The Future of VET - Seen with 2020 vision

Author: Dr Phillip Rutherford Ph.D, Australia

The above quote is by the renowned 20th century systems theorist, inventor and visionary Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983). His words say what I believe to be on the minds of many people within the VET sector, that is to continue fighting against the current VET system is a waste of time, effort and energy. The old model cannot be repaired. It is time for a new one.

For many years now there have been two main topics of conversation on LinkedIn concerning VET: The first covers a whole range of questions about how to effectively apply the basic skills and knowledge of an assessor or trainer, and the second topic reflects an ever growing level of frustration that RTO owners have with the continued burden of rules and regulations governing how they should run their business.

To me the first topic is a constant source of amazement. If, after over a quarter of a century of experience, there are assessors and trainers who are qualified but do not know their jobs, then we have a problem. If they do not know how to apply a competency-based approach to their craft, or don't know the difference between this and the traditional adult and technical education and training, then we have not only have a problem but have one that is beyond repair.

Like a plant with roots that reach far underground, the only way in which the problem can be corrected is to dig up the entire garden and start all over again. That supposedly trained and qualified trainers and assessors don't know the basics of their job is a problem that was a long time growing and its roots have reached far and wide. Even the Australian Government doesn’t trust the way in which competency-based training and assessment are carried out in this country, hence we have a ‘special’ set of standards and training for export to other countries.

The problem with training and assessment can be traced back to the original Competency Standards Body (CSB) responsible for identifying what competent trainers and assessors do in the workplace, and defining them as competency standards. They failed the industry of trainers on two counts: Firstly they did not know what they were doing and, secondly, were too arrogant to bother finding out what it was that they should have been doing. (I can say this with some confidence as I was the only trained competency-based trainer and assessor on the CSB.) As a result the original set of competency standards for workplace trainers and assessors were never endorsed by industry, TAFEs or the National Training Board. 

But it is these same standards, with an ever growing mass of units of competence plastered to the sides, that are still with us today. No wonder people don’t know what they’re doing.

The trouble is, so many people have grown up with these standards. They have never seen anything else and therefore don’t know how bad they are. These standards continue to be the basis for the training of other trainers and assessors, and so the whole problem continues to grow. Bad standards begets bad training. Bad training begets bad practice, and because conducting courses for other would-be trainers and assessors is such a lucrative business, bad practice gets taught as acceptable practice. And so the cycle continues.

Hang on a moment, I hear you cry. Are you saying that all RTOs that have the training and assessment qualification (and its many derivatives) on their books are offering bad training? Yes I am, and the reason why I say this is because of the second topic of conversation on LinkedIn concerning VET, and that is the burden of bureaucracy and regulations.

As all RTOs know, one of the never ending sources of frustration is the continuous updates to the TAE qualification. It is rare that a month goes by when there is not a flurry of activity from the relevant Skills Service Organisation informing of new updates and amendments. If, in the medical field, there was a similar flurry of activity during which newer and better ways to treat diseases were being created, then there would be excitement among doctors and nurses who have to constantly upgrade their skills. But we are talking about a profession – that of trainers and assessors – that has not changed in any major way for over 100 years! The outcomes are the same and the processes to get there are no different to what they were in the 19th century (and, for the trades we can trace these back to the 11th and 12th century craft guilds). And do you know the worst part? The profession of trainers and assessors know this, but they are forever being bombarded with updates and upgrades which they must factor into their own professional development. And at the same time must amend their training program to ensure that the qualification they issue is recognised by the national and State regulating authorities.

RTOs are then caught in a bind: Either they can be right or they can be happy. To be right they must comply with the new amendments and conduct their training in such a way as to meet these new standards so that their students understand what it is they must do in order to be compliant under the relevant regulatory requirements. Or they can be happy and tell their students that what they must teach is bollocks and then work hard to ensure that their graduates are at least competent when they walk out the door, even if it means not entirely covering what is contained in the curriculum.

This is the system we have today. Rubbish standards begets rubbish trainers and assessors, and rubbish trainers and assessors begets rubbish on the job competence in students, and rubbish competence begets business failures. The only way trainers can break this cycle is to lie and tell the regulators that they are doing one thing while in reality are doing something completely different. Just as many hundreds of honest, hard working trainers find very hard not to do right around this country.

