Transcript of VET and higher education: should we push for integration?

7 June 2022

Vocational Voices: Season 7, Episode 2

VET and higher education: should we push for integration?

Megan Lilly (00:04)
Well, I'd have to say that I think you should start at the job or the skills and go backwards from there, because if you find the need and hopefully the demand, then you can build a real model.

Steve Davis (00:18)
Hello, and welcome to Vocational Voices, the official podcast of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, or NCVER for short. I'm Steve Davis and today's topic is integrating VET and higher education. Our Vocational Voices today are Simon Walker, Managing Director NCVER. Simon.

Simon Walker (00:39)
Hi, Steve.

Steve Davis (00:40)
And Megan Lilly, head of education and training the Australian Industry Group AiGroup. Megan, welcome.

Megan Lilly (00:47)
Thank you and hello.

Steve Davis (00:48)
Now enabling student movement between the VET and higher education sectors has been a long-term workforce development policy goal and yet here we are in 2022 revisiting the topic again. Can either of you remember the first time this topic surfaced in your careers and are you surprised it's still a live issue? Megan?

Megan Lilly (01:14)
Well, if I had to confess, when I first remembered this topic emerging, it would be at the beginning of my career, which was probably close to 30 years ago now. So that would be the first moment of truth in this conversation. But no, and I'm not surprised that we are discussing it again, because I think often, we've discussed the issues from the perspective of the system, not the perspective of the needs of the user, but the reality is this has been happening for a long time. We've just made it very, very difficult for people.

Steve Davis (01:45)
Okay. Simon, your take.

Simon Walker (01:47)
Yeah, well, I've been in the sector for a similar period and my experience is much the same as Megan's and I think one of the issues, and I know it sounds a little pedantic, but the notion of an integrated sector, the term integrated is probably not really what people are seeking. And I remember when Peter Noonan did his review of the AQF he was very clear that I don't think integration's the goal, but greater connectedness and fluidity between the sectors.

Steve Davis (02:21)
All right, well, you've both helped set the scene. Thank you very much. Let's dive into it afresh then, given that it is 2022. As it stands at the moment, if I wanted to progress at work and further my career skills, I could enrol in a VET course with a competency-based learning focus for my particular occupation, or I could enter the higher education sector, take a more academic approach and ground my career with some underpinning knowledge. Why do we want to integrate these pathways? What is the problem we are trying to solve on this topic? Megan?

Megan Lilly (02:58)
Yeah, great question. And just to pick up on the comment that Simon made before, I think the word integrated is partly problematic in this discussion, because do we want to integrate the sectors? Do we want to merge them? Are we talking about qualifications that have relationships or have blended elements? And I think that there's all manner of variation in all of that and what's the problem, what's the need? So I think they're all really good questions and I too would like to acknowledge Peter Noonan's work on the AQF and I was a member of that panel. And really, while we've got the current policy architecture that we've got in particular, the AQF, we are going to continue to have difficult conversations around how do we get the best relationship between vocational education and higher education, because we've got structural impediments at that place.

Megan Lilly (03:52)
And this is really, of course what we're talking about now. So what is the problem we're trying to solve? Well, I mean, we can talk about it from the point of view of the qualification design, different sectoral differences, all those sorts of things, but I think really I should come at it from a slightly different point of view, and I think that the problem we're trying to solve, or at least the opportunity might be a more constructive way of looking at it. There is this fairly niche, [inaudible 00:04:22] need for skills, particularly at the paraprofessional and the professional area, often with a technical basis to them that are very poorly served by qualifications at the moment. And also often require elements that we would traditionally find located in the two separate sectors. And I say sectors in this instance, and that is there an easier and better way that we can actually do something about that space, that technician paraprofessional space in a much more contemporary way?

Megan Lilly (04:56)
Because a lot of the impediments that are in place at the moment or the problems, if you want to describe them like that, are actually constructs of sectors, but they don't actually relate necessarily to real jobs, real work and what's actually emerging in the workplace in terms of skills for the future. So it depends where we want to look and to what problem we see and also what opportunities and solutions we can derive.

Steve Davis (05:22)
I get the impression from that answer, Megan, that perhaps another problem with this framing is that there's integration, but there's a continuum of different occupations where some integration might be more helpful or beneficial than others. It's not a one size fits all.

