Research in the VET sector: an historical perspective

Authors: Berwyn Clayton, Professor Emerita, College of Arts and Education, Victoria University; and Hugh Guthrie, Honorary Senior Fellow, Centre for Vocational and Educational Policy, University of Melbourne



Amongst the body of national reports and policy statements classified as landmark documents on vocational education and training (VET) in Australia, research is the focus of only five. Given the documents cover a period from 1954 to 2010, clearly VET research has struggled to gain and retain a place on the VET agenda. The value of these five documents, however, should not be discounted for they raised the profile of research and consistently highlighted the challenges research has faced. Nor should the wisdom they contain be ignored as the relevance of their findings remain true for VET now and the future.

The reports of Kangan (1974), Williams (1979), COSTAC (1990), McDonald, Hayton, Gonczi and Hager (No small change: proposals for a research and development strategy for vocational education and training in Australia, 1993) together with the Commonwealth's policy document, Skilling Australia: new directions for vocational education and training (Department of Education, Science and Training 2005) all make a strong case for why research is important in the sector.

What follows is a summary of each of these landmark documents with a brief analysis of their impact on VET and VET research in Australia.1

The Kangan report

In the preface of the 1974 milestone document, TAFE in Australia: report on needs in technical and further education, Kangan suggested 'if TAFE is to fulfil its role and be accessible to adults without discrimination … research must be encouraged into what is at present a virtually barren desert' (Kangan report, vol.1, p.xix). The report acknowledged research at the time was generally curriculum-focused, limited to state-based studies and unpublished (Kangan report, p.102). Therefore, there was an urgent need to improve the research effort and to develop a supportive and national research infrastructure so that the many issues facing technical and further education (TAFE) could be critically analysed.

The report proposed three strategies to improve the situation. The first was the allocation of grants for research; the second was the establishment of an 'Australian TAFE Technology Centre'; and the third, research methods training for TAFE teachers. The Australian TAFE Technology Centre was to act as a clearing house for research, disseminate research and development findings from other countries, commission research, publish a TAFE journal and undertake research training. Funding of $300 0002 was to be allocated for research on topics of major importance in TAFE with an invitation being extended 'to any qualified person interested in conducting research in any aspect of TAFE, [including] a specific invitation to teachers' (Kangan report, vol.1, p.xxxvii). Teachers were to be encouraged to participate in projects along with experienced researchers and a total of $150 0003 was to be allocated to States and Territories to support TAFE teachers' training in research methods (Kangan report, vol.1, p.xxxviii). Sadly, Kangan also noted that:

Self-motivated researchers, however, are at present unlikely to opt in great numbers to study TAFE, its problems and its potential as a matter of priority because it has no established place as an integral part of the education system.

(Kangan report, vol.1, p.xix)

In his analysis of the Kangan report, Hall (1994, p.159) highlighted the areas which Kangan considered important to investigate. These included: occupational trends, the nature and effects - including outcomes - of courses, equity of access, student learning and motivation, adult education, assessment validity and reliability and cost-effectiveness studies amongst others. Writing 20 years after Kangan, Hall concluded that these topics remained 'unexceptional' (Hall 1994, p.160). Forty-five years later, the list remains for today's VET, 'unexceptional'.

But what if anything in relation to research was changed by Kangan's recommendations? Neither the Australian TAFE Technology Centre nor the funding materialised, and it was to take another five years before research into technical education and training was to once again appear under a policy microscope.

