In search of the perfect VET system

Imagine, if you will, the perfect VET system. What would it look like?

This is a question for which I have been seeking an answer for over a quarter of a century. My quest has taken me around the world looking closely at every VET system (TVET, CTE, or whatever name it is called), many VET in Schools programs, and allowed me a close examination of the US multi-domain system.

I have closely researched and, on behalf of a number of international organisations, written widely on tertiary and academic qualifications systems in both prosperous and emerging countries.

On top of this I have been part of teams that created the first and second generation VET systems in leading first world countries, and led the creation of similar systems in other emerging economies. And, except for the armchair critics, reclusive academics and research establishments, I am still the widest read author on the subject of competency-based training and assessment.

So, what was I looking for in my quest – and did I find it?

Last question first: No. Short answers are always the best. So, no, I didn’t find the perfect system.

When I set out on this quest I had only one caveat: The VET system that I select had to be more than just a government controlled range of qualifications. Unfortunately that, in the main, was what I found.

There are over 200 VET systems around the world today, which is surprising given that there is only 196 countries, and not all of them subscribe to any VET system. Many of these are referred to as systems but in reality they should all be called qualifications frameworks because they are all regulated in some way through bureaucracies concerned with the way training which leads to the achievement of each qualification is conducted. For example, every framework in the world has a number of mandated levels (generally eight but could be as many as ten or twelve), all of which describes in broad terms how each qualification is to be structured. And in most cases they also describe how the gaining of the qualification is achieved. But this is all they are: a range of qualifications.

A system is much more than that. Wikipedia defines a system in much the same terms as every dictionary: ‘A system is a group of interacting or interrelated entities that form a unified whole.’ A level of qualifications is not a system.

The initials VET stand for vocational education and training, so what I was looking for was a system that touched on every element of VET – the vocational (ie, jobs and work), education (understanding the world of jobs and work), and training (training which, in this context, was designed for the world of work). And what I found is that none – not one – of the VET systems, or qualifications frameworks, in any country fit this description. Except one, and that was disbanded many years ago.

The most effective, efficient, and therefore the best VET system I found was the one discarded by Australia back in the early 2000s.

Yes, I know, there are people who proclaim loudly and often that Australia has the best VET system in the world today, but they are not talking about the one I found. They are talking about the best Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) system in the world, just as Europe has the best European Qualifications Framework (EQF) system.

You see, throughout the mid to late 1990s Australia did have the best VET system in the world, bar none. This was so widely acknowledged that visitors frequently came to Australia to observe this system, and calls came from everywhere for assistance to help build the emerging systems in other countries.

New Zealand was one of the first countries to call on Australia’s assistance with their fledgling New Zealand Qualifications Framework. Others soon followed. Canada, Mexico, South Africa, various South East Asian countries (in systems being established by the International Labour Organisation), Argentina and independent nations within the Caribbean group of islands.

By the end of the 1990s and in the early years of the new decade Australians had far outstripped other countries in the number of eager entrepreneurs rushing overseas to sell the Australian system wherever a willing buyer could be found. This reputation continues, although it is rapidly diminishing as many still find it quite lucrative to take only what they know of the current AQF system and flog it overseas. Even the Federal Government is getting into the act establishing its own view of the AQF system and selling this to other governments.

So, what was so special about the Australian system of the 1990s?

Well, for a start, it met the definition of a system. There was more than one part – and in the beginning none of these parts was a qualification.

You see the neat thing about the Australian system was that it began and ended in the workplace. Employers identified the functions they deemed essential to their organisation’s vision, and the skills and knowledge essential to the competent performance of these functions were codified as performance or competency standards. The way – the only way – a person could be deemed as competent against these standards was to present evidence that their skills and knowledge were at the level detailed in the standards.

And such evidence had to show them either achieving the objectives of their current or past employer, or demonstrated they were capable of reproducing such performance in the employ of any future organisation. And the reason why this was so important was because the standards of performance were tied to performance management and appraisal systems, and thereby to achievements made against business and strategic objectives and through this to increases in wages and conditions of work. Shortfalls were quickly identified in one and brought back into line by the other.

That was it. No lengthy training courses. No “You don’t know this until I’ve taught you!”. No worrying about whether the training provider was accredited by some heavenly organisation in a city hundreds of kilometers away. No exorbitantly priced fees or mandated attendance – even if the relevant training was relatively easily accessible (which it quite often wasn't). None. Just whether or not the person had the required skills and knowledge, or didn’t yet have them. And it matters not where and how they were learned. Simple.

In short, there was more V (vocational) and E (education) in VET than T (training). In fact, throughout the 90's great fun was had keeping academics and trainers from beating down the doors of the national accreditation authorities and demanding that the system be given over to them.

But then a government came into power who did just that – gave the VET system to the E (educators) and that was the end of a perfectly good system. Now all that is left of the national system is the one element that was never there in the first place – a government regulated qualification. The rest is goodness-knows what: It certainly bears little resemblance to the system of the 1990s.

However, if we look closely enough we can easily find that it is still there, running perfectly in the background.

The military, for example, was the optimis optimus of VET in Australia during the 90's. It modelled what an exceptional VET system should look like. It was a complex system - today what would be called a complex adaptive system - and as one element improved so too did the others. Greater competence on the part of individuals led to greater collective competence on the part of all, and as people's skills and knowledge grew so too did the organisational competence to adapt and grow as a result.

But the educators got hold of this too, so where excellence is found is at the levels where training essential to doing a job competently (rather than just what one is qualified to do) occurs - in the workplace. In fact, a significant amount of the Defence budget is invested running the underground training processes for military forces overseas.

The best VET system in the world today is still that which is found in Australia, but not the nationally recognised, and internationally copied, system. That system is the domain of the educators, carpet-baggers, bureaucrats and regulators. The system I am talking about is the one that competent trainers have tied themselves to – an underground system that gives greatest emphasis to the needs of employers and the community within which businesses struggle to survive. This system is not widely recognised, but there are many hundreds of thousands of trainers here and around the world following this system. They are not undercutting their respective qualifications frameworks or training systems because there is a part in our education system for such qualifications. They are instead running a parallel system below the surface because they know that this is what their communities demand – and need.

The system I am talking about works because it eschews, wherever possible, nationally recognised qualifications. And the reason why it does so is because the greatest weakness of any nationally approved system is that they please the regulators first and foremost, before, in most cases, the needs of the students and their current/future employers.

The only reason why VET in Australia works is because there are so many who remember the old system and apply it wherever they can, regardless of what the nationally mandated system requires them to do. Also, there are many trainers – especially those who are industry-based workplace trainers and assessors – who want no part of the national system. They know, instinctively, that if the training employees receive is not aligned to the needs of their organisation then they are not doing their job.

Over the next few posts I will describe exactly what an effective and efficient VET system looks like. By doing this I hope to show that VET can achieve more than a nationally regulated qualification, and why it is important that we reflect deeply on which system our business model prescribes we should follow.

What I intend demonstrating is that VET can give employees greater job and career satisfaction, and in doing so give employers the greatest chance of achieving business and strategic objectives. I will demonstrate that VET can give regions and communities greater prospects for success in terms of growth and future self-determination. I also aim to demonstrate the true purpose of VET, and that is to give the nation the greatest scope for rebuilding flagging economies, enhancing current ones, and identifying and taking advantage of opportunities that arise in the future. These, after all, are the true purpose of VET.

In presenting these posts I will also argue why it is so necessary that those who subscribe to such a system should have a national voice in matters concerning VET. If this voice continues to be shut out then nothing will change except the pace at which the economy and business success in this country slides backwards.

Part one is coming soon.