Megan Lilly (05:41)
I completely agree with that and I think we've been bedevilled by one size fits all solutions to all manner of things. And I think that there, we need a lot more nuancing, I think we're well enough advanced in all this stuff to work out how to do that. And sometimes it's a continuum and it's an upward continuum sometimes. I mean, people move both ways between sectors. Sometimes people start off with theory or knowledge-based stuff and like then progress to application. Many university graduate engineers do trade-based units when they get into the workplace to build that application. There's many, many sort of strategies in this place and I think that we need to look at them differently and allow variation to occur.

Steve Davis (06:25)
All right, now, Simon, you've got your finger on figures. Have you got some data on the numbers of students who transition from one sector to another, such as moving from higher education and then opting for VET qualification and vice versa?

Simon Walker (06:40)
Well, I'm going to disappoint you this time, Steve. There is no answer to that question or no definitive answer. However, there has been some estimations, but before I talk about that, looking at trying to answer that question, there are a couple of key issues. One is the data constraints, and one is the nuance in the question and I'll get to that in a minute. If we look at the data constraints, the single biggest problem is we don't have a unified student identifier. There is an identifier in the higher education sector, the CHESSN and we have of course, the unique student identifier in the VET sector, but they are not unified or explicitly linked. So that of course is a major constraint when you're trying to do a study of this type. Similarly, the time series. And when we ask that question, are we talking about at any time in a person's life, the studies that have been done have been a narrow or narrower range of years. And I'll talk a little bit about those two.

Simon Walker (07:41)
So that's your first problem. Secondly, it's about the question. If we're talking, I think a lot of people, when they conceive of that question are thinking about a VET graduate, going into higher education, participating in a graduate degree and potentially completing, that then discounts all the other movements that some of which Megan has just mentioned around single units and short courses and the like, which is the predominant pathway going from higher education to VET and I'll come back to that. And of course, you'd want to discount the VET that's done in schools because as we know, a lot of VET is now conducted in schools, including for people who are on ATAR pathways going to higher education. So you would have to conceive that the question as being post-school VET to post-school higher ed or vice versa.

Simon Walker (08:29)
So with those broad assumptions in play, there have been a couple of studies done, one reasonably comprehensive one using administrative data by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment who got multiple years of both cohorts, did some other data linkage, obviously not the unified data student identifier and to cut a long story short, they came up with a number that's around about 1% who moved from VET to higher education. They did however, acknowledge that was a likely underestimate.

Steve Davis (09:06)

Simon Walker (09:07)
Okay. Another study that I'm aware of using our Longitudinal Surveys of Australian youth, again the constraint there is we're only surveying people between the ages of 15 and 25. We don't know what they might have done after that age. They came up with a number that was closer to 6 or 7%, but they were again by no means definitive. So if that gives you any kind of range by which you might want to attach your analysis to, but none of it is definitive in that sense. Going the other way and there is a generally held view that there is greater movement between higher ed to VET. And I think based certainly on our analysis, and I'll talk a little bit about a couple of those things. That's probably true, but primarily because the participation in VET after higher education is almost predominantly in short courses.

Simon Walker (10:00)
And remember over a million people a year enrol in a accredited first aid course, you would have to expect a proportion of those to be university qualified. Megan made a really good example around qualified engineers doing postgraduate studies. And of course, we have other licensing type avenues like responsible service of alcohol and white cards and all those things that are very VET oriented, but have a, if you like an occupational licensing component. So that is by far and away, I think the biggest movement between the sectors of higher education to VET.

Simon Walker (10:35)
So look in summary, unclear. It's probably greater movement between higher education to VET, but primarily in short courses in that sort of licensing world, just on the people who may do a post higher ed qualification in VET, there are some longstanding articulations, for instance, the Diploma of Management, for those who are old enough they used to call it Frontline Management. So, people who have got a university degree, gone into the workforce, want to get into a management role, the Diploma of Management, the VET Diploma of Management is a very clear pathway and that's been used for decades. And the one that's emerged more recently is childcare, which I think has some sociological factors to it. So presumably women in particular, who've gone to university then started a family and then looking for a career once they return to the workforce. And because of the accreditation requirements in childcare have to do a certificate or a diploma. So in the sense that I've confused you entirely, that's what I understand the articulations to be.

Steve Davis (11:37)
Thank you, Simon, but I've made a note to be more specific in my questions to you in the future, but thank you. Now here's a quote from an NCVER paper by Tanya Bretherton, it was published in 2011. "For skills acquired through VET to be evaluated free of the perhaps negative connotations of work-based learning, a number of factors need to be addressed. Some academics advocate for the creation of a continuum of skills, which forms more definite and direct links between VET and higher education." Now this brings up valued judgment, which sit close to the surface for many stakeholders, students and industry in particular. Megan, do you think the in quotes, "different learning styles," between the two pathways is a big factor here? For example, does an industry look down upon VET hands on competency-based learning while being in awe of higher education's theoretical and academic frameworks? Or is industry fine with VET, but it's social stigma that robs us of some candidates?