The Williams report

The 1979 Williams report, Education, training and employment: report of the Committee of Inquiry into Education and Training, reiterated the views of Kangan by emphasising the value well-funded research could play in improving training outcomes (Williams report, vol.3, p.15, S.34). As course development was perceived to be a major weakness of education and training at the time, the report noted that a greater understanding of training needs was required to build the nation's supply of skilled manpower. Considering this, a key recommendation was, like Kangan, the establishment of a central research organisation – the 'National Centre for Research and Development in Technical and Further Education'. With joint funding from the Commonwealth and the States and Territories, this new national centre was to have a broad remit. Activities to be undertaken by the centre included:

  • the planning and production of teaching materials to be available to all States,
  • the analysis of skills required for various occupations, not only in the middle-level and apprentice fields, and the related educational courses needed to train for them, taking into account the time needed to reach appropriate skill levels,
  • accreditation,
  • classification of courses and nomenclature of awards,
  • the use of technological aids in teaching, and
  • the development of self-paced learning programs.
    (Williams report, vol.1, p.332)

With a strong emphasis upon the 'D' in research and development (R&D), the Williams report stressed the criticality of basing training on an analysis of the skills required in any given occupation and on the means to acquire them (Williams report, vol.1, p.337). Research, including job analysis and training needs analysis, was viewed as the means to gather this information particularly given emerging technologies were demanding new and different skill sets. Retraining and further training, together with better provision to address evolving training needs, were a key feature in the report. Thus, Williams pragmatically viewed research as the essential element to underpin skills development for the changing world of work.

A series of progressive moves was made to advance research following the publication of the Williams report, elements of which were to have an immediate impact. The National TAFE Clearinghouse was launched in 1980, the goals of which were to promote the conduct of research; encourage broad dissemination of research and development projects; and encourage participation in these activities whilst avoiding duplication of research and development. Information was collected by each state/territory (node) and distributed on a national basis by South Australia, which had an existing clearinghouse established in 1974 (Harris 1992). The network was limited by the available technologies of the day and the ability of each of the nodes to capture the research and development activities in their jurisdiction. This initiative ran until 1989, when the Vocational Education and Training (VOCED) database was launched, which persists to this day as VOCEDplus.

The TAFE National Centre for Research and Development commenced operations shortly thereafter in June 1980. Four in-house and seven externally commissioned research and development projects were undertaken in its first year of operation, the latter being relatively small projects valued in total at $85 818.4 These are described in the Centre's first annual report for 1981-1982 (TAFE National Centre for Research and Development 1982, pp.7-11). Amongst the topics under scrutiny in these projects were block and day release5, training models, evaluation methodologies, criteria and measures for TAFE college effectiveness and the maintenance of teacher occupational competence – topics that remain relevant today. The other major focus was on the development of national core curricula. Essentially these projects were small in scale, reflecting the 'experimental phase' of NCVER at that stage.

The Australian Journal of TAFE Research and Development was launched in 1985, thus meeting another of the recommendations made by Kangan.6 In the introduction to the first issue it was noted:

We hope, by means of this journal, that not only will you be better informed of what is being done in research and development in TAFE across Australia, but also that you might be stimulated to undertake some research of your own.

(Australian Journal of TAFE Research and Development, vol.1, no.1, p.ix)

While other initiatives such as the launch of VOCED and an international conference7 organised by the TAFE National Centre for Research and Development in 1989 occurred to raise the profile of research, the amount of VET research then being undertaken remained relatively small in comparison with that conducted in other education sectors. The lack of impact was associated with issues related to research coverage and relevance but more particularly the difficulties associated with effectively disseminating the research that was actually being undertaken.

The COSTAC report

The next major report to bring VET research into focus was that of the Commonwealth-State Training Advisory Committee's (COSTAC's) 1990 overseas mission to examine the developments in VET in OECD countries. Interested in the strategies being used to tackle structural adjustment problems like those Australia was facing, the mission found that many countries viewed VET as a solution to labour market ills and research as a critical element in effective training policy and planning. Further, it was noted:

Most of the countries visited have invested very heavily in vocational education and training research, either through mainstream employment/education departments or through the establishment of special bodies for this purpose…

(COSTAC report, p.19)

The COSTAC report presented in some detail the roles and focus of research bodies in a number of countries including the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (Bundesinstitut fur Berufsbildung or BIBB) in Germany, the Canadian Labour Market Productivity Centre (CLMP), the National Council on Vocational Qualifications and the Employment Department's Training Agency in the UK as well as the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop) with its Europe-wide research responsibilities.