This is no way to run a system, but it is the only one we have at the moment so we either go on posting our woes on LinkedIn or we do something about it. And here I am going to really mess with readers’ minds.

I am not countenancing getting rid of the current overly burdensome bureaucratic system. Nor am I suggesting that the relevant SSO responsible for training and assessment – and its unknowing Industry Reference Council – be run out of town. Both of these have their place in a well run, effective and efficient VET system. Not as ‘the’ system, but as the part of a VET system provides a qualification for students who can demonstrably meet the necessary learning outcomes. The bigger VET system, the one that our current system can play a part in, is the one that actually achieves real outcomes in terms of individual career satisfaction, workplace change and progress, and industry growth which results in greater economic success.

You see, the current VET system focuses only on qualifications, not on workplace competence. The regulators and others will tell you that these are one and the same, but this only reveals how little they know. As any competent assessor will tell you, possession of a qualification does not equate to competent workplace performance. The only thing it reflects is that someone met the learning outcomes of a particular curriculum. So, if we are talking about competence as opposed to trained, we must accept that competence can only be demonstrated on the job, and in the context and conditions relevant to the individual applying, in the workplace, skills and knowledge that could have been learned anywhere.

To reiterate - such competence could have been learned while undertaking a course of training, or they might not have. They could have been gained through volunteer work, running a home business – or just running a home. They may have been learned by reading books, watching other workers, intuitively applying new ways of doing things, or sitting around a conference table talking to others. In other words – anywhere. And there is no curriculum in any country or language that can cover all of the contingencies and experiences that go to make up competent performance in the workplace.

So, what is the solution? Well, it depends. Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy? Or, do you want to be both?

In writing this piece I was reminded of another of my favourite Buckminster Fuller quotes: “Human beings always do the most intelligent things…after they’ve tried every stupid alternative and found that none of them work.” The current VET system doesn’t work – but nor was it meant to. Yes, there are many who feel (publicly at least) that we have the best VET system in the world, but that to me is like the champions of a fourth division softball league saying that they have the best softball team in the world. Yes, they do – but only the best fourth division team.

Let me put it this way, we are constantly told that Australia has the best Australian VET system in the world. This statement is only correct if we recognise that we have the best 'Australian' system in the world – including the VET system that Australia exports to other countries, in which case we have two best Australian systems in the world: The one we use ourselves and the one we use for other countries.

On this planet today we have 195 countries, and for our pleasure we have over 200 VET systems. Australia alone has four regulatory bodies concerning themselves with VET (excluding secondary schools who are governed by a different body), and multiple minor systems. And each country proclaims that it has the best VET system in the world. So, which one is correct?

The Australian VET system is the best in the world at being what it is - a system set up in Australia, for Australians, to regulate RTOs and direct what is contained in training programs that achieve nationally accepted qualifications. Nothing more and nothing less.

If you want to be right then with my blessing please stay with this muddled system. If you want to be happy stick with this system and conduct training and assessment as you know best fits your client’s needs.

But if you want to be right and happy then perhaps it is time to seriously look at another way of helping this country to achieve its own brand of greatness through VET – VET as a system that is based solely around what employers, large and small, national and local, blue and white collar, need to achieve their business and strategic objectives.

The system I am talking about is one that this country needs if employers of all sizes and types are to grow and increase both their profits and employment – in particular in areas of low or under-employment. A system which our future needs if the economy of this country is to cease to be at the whim of overseas interests who, while pretending to come to our shores to invest in our industries are in reality purchasing them outright in order to stock their own bank accounts in their own countries.

Being right and happy means looking at what exists already and considering how we can improve what we know works. It means taking the best of our current practice, framing it in such a way as to be easily accessible to those who believe there are better ways, and layering it alongside the system that enables competent people to gain recognition through nationally accepted qualifications.


We might not make the old system obsolete, but if this country is to survive the coming decades then we must be prepared to put it to one side while we concentrate on what we know works. Let us leave the old system to look after itself while we move on to help our real clients – students, current and future employers, and our nation – achieve their ambitions.