many who have become involved in VET research have come from careers without much formal research training according to Smith (2001). On top of this, formal research training programs in the universities often produce specialised academic researchers rather than the multi-skilled researcher that the VET system increasingly requires. Smith believes few of these new graduates are equipped to make a serious contribution to the field of VET research. Despite efforts by professional researcher bodies such as AVETRA to promote research within the sector itself, there appears to be a dearth of 'practitioner-based' research expertise. The result of all of these factors has been a 'greying' of the VET research community in Australia, and a key challenge will be to identify new pathways and develop training programs that teach the research skills required for the future pool of researchers. The demise of VET teacher education programs at universities has meant that there has been a loss of VET research expertise. While broader policy issues which have VET implications are important, the research of these can be undertaken by researchers with little or no VET background. This is a two-edged sword. It can either produce new insights, but it can also mean that the solutions proposed lack credibility because the issues confronting the VET sector and its providers are not well understood by these researchers.
Finally, despite the significant inroads made, there are still some lingering concerns around VET research relevance and utilisation in Australia. Industry is still looking for research that answers important questions around the return on investment to enterprises from training. Issues around solving current and future skills needs in industry (especially in light of Industry 4.0) dominate the Australian training landscape as do ways of reinvigorating apprenticeships and getting young people into the workforce - and retaining older workers - to help meet the skill drive being experienced in emerging sectors of the Australian economy. And then there is the importance of VET becoming better connected to the whole innovation system in Australia and playing an even greater role in applied research and creating and communicating knowledge (Beddie and Simon, 2017). Finally, there is a strong need to research ways to improve the quality of VET teaching and learning, and in particular, assessment.
VET research in Australia has, for some time now, been demand-side driven, being advised by extensive consultations with the sector. In addition, much 'research' is now being undertaken by large consultancy firms and thought centres based out of Australian universities. However, a considerable amount of research is still supply-side and investigator driven. Ensuring that the beneficiaries of the research have the opportunity to communicate their own research needs is essential. In addition, actively engaging with the research community itself and participating in the research will be equally important in the future. In this regard, researchers themselves will continue to play an important role.