Topics being researched were also outlined. BIBB, for example, was focusing on structural research and planning and statistics, curriculum, training regulations and standards, adult education, technology and distance training and financing of VET outside of schools (COSTAC report, p.20). In Canada, investment by business in training, literacy and numeracy, expanding entry level training and integrating on- and off-job training were topics of focus (COSTAC report, p.19). The focus in England was on the development of National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs), accreditation of prior learning and flexible modes of learning. Unsurprisingly, many of the research topics highlighted here were of equal relevance in the Australian context and COSTAC made a case for building research capacity in Australia by concluding:

…the existence of high profile, adequately funded research and development bodies whose priorities are set at the highest levels, and which work closely with the formal education system, the vocational education and training system, has played a pivotal role as “the engine room” for policy development geared to link the development of vocational education and training systems with the changing economic and social imperatives.

(COSTAC report, p.23)

The COSTAC report suggested that Australian research, in contrast, remained 'fragmented and reflects the priorities of individual States and Territories as well as specific interested parties' (namely some government agencies and departments) and that the TAFE National Centre for Research and Development was too narrowly focused on 'issues of institutionalised technical and further education' (COSTAC report, p.24). Moreover, Australia was 'giving a much lower priority to, and spending significantly less' on, VET research than other countries (COSTAC report, p.24). As a consequence, COSTAC recommended that 'an institute for training research' like those evident in other countries be established, the objectives of which would be to:

  • provide a research and development capacity which would cover not just TAFE but all vocational education and training systems in Australia as well as related industrial relations and industry development issues
  • develop and maintain a statistical data base
  • provide a clearing house and dissemination point for both overseas and local research
  • commission work relevant to the Australian context
    (COSTAC report, p.25)

Rather than proposing the establishment of a brand-new entity, it was recommended that the role and focus of the TAFE National Centre for Research and Development be expanded to take on the above four objectives. Soon after, in 1991, the TAFE National Centre for Research and Development gained responsibility for the annual national VET statistics data collection and a further year after the publication of the COSTAC report, the Centre's name had changed to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) in 1992.8 With a much expanded and research-focused role, the 'D' in R&D was to virtually disappear. Reflecting the shift in emphasis, in 1993 the Australian Journal of TAFE Research and Development became the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Vocational Education Research.

Whilst these were positive moves, on the ground reality looked somewhat less promising. For example, Butterworth (1992), writing about what he viewed as the 'invisibility of research' at the time, suggested:

Culturally, then, the sector, while it has never had a strong basis of research is now further away from integrating research into its operations, its ideas and its world view, than it has been for a considerable time.

(Butterworth 1992, p.2)

All that was about to change with the publication of No small change (McDonald et al. 1993).

'No small change'

By 1993 it was generally accepted that VET had a vital role to play in ensuring the nation's economic wellbeing in the face of increasing global competitiveness. In a context of extensive reform in the sector, a sound evidence-base as proposed by Kangan, Williams and COSTAC was needed to support effective decision-making and planning. Consequently, the Commonwealth Vocational Education, Employment and Training Advisory Committee (VEETAC) commissioned researchers from the University of Technology, Sydney to assist in the development of Australia's first national strategy for research and development. The outcome of their study, No small change: proposals for a research and development strategy for vocational education and training in Australia (McDonald et al. 1993), proved to be the most comprehensive and persuasive of all reports in making a case for VET research, not only in espousing the benefits of research for improving accountability, decision making and cost effectiveness, but also in raising the profile of VET, something still of relevance today.

Their report noted that:

A stronger research effort will benefit the sector by providing a better information base, critical analysis and accountability, improved cost effectiveness, varied perspectives, a better understanding of education and training processes and a higher profile for vocational education and training. The alternative to a strong research base in the sector is the danger of stagnation - in particular, the continuing use of outmoded practices or discarded theories and the adoption of practices from overseas.