Megan Lilly (12:43)
Well, it's an interesting proposition, isn't it, to suggest that industry looks down on VET and up to higher education. And I struggle with that dynamic or that sort of binary view of it. I mean, I think industry would hopefully be deeply engaged in both and respectfully look on and participate with them. I don't think hand skills are down and academia is up. I think we need to really move past that entire conversation and look at sort of applied learning and sort of a more theoretical approach to learning, but that actually extend at all levels across the AQF if we have a moment of honesty, and I think that we should build the value up of all of that. So I don't accept the looking up, looking down component.

Megan Lilly (13:39)
However, it is important that I do admit that there has been some stigma attached to this over time, but it's been pretty historically derived and it's probably been reinforced by sort of a lot of aspiration for future generations to have professional or white collar jobs. I think we're also beginning to move past that, but I think that we really do need to move the stigma apart away from any form of learning. I think learning in all its various forms is a positive thing and it is not limited or restricted to that. You can move from different types of learning, have different progressions and change careers as many people will do over their life. So, we've got to rebalance this whole question, remove this stigma and get a better balance between knowledge, skills and application. And I actually think the revised AQF suggests exactly that.

Simon Walker (14:40)
Yeah, I thought it might be useful just to give you some early insights and some research that we're still working our way through, but which has got to a stage where some of the early findings are coming out. And it's a study that uses a case study approach on four occupations, surveyors, childcare workers, lab technicians, and graphic designers, where we know people are employed both as VET graduates and/or higher education graduates. So we're doing that deliberately to see if there are any different outcomes for those people, whether they went through a VET pathway or a higher education pathway.

Simon Walker (15:13)
And one of the, I think early observations of that I found interesting and which sort of goes to the heart of your question is when we spoke to employers about, well, how do you discriminate between the worker who graduated from either sector, in short they don't. They are looking at people who can do the job and they don't have a particular view about whether someone is a university graduate or a VET graduate as long as they can perform the role. And I thought that tells a bit of a story about the demand side of employers is that they're looking at skills.

Steve Davis (15:48)
Wow. So pragmatism.

Simon Walker (15:50)

Steve Davis (15:51)
I just wonder, just dealing with this though, do you think we'd find grounds for a stronger argument in favour of a more integrated tertiary sector if we argued that would help people navigate a future of continuous change, that's being driven by constant technological and workplace advancements? Simon?

Simon Walker (16:12)
Yeah. It goes back to that early conversation, which is, and really Megan hit the nail on the head here. It's about the ease to which you can move between the sectors in your study program. There are too many constraints and we could talk about that for a long time here. But one of the other issues that came up in this study that I just referred to is a comment from employers they got to make it easier for people who, for instance, did a VET course to be able to take up some components of a university course and vice versa. In particular, how they are recognised between the sectors. And this has been an enduring issue. It goes to the heart of the AQF review. How can you do that better and easier for the individual and consequently the employer?

Steve Davis (16:58)
All right, now you just touched on the recognition aspect and the difficulties there. I want to flip the coin because if we assume that we all agree integration is the best option, the NCVER paper, the best of both worlds, integrating VET and higher education, it notes that the main barrier to integration is the time and expertise needed to map VET and higher education content. It's expensive. Is it in Australia's interest for the government to fund this mapping or are there intrinsic opportunities for building this into our system?

Megan Lilly (17:36)
Look, that would be one way to go. And it's a fairly sort of technocratic way of approaching an issue. And I would also sort of describe it as if we're looking at the sectors as being an iceberg and the user, whether it's an individual or an industry or company, that they intersect with a bit above the water, and what this activity is part of the stuff below the water and they don't need to see that. But I also do accept that it's expensive and time consuming and whatnot, but I also think probably a better way to go would be, there are new and emerging areas in our economy.

Megan Lilly (18:13)
There's a lot of transformation happening. And if you actually identify some of those new areas and you actually drive whether it's integration or cohesion, and I think it's an interesting question, cause integration, we don't want to lose the best of both so we need to make sure we're getting that language right. But if you find one of these sort of newer areas and you build new models in a new space that actually intuitively or instinctively will it take from both, or don't recognise that they're separate, but they're creating this new space. And I think some of the digital industry, 4.0 stuff lends itself to that. We can develop some new models in that space and actually drive change in a different way because we've been trying to do it the other way for a very long time, without very much success.

