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Vocational Qualification Framework (VQF) – Perhaps it is time to consider an approach that focusses upon the individual

What is it about our current qualifications that we most value?

Vocational qualifications, as they currently exist in Australia are widely admired and criticised in equal measure. At an individual qualification level, they can provide clear and valid guidance for skill acquisition leading directly aligned to an occupation. By any measure this is a worthy and desirable outcome. However, 61% of VET graduates end up in jobs directly aligned to the qualification undertaken. This alignment is at its most positive in the trades, at over 80%… Of course, university graduates have a similar trajectory into the labour market. Four months after graduation 52% of graduates from generalist disciplines are in full time employment and between 86-97% for vocationally oriented disciplines, including pharmacy, medicine and dentistry. What appears to be more acceptable in higher education, is constantly a cause of criticism in VET. This almost certainly relates to the stated purpose of vocational qualifications – the direct alignment of qualification to occupation. It is possible that we need to broaden the definition of a vocational qualification. Alignment to job remains important but not exclusively so. Individuals entering the workplace now are likely to have up to seven careers and thirty-five jobs over the course of their working life.Does making a qualification tightly linked to one particular job make sense going forward? Certainly, in licenced occupations and other highly technical and possibly regulated occupations it does. But in others, less so. Even where the link is tight, qualifications should also provide a strong platform upon which to build skill and knowledge development in an ongoing way, thus enabling enhanced labour market resilience.

The competency-based framework has underpinned our vocational qualifications since 1990s. The approach to CBT adopted in Australia was drawn from the United Kingdom. The definition focussed upon observable workplace performance. This enabled the development of a skilling system across a wide range of industries and occupations in areas that had never benefited from it previously. In some areas it was so fully embraced that it was enmeshed in industrial arrangements. Skills were recognised and accordingly given a value. This helped deliver skills and qualifications to people in jobs in a way that was previously not available. Over the following two decades nearly all occupations had skill-based pathways designed and available. Uptake may have been variable, but the options steadily became available. Australia had evolved from a country that had mass secondary education to one that has mass tertiary education. With the advent of the Bradley Review, that lead to the uncapping of higher education places at university and the continual development of vocational qualifications, now housed within training packages…the era of mass tertiary education had arrived. This is quite an achievement, something previous generations would not have dared dream about. Now that we are here and the world has changed, is it time to work out what are the desired vocational qualifications moving forward?

An aspect of vocational qualifications in Australia that is highly valued and internationally admired is the involvement of industry. The fact that units of competency describe actual work tasks inherently implies engagement with the workplace. These descriptions are verified and validated by industry, whether that be through the current Industry Reference Committee model or predecessor entities, i.e. Industry Skills Councils, Industry Training Advisory Boards (ITABS) etc. The endorsement process also involves industry. Committees that recommend the endorsement of units of competency, qualifications and training packages have also heavily involved industry, whether it is the current Australian Industry Skills Committee (AISC), or its predecessors National Skills Standards Committee (NSSC), National Quality Council (NQC), National Training Quality Council (NTQC) and National Training Board (NTB) and so forth. Of course, the ultimate endorsing authorities have always ultimately been governments.

The principles of national application and consistency have also been key drivers. The concept of standards applying equally on a national basis has been important. This also implies that a standard cannot be duplicated. Multiple and competing versions of standards have been considered unhelpful. The concept that the training for a job in Bankstown is at the same standard and quality as in Bairnsdale is something of great value. Not only does it underpin labour market mobility, it also supports access and equity. Yet this important principle has not always been achieved. Funding differentials and state and territory implementation differences have often created different versions of the same thing.

At its heart, what is most valued about Australia’s vocational qualifications is their applied nature. Applied learning models are powerful and meaningful for broad cohorts of learners and workers. This includes apprentices and trainees, medical technicians, engineers, hairdressers, childcare workers, dental technicians and airline pilots.

What may vocational qualifications look like?
The proposed revised AQF presents a rare opportunity to reimagine what vocational qualifications can be. The ten-level framework is redesigned to eight bands.

Significantly, it provides a more explicit acknowledgement of the importance of integrating knowledge, skills and application in an equitable manner. It places these domains on equal footing (see Figure 1). It is blind to sectoral divides. It also potentially provides the rare opportunity to create parity of esteem amongst vocational and higher education qualifications.

In fact, a bold interpretation would enable us to embrace vocationally oriented qualifications throughout the AQF.

More important than levels or bands are the qualification types. The qualification types are supported by a single set of descriptors, ensuring that the AQF is both simpler, more coherent and transparent. Each qualification would be described and identifiable by its purpose. Qualifications would be distinguishable and differentiated.Significant realignment would be required.

What do we want from vocational qualifications going forward?

Ideally vocational qualifications would be designed and developed in a way that organises knowledge and that enables individuals to gain, retain or build upon meaningful work. They would have a purposeful balance between technical and generic skills, and knowledge, all of which could be developed through an engaging applied learning pedagogy. They would be nationally relevant and accessible. They could be completed in entirety or accessed via meaningful chunks. They would be widely valued and respected as vocational qualifications. They would set an individual up to commence their career, add to an existing career or assist with changing career.

To achieve this, we need to address the organising principle of vocational qualifications. Historically, the VET sector has defined qualifications around an individual job role. This has been achieved through a standards-based approach. Standards, or Units of Competency, have been developed to cover all the tasks required to undertake a job. The coverage has been complete or nearly so. Over time a range of other expectations have been added to the Units of Competency. They are now complex, prescriptive documents that describe tasks, quantify variables, provide delivery guidance, and so forth. They are also auditable. Other desirable aspects of a qualification have been force-fit into this model, such as generic skills. This approach has been continuously criticised for its downplaying of knowledge and the importance of it as both an explicit and underpinning requirement of skill acquisition.

This approach is focussed on the technical, the job. Yet, it is an individual that is educated and trained and ultimately develops the skills. Perhaps it is time to consider an approach that focusses upon the individual. Qualifications could be designed and developed with a different organising principle. This principle would be the individual: what does an individual need to obtain and perform successfully in the given job role? This would require the continuation of utilising agreed and approved standards. These should be occupational standards and significantly more cut down than the current units of competency. The remaining components needed to build a qualification could be assembled from a bank of generic units/modules, codified in a more appropriate way, i.e. better capture the depth and breadth of knowledge and other employability requirements. This would form the framework of a qualification. A hybrid model: one that takes the best from various approaches and applies in the way for which they were designed. But this would just be the framing aspect of a qualification. Qualifications would be brought to life with the development of dynamic, customisable contemporary learning guidance. Some may call this curriculum. I am not advocating a return to nationally endorsed curriculum. Previous curriculum models have been as problematic and variable in quality as the training package construct has been at times. A debate needs to be had regarding appropriate models that would best serve this aspect. Importantly, a singular model does not need to be adopted.
Put simply, the historical approach in qualification development has focussed on the technical: creating the perfect ‘pot’. Perhaps it is time to shift our focus more towards the human elements required in successfully participating overtime in the labour market? Instead of focussing on ‘pots’ we should focus on the ‘potter’.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story @ Reimagining Vocational Qualifications

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