(No small change, p.v)

Like others before them, McDonald and his colleagues found Australian VET research fragmented and lacking in relevance for end users, and as a result, the research was not fully used. Further, there were many critical VET issues they considered required more in-depth study, such as the place of VET in an educational or economic/labour market context.

Policies and programs also required stronger critique (No small change, p.v). With only 0.2% of the sector's recurrent funding expended on research, they concluded VET research was underfunded, requiring funding at 0.5%. They pointed out that:

With limited resources (its core funding is about $1 million per year) the NCVER has raised the profile of vocational education research, contributed to national debates, and provided a vital national focus for research and dissemination activities.

(No small change, p.3)

They noted that:

Further, the research percentage for vocational education and training is well under half the rate for education overall. This suggests that the current level of expenditure on research in vocational education is low relative to education generally, and very low relative to research expenditure in other fields.

(No small change, p.26)

In suggesting a 0.5% level, McDonald and his colleagues pointed out that:

The figure of 0.5% is still well below the research allocation in other fields such as health and agriculture, but significantly higher than the present level of funding of 0.2%. While the time frame for increasing spending is short, it is justified by the urgency of the need to undertake research and development on high-priority topics. The suggested longer-term target for funding of vocational education and training research, from all sources, is 1%.9

(No small change, p.x)

The authors proposed addressing these shortcomings with a national research and development strategy. They considered:

…a strategic plan for research and the development and dissemination of its results will increase the likelihood of such research being focused and easily implemented. This would give a greater sense of purpose and accountability to research, ensuring that it has an impact and sending signals to current and future researchers in the field.

(No small change,

With the justification for a national strategy established, McDonald and his colleagues provided a comprehensive set of suggestions in relation to research priorities, funding, and the organisation, use and dissemination of research through closer networking between key stakeholders. Apart from policy makers, the stakeholders were identified as 'the National Centre for Vocational Education Research; universities; TAFE systems; TAFE teachers; industries and industry bodies; and the wider pool of researchers' (No small change, p.viii).

The suggested priority areas for research were like those previously nominated by Williams and COSTAC, namely the economic benefits of VET; language, literacy and numeracy; the nature of workplace learning; and the management of TAFE. A new priority area was competency-based training, just recently introduced to the sector as the approach to learning following the 1990 overseas mission. Importantly, it was proposed that the process of establishing research priorities be the responsibility of a national body.

No small change (pp.45-49) set out a comprehensive set of strategies for each of the critical elements of a national strategy including:

  • fostering quality and increasing the quantity of research (solidly grounded theoretical research, critical analysis of policies by independent researchers);
  • fostering collaboration (researchers and practitioners for combined perspectives);
  • coordination of general issues-based R&D (proposition for a national research consortium to enhance partnerships attracting researchers from other fields);
  • training of researchers (post-graduate degrees and mentoring for TAFE teachers and industry trainers);
  • development of an appreciation of research (ensuring relevance of research to end users);
  • funding of research and development (raising expenditure from 0.2% to 0.5% of recurrent expenditure); and
  • dissemination (key principles, strategies and initiatives to develop a research culture in VET).

In meeting one of the major aims of the project to develop appropriate strategies to achieve the necessary research and development capacity, the authors provided a comprehensive framework for action, which included suggested approaches for the organisation and funding of research (Chapter 4) and ensuring its effective dissemination and use to advise and improve policy and practice (Chapter 5). Fortuitously, the publication of No small change in 1993 coincided with the establishment of the new Australian National Training Authority (ANTA).10 One of its roles was to provide accurate research and information. As outlined by Smith (2001, p.[1]), the emergence of 'this single powerful agency meant that the report's recommendations for a large increase in national funding for VET research could be acted upon quickly.'

The first important action by ANTA was the establishment of the ANTA Research Advisory Council (ANTARAC) with responsibility for funding research on a nationally competitive basis. ANTA also set some strategic directions for research and nominated the responsiveness of VET to industry, particularly small business, the needs of special groups, assurance of the quality of VET provision, the economic impact of VET and learning in the workplace as the priorities for investigation.