Steve Davis (19:02)
Megan, if I understand you correctly, you're saying that in the new fields, we are less likely to encounter this divergence between the two, because we can make things up that bring those elements together. It's where we have the legacy, traditional roles and roots that this is a harder task.

Megan Lilly (19:24)
That's right. Although I should be careful to not suggest that because it's a new or newer area. Gosh, it's going to be easy cause if that was the case, it would probably already be done. But I think that there's less historical baggage and assumption made. And if you get the right players and right leadership, and you get the demand driven by real need, real work, real industry, I think we could probably re-position it.

Steve Davis (19:53)

Simon Walker (19:54)
Look, I agree with everything that Megan said because we end up coming full circle back to some integration of institutional structures, which has never worked and is not likely to work. The accreditation structures, the institutional structures of a university versus an RTO, the practices of RTOs and universities, the design of courses and so on, and the curriculum and so on. The opportunities do lie in the new occupational areas where you build that from the start, you don't try and merge the existing constraints that we have in a way that quite frankly, hasn't worked and it's not likely to.

Steve Davis (20:33)
Can I just steer in a slightly different direction? Because I think it's my old journalism habits here. I've gone for the sensational thing where we have differences and struggles, but case studies Simon, especially with the news, the reports that you are publishing, are there some case studies where this integration is actually working well?

Simon Walker (20:52)
All right, well, I'm going to just lead you through to the answer to that question because the study you're referring to looked at different models of, and again, I hesitate to use the word integration, but nonetheless. It had four broad categories of integration where you had more of an articulation model and there were two types, one a very informal articulation, what they called the endorsed model. In other words, you weren't guaranteed credit if you did a VET course to go into university. Then the articulation where there is guaranteed credit and it's codified. So for example, you do a diploma in X and that'll give you the first year credit for a university degree. Then the consecutive model, you're trying to teach both things, higher education and VET at the same time. And then this holy grail of integration or what they call the embedded model where you're actually teaching both simultaneously. So to answer your question on that last one, which is sort of more purely focused on your question, they couldn't find one. There was a model built, but there was no enrolments.

Steve Davis (21:56)

Simon Walker (21:56)
Which touches on Megan's thing about, is there demand?

Simon Walker (21:59)
Yeah. Very much so.

Steve Davis (22:02)
So that's it.

Simon Walker (22:02)
That's it.

Simon Walker (22:04)
Sorry. Look, it's a qualitative research project, you can't cover every possibility that's out there, but it does tell you in that report just how hard it is.

Steve Davis (22:12)
All right. Now, if I show my age here, there was some ads many years ago for Yogi Bear chocolate bars and the famous saying was, "Start at the knees please." So I want to turn this around again. Start at the qualification outcomes. There's a red hot focus at the moment on micro-credentials, in both VET and higher education sectors. Could this focus give us some common ground for approaching a more integrated tertiary sector?

Megan Lilly (22:41)
Oh, well I'd have to say that I think you should start at the job or the skills and go backwards from there because if you find the need and hopefully the demand, then you can build a real model. And back to Simon's last point on couldn't find the real blended model in, he could find it on a shelf but not in practice. And I don't exactly, I think that's, not suggesting it's not true for a second, but I guess it depends where you start building the model from. So we are doing some work with some companies at the moment, they're building their model from the company perspective. Now they're very large companies that can afford to do it and international companies, BAU systems is one of them, but I think that's what we've got to start, we've got to start from the job and your skills. And then you can look at qualification outcomes and micro-credentials and anything else you might want to in that bucket. But I just think we need, to get this up, I think that's where we need to start from.

Steve Davis (23:47)
Because that takes the mapping into account. Doesn't it?

Megan Lilly (23:50)
Well, it does, but it could also be new development, I'm not presuming what it would be comprised of, and drawn from the best of pre-existing stuff and all of the above. But if it's a new tech area, there'll have to be new development in it as well, so that's another opportunity and I just think it will just help drive forward this conversation rather than where you've got very strong options in those sectors and other pre-existing, well understood occupational areas. There's not much incentive for people to move from what they already understand.

Steve Davis (24:28)
So I mean, of all the people, I know you use the term micro-credentials more than anyone, what's your two bob on this particular question?

