30 June 2011
In both Australia and New Zealand currently there is increased discussion about the need to engage young people especially but more people generally in vocational and technical education.
In New Zealand the Government is pursuing a policy it calls Youth Guarantee which is an umbrella under which a variety of initiative aimed at keeping students in education and directing increased numbers into vocation and technical courses are being encouraged. In Australia, a recent report makes explicit the valuable role that VET is playing in Australia in a wide range of programmes. It also makes clear the role VET is playing in bringing a semblance of equity into the Australian postsecondary provision.
The performance of education systems in both countries would look pretty sad if only the contribution of the universities was the measure of equitable access to qualifications and the benefits that come with them. A critical mass of students from traditionally under-represented groups find positive pathways through programmes offered at a sub-degree level and which lead them to those highly valued technical and middle level qualifications of which both countries are very short.
There is no evidence that there is a shortage of degree graduates in either country and when there are such shortages it is often in areas that have declared the need for a degree level qualification despite the proven worth of diploma qualification over many years – I think of various levels of teaching, nursing, town planning and so on. In New Zealand IPENZ the professional body for engineers has recently completed a survey that shows that the pressures in that sector come not from a shortage of degree-qualified people but from a serious shortage of those qualified with middle level and technical qualifications.
Therefore the setting of targets related to proportions of the population who should have degrees is simply a silly exercise. Australia and the UK with their 40% targets are ignoring the importance of having a spread of qualifications across levels to maintain industry and commerce. Even the credibility of such targets has been attacked in Britain where, it is claimed, the government would be stretched beyond their limit by the capital expenditure if this were to be the goal and even if they could, where would the teachers come from? It simply wouldn’t happen.
In the US, the even higher targets mean even less when so many of their indicators are headed to the frozen south at a great speed. Of course the broadening of the goal that every one should go to “college” was achieved through the development of community colleges in the US – this adding of opportunity underneath the conventional “higher education” happened also in New Zealand.
New Zealand used to have a clear “higher education” sector which required the University Entrance qualification and generally five years at secondary school. This was a track favoured by about 10% of each cohort. Others left earlier to enter employment or vocational education and often both. But the removal of pathways through the mid-1970s to thje mid-1990s saw many young people stranded with nowhere to go – the only choice was to remain at schools in which the curriculum had become comprehensive and markedly academic.
But we are seeing our way out of that now and a renewed focus on pathways and linked learning that both sets students in a direction but with options is likely to see a reversal in the worrying trends of disengagement, low qualification, poor preparation and the other facts that weight so heavily in terms of equitable access to further and higher education and the rewards that go with it. Who knows, one day our system might even develop some of the flexibility of the Scandinavians and other and students with credible middle level qualifications gained in a vocational area will be able to transfer with ease into higher level qualifications should they wish to.
But if New Zealand and Australia want to make real, the professed commitments to equitable access to further and higher education and to meaningful qualifications it will require changes in policy settings (that is happening), investment of resources where it will make an impact (that must be at the senior secondary / lower tertiary levels) and a different level of parity of esteem between those meeting the needs of the countries through different pathways by different provision with different sets of people.
 Wheelahan, Leesa; & Moodie, Gavin (2010) The quality of teaching in VET: Final report and recommendations produced for the Quality of Teaching in VET project, Australian College of Educators