Three categories of funding were established: centre funding, large project funding and small project funding for specific projects. By 1995, three research centres and 20 projects involving a mix of industry, universities, consortia of TAFE institutes, Departments of Education and industry bodies in various forms of collaboration were funded. A considerable increase in the quantum of VET research being undertaken in Australia was achieved through these means. The quantum of researchers interested in VET-related issues also increased significantly, particularly in universities.

The National Research and Evaluation Committee (NREC) replaced ANTARAC in 1996 and the first national strategy for research was developed after extensive consultations with stakeholders across the sector (NCVER 1997).11 Six priority areas were identified for study, namely: economic and social implications of VET; employment and the workforce; pathways from school to work; outcomes from VET; quality of VET provision; and future issues affecting the VET sector. The extent of growth in the quantum of research was evident with 163 projects funded under the NREC program between 1997 and 2000 (Smith 2001). Research proposals were submitted from universities, TAFE institutes and private providers, private consultants, government departments and industry, and now VET in Australia could boast a healthy research community, with many joining the newly formed Australian Vocational Education and Training Research Association (AVETRA).

Accompanying this NREC activity, ANTA supported three key research centres. Located at the University of Technology, Sydney, Monash University and the University of Tasmania, these centres had multiple purposes: to undertake programs of research exploring major issues in VET policy and practice; to disseminate the outcomes of research to end users; and lastly, to build research capacity. A consortium between The University of Melbourne and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology became the fourth ANTA key research centre in 2000.

ANTA established a national strategy for VET 1998-2003, A Bridge to the Future (ANTA 1998), which set out five key objectives: equipping Australians for the world of work; enhancing mobility in the labour force; achieving equitable outcomes in VET; increasing investment in training; and maximising the value of public expenditure in VET.

The second national research strategy for VET was published by NCVER in 2001 (NCVER 2001), again after broad consultations with key stakeholders across the sector. It contained an expanded set of priorities: transitions from education to work; quality of teaching and learning; outcomes of VET; innovation and the changing skills in the Australian workforce; lifelong learning and the social and community impact of VET; equity in VET; the economics of VET; the future development of the VET sector; and international comparisons. These priorities broadly aligned with the ANTA key national strategic objectives.

The national strategies were to shape research and provide a body of research around critical issues in VET. As already noted, the amount of research had increased, and it continued to grow, as evidenced by the numbers of projects funded by ANTARAC and later as NCVER took over management of the national VET research and evaluation program in 1997. For example, NCVER managed 99 ANTA-funded projects in 2000 to 2001 (67 of which were funded prior to 1 July 2000 with 32 new projects funded during the 2000-2001 financial year), $2.2 million12 was expended on 43 new projects in 2002-2003 and $2.7 million13 on 22 projects in the following year. In addition to NCVER and ANTA-funded research centres, other research centres focused on VET and VET-related issues had grown up through the 1990s. Active collaborations were occurring between universities, TAFE, industry, government departments and consultants, all of which aided in building the VET research capacity across the country. NCVER reported in 2002 that over 200 research projects had been funded under the National VET Research (NVETR) program since 1997, many as collaborations between universities, the VET sector and private consultants (NCVER 2002b).

By 2005, however, ANTA was abolished and NREC had been disbanded. Given these circumstances, VET research was bound to undergo further change.

'Skilling Australia'

Data on the performance of VET was very much the focus of the 2005 landmark policy document Skilling Australia (Department of Education, Science and Training 2005). Two guiding principles set out in this report were to have an impact that continues to this day. Acknowledging that 'access to accurate and reliable data, prepared in a consistent fashion across States, is fundamental to successful governance, accountability and policy development' (Skilling Australia, p.14) the first of these principles centred on improved collection and reporting of data so as to better inform VET policy development and determine future planning directions. The importance of the NCVER's survey and research work in achieving this end was affirmed and, importantly, the operating funding for NCVER was extended from an annual funding cycle to cover the full duration of the Training Funding Agreement to give greater surety to its programs and roles.