Simon Walker (24:36)
Again, I come back to this notion of whether it's about integration or whether it's making it more available, that there are options for, micro-credentials are easier to access theoretically, and certainly less impost on time for both companies and individuals. And look, we've got a so-called micro-credentials platform or marketplace or something, which has only got higher ed micro-credentials currently being sort of promoted out there. And yet we know that VET is largely or dominated by participation in micro-credentials in a broader sense of the word. So the idea that people could become made more aware of those options and their linkages to their employment. So I absolutely agree with Megan around, there's got to be a demand and there's got to be an occupational outcome or a rationale for actually doing this in the first place. And I think Megan, the program you just referred to was the, is that the advanced apprenticeship in manufacturing? Is that one?

Megan Lilly (25:41)
Oh, that's one of them. Yes.

Simon Walker (25:43)
Yeah. So, but that is a good example of ground up and it wasn't an easy task if I understand it rightly, to actually get all that in place. But what is critical in that is you had a large multi-national company and a few other firms involved, you had scale and you had resources to be able to put that in place. That has an applicability in that situation. Very difficult to do that in smaller business areas or fragmented service areas. So that's going to be a bit of a challenge, I think for people.

Steve Davis (26:13)
But there is something about what Megan was saying, starting with the job in mind.

Simon Walker (26:17)
Absolutely, yeah.

Steve Davis (26:18)
Because it's like you buy a red car and suddenly you see all the red cars. So with a job in mind, you suddenly see all the pieces of the puzzle that make sense to fit together in a specific way.

Simon Walker (26:28)

Steve Davis (26:30)
Final thoughts now, who needs to step up to the plate first to get some momentum on this issue? If you think this issue is worthy and achievable, and we've certainly brought some nuance out in the discussion and our time together, but Megan, can I start with you? What would you like to see? Who are the players here who have a great chance of making this become real?

Megan Lilly (26:54)
Look, I mean, the ultimate answer is that everyone needs to step up to the plate, which of course is an invitation for nobody to step up to the plate. So moving on from that look, I like to think that at AiGroup here we are showing some leadership on this, because we did the original industry 4.0 advanced apprenticeship with Siemens and others. We are now doing a systems engineering, one with BAE systems, which is their UK model and they're helping them do it here in Australia, starting hopefully next year with Vic Uni. But that also, they're committed to doing that through their whole supply chain. So that picks up a little bit what Simon was saying about how a big company's got a distinct resource and other advantage so there is actually a model emerging that's beyond the big company.

Megan Lilly (27:41)
And we're also doing one in electrical between trade qualifications and university qualifications, so that one's just soon to unfold. So I think there is some emerging industry leadership, which is absolutely and actually driven by real need in the workplace. Companies don't invent projects, they have a real need. And so we're helping that, but we cannot do this on our own it's hard stuff. And to be ready to work with the system and the sectors takes a lot of knowledge, a lot of perseverance and hope and a lot of goodwill. So we would love to have more collaboration from state governments, commonwealth governments, regulators, any other agencies that are required because it's hard stuff, but it's still worthwhile.

Steve Davis (28:29)
But if I just have my marketing hat on for a second, I know in many industries, if you're trying a new product, sometimes there's a benefit to wait for a big player to come through, educate the marketplace so everyone gets it, and then you can do your marketing of what you bring to the table. In some ways, what you are saying, these bigger companies who are crafting this themselves, once we get some of these happening and bedded down their studies, their case studies, would that make it easier for the system to go, "Ah, yes, we get it. Now we can see how to replicate it." Do you think that is an important part AiGroup and industry itself is bringing to the table.

Megan Lilly (29:12)
I think that is part of it, but that doesn't necessarily remove some of the structural impediments or disincentives that are actually in the system. So unless we move to a more coherent tertiary sector, I think some of those impediments will remain in place. Unless of course we actually fully implement the revised AQF, which would actually start dealing with some of these issues.

Steve Davis (29:34)
You just made Simon raise his finger, Simon?

Simon Walker (29:37)
Well I was anticipating me getting asked that same question and my first thing would've been the AQF Review. It was done, what two and a half, three years ago and as far as I can tell really nothing's happened, and yet it goes to the heart of this whole discussion. So I think that's the first thing that governments could do. And then there are these, if you like institutional constraints, funding and sectoral divides, which are not easy to do. So I certainly couldn't say you could fix this tomorrow, but I think a bit more effort could be made to relax some of those things as well.

Steve Davis (30:14)
Megan Lilly from AiGroup, thank you for joining Vocational Voices.

Megan Lilly (30:18)
My pleasure.

Steve Davis (30:19)
And Simon Walker, NCVER. Thank you.

Simon Walker (30:22)
Thanks, Steve.

Steve Davis (30:25)
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