With much of the emphasis in Skilling Australia on the collection and reporting of VET performance data, there was only a fleeting reference to VET research. It was, however, a significant and impactful reference – 'research priorities would be set by the Ministerial Council with input from industry' (Skilling Australia, p.17). Two approaches to determining research priorities and managing an annual research program were put forward. The first proposed the continuation of the approach in which the NCVER took responsibility for establishing priorities and managing the research program overseen by the National Senior Officials Committee. The second was for the Department of Education, Science and Training to take on both roles and undertake research projects as well. The first approach prevailed, and the NCVER continued to consult widely with VET stakeholders to determine research priorities with final sign off resting in the hands of the Ministerial Council (Skilling Australia, p.17). From 2005 until 2015, the NCVER managed the National Vocational Education and Training Research and Evaluation (NVETRE) program, involving a competitive process of commissioning projects which directly addressed the endorsed research priorities and extended 'research opportunities to the training research community' (Skilling Australia, p.17).

After Skilling Australia, the most noticeable changes in VET research related to the nature of the research opportunities offered, the makeup of those participating in the 'training research community' and the numbers of projects funded. In contrast to the ANTA years, for the periods of 2006-09 and 2011-13, programs of priority-driven research funded over two to three years became the norm. However, the process of funding more extensive and co-ordinated programs of research was conceived during the latter years of the ANTA period with the establishment of two research consortia: one entitled 'A well-skilled future: tailoring vocational education and training to the emerging labour market' and the other, 'Supporting VET providers in building capability for the future'. Both ran over an extended period of 2 to 3 years and produced a significant series of publications. The latter consortium was particularly active in disseminating the outcomes of its various research projects and in evaluating the impact of its research program.

In 2009-2010, three years of funding was allocated from the NVETRE funds administered by NCVER to four university centres to undertake major research programs. In addition, 15 broader and more enquiry-based research proposals were supported from the wider VET research community. In the following years, five research centres with specialisations in different research disciplines received three years of funding. This approach provided a useful body of work to inform VET policy, but the redirection of funding to a more limited range of research centres and groups impacted on the ability of many of the VET-specific research centres that had been established following the ANTARAC, and subsequent, funding to continue to attract contestable funds. This affected the ability of the wider community of VET and VET-interested researchers to continue to undertake funded research work in the field. During this period, a set of Ministerial endorsed National Research Priorities were also developed by NCVER for the period 2011 to 2014. There were five: skills and productivity, structures in the tertiary education and training system, the contribution of education and training to social inclusion, learning and teaching, and the place and role of VET (these priorities are summarised in Beddie 2015). These research priorities were updated between 2015-2016 to focus on: productivity, participation and outcomes, learning and teaching, and the place and role of VET.

Most recently, NCVER has been charged with a strategic engagement exercise on behalf of senior skills officials to better connect the VET research program with future skills policy and system reform. The recent review of the VET sector (Joyce 2019) does not make a call for VET research, but acknowledges that there is a lack of data on the effectiveness of VET delivered to secondary students (Joyce 2019).

Building VET research capacity and capability

In 2007, NCVER embarked on several initiatives to encourage VET professionals to undertake research and to bring new researchers into the field of VET studies. The major element used a 'Communities of Practice' (CoP) approach and was targeted at growing VET research skills in VET teaching staff. The Communities of Practice (CoPs) were co-ordinated by Victoria University and supported through AVETRA by mentors for each awardee drawn from its membership. The total program to build research capacity continued until 2010. It was evaluated in 2010 (Bartram, Stanwick & Loveder 2010). As the review report points out:

NCVER allocated $450 000 over three years to four programs: community of practice scholarships aimed at novice researchers undertaking a workplace-focused research project; academic scholarships aimed at VET professionals undertaking an academic course of study such as honours or masters by research; a fellowship scheme; and the VET Researcher of the Year Award.

(Bartram, Stanwick & Loveder 2010, p.3)

The major element was the CoP. The review found that this program had been both popular and successful, and had impact in the researchers' institutions, but perhaps not much beyond. Bartram and her colleagues argued however, that 'more needs to be done to generate interest in and increase the numbers of people actively engaged in VET research' (Bartram, Stanwick & Loveder 2010, p.10).

The impact of VET research

The impact of VET research has been the subject of work by a team of distinguished VET researchers in the mid-1990s (Selby Smith et al. 1998), by NCVER (Stanwick, Hargreaves & Beddie 2009) and by one of the funded research consortia (Harris & Clayton 2010).

Selby Smith and his colleagues note that there was 'a degree of scepticism on the part of some stakeholders about the value of research and whether the money allocated to research was well spent' (Selby Smith et al. 1998, p.1). They found that there is not an uncomplicated, linear relationship between research and decision-making (Selby Smith et al. 1998, p.94). Rather, 'the larger impacts of research are more often indirect than direct; delayed rather than immediate; more minor individually but major in combination' (Selby Smith et al. 1998, p.2). Finally, it is the strength of the linkages between research (and researchers) and decision-making (and decision-makers) that also influences direct research impact, although the decision-makers may not realise their decision to act, or not act, has a research base.

Stanwick and his colleagues draw similar conclusions, noting:

There are challenges associated with connecting the outcomes of research to the judgements and behaviours of professionals and practitioners. Evidence suggests that this process is not straightforward and much debate ensues about the extent to which it is indeed possible to accomplish effectively and robustly. Certainly, there is not usually a linear relationship between one research project and one consequent policy change.

(Stanwick, Hargreaves & Beddie 2009, p.7)

They concluded, however, that the impact of NCVER's research was positive. Moreover, a suite of research rather than a single report made a greater impact and that effective and well-coordinated, targeted dissemination to key stakeholders was critical.

This was the approach adopted from the outset in the Supporting VET providers in building capability for the future consortium. A purposeful plan was initiated to engage practitioners, training providers, industry and policy makers in this significant research program and to disseminate information constantly through the three years of the program:

The consortium's core strategy was to work actively with RTO stakeholders to identify, evaluate and implement sustainable, creative and innovative approaches to building capability. These approaches would then be widely shared across the sector and used as inputs for more long-term policy development by governments, industries, skills councils and other agencies.

(Harris & Clayton 2010, p.12)

In an analysis of the consortium's work the same authors found it quite difficult to get direct measures of impact. Instead the indicators tended to be 'indirect, 'soft' and mostly 'proxy' measures (Harris & Clayton, p.22). This, they concluded, was largely due to the VET system's complexity and to the differing views of the many stakeholders engaged in the sector.


The authors of the landmark documents highlighted in this paper all viewed research, broadly conceived, as an essential element of VET in Australia. The impetus for VET research provided by both the Kangan and Williams reports saw the slow but steady development of the sector's research capacity and its movement from 'research' which was developmentally focused and limited in scope to one which was more broad and enquiry-based. The creation of what is now the NCVER in 1981 was a major step forward, however VET research capacity remained somewhat limited until the publication of No small change (McDonald et al. 1993) and the development of the ANTARAC and NREC national research initiatives through the 1990s. This brought many new players to VET research but sustaining this research capacity is an issue.

As pointed out, research on the VET sector has been guided by successive research strategies and lists of priorities, with a major emphasis on the accessibility and dissemination of research findings. It is interesting to note that many of these priorities have been enduring.

If there are other enduring highlights emanating from the landmark reports which need to be preserved, two have been decisive. The first is the VET Clearinghouse foreshadowed in Kangan. In its present manifestation, VOCEDplus, it is an authoritative international research database covering VET, higher education, adult and community education, informal learning, and VET in Schools. Innovative thinking and advances in technology have enabled it to become an extremely valuable, 'go to' research tool.

The second highlight is the increasing availability and utility of data about the Australian VET system that can be used in research to advise policy. While these data have become increasingly comprehensive and more able to be readily interrogated, timeliness in terms of immediate use for VET providers and policy makers remains an issue of concern. Whilst some of the concepts and initiatives articulated in the landmark documents have come to fruition, many have been difficult to develop or sustain.


1. A complementary article on the history of VET research from 1974 to 2018 by Loveder & Guthrie can be found at <>.

2. In 1970s dollar terms, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) inflation calculator equates $300 000 in 1970 to around $2.4 million in today's terms.

3. Again, in 1970s dollar terms or around $1.7 million in today's terms (RBA inflation calculator).

4. In 1980s dollar terms or around $370 000 in today's terms (RBA inflation calculator).

5. Block release refers to the release of an employee (usually and apprentice or trainee) from the workplace for a period of time, usually a week or more, in order to undertake related training in an educational institution. Day release refers to release of an employee from the workplace, usually for one day per week.

6. The journal changed its title to Australian and New Zealand Journal of Vocational Education Research in 1993. At a later date, responsibility for publication of the journal was transferred to the Australasian Vocational Education and Training Research Association (AVETRA). It is currently published as the International Journal of Training Research.

7. The proceedings from this international conference is available in VOCEDplus at <>

8. This followed the second review of the Centre - see report in VOCEDplus at <>.

9. In 2018 terms this would be $5.3 million (RBA inflation calculator).

10. Some information about ANTA can be found at <>.

11. Subsequently, other strategies and lists of priorities have been developed, see Loveder & Guthrie 2018 at <>.

12. Around $3.25 million in today's terms (RBA inflation calculator).

13. Around $3.8 million in today's terms (RBA inflation calculator).


Australian National Training Authority 1998, A bridge to the future: Australia's national strategy for vocational education and training 1998-2003, ANTA, Brisbane.

Australian Journal of TAFE Research and Development, vol. 1, no. 1, 1985, TAFE National Centre for Research and Development, Adelaide.

Bartram, A, Stanwick, J & Loveder, P 2010, Review of NCVER building researcher capacity initiative, NCVER, Adelaide.

Beddie, F 2015, The outcomes of education and training: what the Australian research is telling us, 2011-14, NCVER, Adelaide.

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Berwyn ClaytonAbout Berwyn Clayton

BEdSt (UQ), BA (UQ), DPE (UniMelb), TEPTC (MTC), Professor Emerita, College of Arts and Education, Victoria University

Berwyn Clayton has over 35 years' experience in the VET sector during which time she has worked as a teacher, curriculum development manager, professional developer and research centre director. She is a founding member of  AVETRA, the Australasian Vocational Education and Training Research Association, and has participated in various national forums. Berwyn has published and presented widely on issues critical to vocational education such as organizational culture and change, VET teacher qualifications and professional development, competency-based assessment, recognition of prior learning and flexible delivery. View Berwyn's work in VOCEDplus.


Hugh GuthrieAbout Hugh Guthrie

BSc Ed, BSc Hons, MSc (UniMelb), MEd (UniBath), Honorary Senior Fellow, Centre for Vocational and Educational Policy, University of Melbourne

Hugh Guthrie has around 35 years' experience as a VET practitioner and researcher. He worked for NCVER between 1987-2011 and later at Victoria and Melbourne Universities. Over this period he undertook and managed a range of significant research and development projects. Hugh's educational expertise includes: VET workforce development, including improving teaching and assessment skills; VET provider capability; educational pathways, especially those between VET and higher education; VET in schools; international education and training, both on- and off-shore; international partnerships; access and equity issues; apprenticeship and traineeship training; educational leadership, especially of VET providers; and organisational strategic planning. View Hugh's work in VOCEDplus.


How to cite this overview

Clayton, B & Guthrie, H 2020, Research in the VET sector: an historical perspective, VET Knowledge Bank, NCVER, Adelaide, <>.

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