Transcript of Rationalising VET qualifications: support for a clustered model

3 December 2020

Vocational Voices: Season 5, Episode 4

Rationalising VET qualifications: support for a clustered model

Professor John Buchanan (00:00)
The problem that many people suffer from is this idea that there's a one-to-one correspondence between what qualification one has and the job you get. This is an extremely unhelpful way of thinking. And in fact, when you look at data on people's careers and how they move around. There's only a tiny group of people who you get qualified in one area, build a career in it and stay there. And that's been the case forever. People talk about, in the past, everyone had these fixed careers. That's actually not right. If you look at the data on labour mobility, Australians are actually more mobile in the past than they are today.

Steve Davis (00:44)
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 we're discussing ways of rationalising VET qualifications, possibly through clustering. Our vocational voices today are Simon Walker, Managing Director, NCVER.

Simon Walker (01:07)
Hello Steve.

Steve Davis (01:08)
John Buchanan, Business Information Systems, Business School, the University of Sydney. Hello John?

Professor John Buchanan: (01:13)

Steve Davis (01:14)
And also David Morgan, CEO of Artibus Innovation. Hello David?

David Morgan (01:18)
Hello Steve.

Steve Davis (01:18)
One of the ongoing things within vocational education is the challenge of maintaining relevance between what is being taught and what is needed by industry. Hence, ensuring that students have solid job and career prospects. But what do we do when a qualification is deemed as inappropriate or requires a different context to be useful? Different nations have dealt with this differently and we'll touch on those, but I'd like to start this conversation by turning to you first, John Buchanan and giving you an opportunity to share your message that resonated deeply with attendees of the 'No Frills' conference in 2020. It's the mindset shift between applying gap analysis when reviewing courses and qualifications and moving to one that equips students and VET providers to be equipped to adapt to the inevitability of change. John, could you expand on this for us to get us going in this conversation?

Professor John Buchanan (02:18)
Sure. And look, thanks to the NCVER for organising this event. And I think NCVER's got a great track recording in fostering debate around these issues. And Australia is lucky to have an entity like this. Not many countries do.

Steve Davis (02:33)
Thanks John.

Professor John Buchanan (02:33)
But to answer your special question. Yeah, your direct question. I think a problem that many people suffer from is this idea that there's a one-to-one correspondence between what qualification one has and the job you get. This is an extremely unhelpful way of thinking. In some parts of the labour market that is certainly the case. If you've got a medical degree, you can get a job as a doctor, if you've got a nursing degree, you can get a job as a nurse. But there are very few parts of the labour market that actually operate like that. And in fact, when you look at data on people's careers and how they move around there is very rarely, and there is that only a tiny group of people who get qualified in one area, build a career in it and stay there.

Professor John Buchanan (03:27)
And that's been the case forever. People talk about, in the past, everyone had these fixed careers. That's actually not right. If you look at the data on labour mobility, Australians are actually more mobile in the past than they are today. And so the really interesting question then is, how do qualifications help people handle change. And I led a team of researchers that answered that question directly for the New South Wales Department of Education. We released the results in a paper called, preparing for the best and worst of times. And in a nutshell, we argued that if people either develop the capacity to adapt to change, they've got to have a core domain of expertise where they can learn how to reason, how to cooperate with other people, how to show creativity.

Professor John Buchanan (04:18)
They've got to master those skills in a particular domain. That can be in Maths. It can be in History. It can be in carpentry. It can be in landscape gardening, but they got to have some home domain of expertise, which they can then develop more general skills. And so when we're thinking about qualifications reform, we've got to get away from this idea that we do a projection into the future. We say we're going to need X number of data scientists. Currently, we've only got Y number of say the scientists. So we've got to get, X minus Y number of data scientists created. If you look at something like data science and here we are actually doing a lot of work in lately, people with data science capabilities have computing skills.

Professor John Buchanan (05:05)
They have statistical skills, they have optimisation math skills and they have specific domain expertise in areas where the data science is applied. So you can create a data scientist out of any number of pathways. And so you don't just have... You don't say, let's just train X number or no, whatever the gap was. I said before, you're going train the gap. Can actually look at, how do we give people underlying strengths? Which can then be adapted over time. Now I could talk about this link, but it's only a half hour podcast so I'll be brief.

Steve Davis (05:38)
Thank you, John. Simon, NCVER has published a wealth of material on the rationalisation of qualifications, including some comprehensive reviews of what's happening around the world. Just also to get us going in this conversation, could you perhaps outline the two main options that seem to be most common from this research, the shelving of qualifications that have past their expiration date and this concept of clustering?

Simon Walker (06:05)
Yes, so the research is titled rationalising VET qualifications selected international approaches, and it was a literature review of mainly European countries, but also New Zealand. And you're right. There were two main methods emerged. One of them was just looking at the utilisation of the existing qualifications in those countries and a fairly blunt instrument, which said, well, if there are no enrolments, we don't need the qualification or low enrolments. And to give you a sense of scale, in New Zealand they embarked upon this process using under utilisation as the lens by which they rationalise them.

Simon Walker (06:42)
And in 2011, they had the best part of 5,000 qualifications. And by the time they've gone through a fairly considered and collaborative and consultative process, they're now down to about 900. By comparison, just for context in Australia, we have about 1,600 what we call in use qualifications, but a bit of research we did a couple of years ago showed that 85% of them were concentrated in just 200 of them. And well over 300 had no enrolments and quite a few more, had very few enrolments. So that's one instrument. It's just to look at the utilisation of those qualifications. And of course, if there's no one actually enrolling in them, you'd have to debate whether they need to exist. The other one that's probably emerged in closer to what John was talking about, is the notion of clustering qualifications for a range of occupations. And because John and David will probably talk a bit more about that.

Simon Walker (07:36)
Probably the only thing to add to that is, we looked at a couple of European countries, but the Netherlands gives some good insights. They reduced their number of VET qualifications by 30% and they now have 180 qualifications, but they cover what they call 490 profiles, which is effectively occupation. So you've got one qualification to many occupations. And in addition, they have these optional modules and they've got about 1,000 of those are very similar to our units of competence. And they're the ones that you can add on to those foundational qualifications to give you the specialisations they need in a particular occupation. And I must admit that one appealed if nothing else, for its concise and structured approach to how you might rationalise qualifications.

Steve Davis (08:25)
All right. David, I'd like to come to you now because Artibus is a skills service organisation being commissioned by the Australian government to support the work of two industry reference committees. But I wonder, could we just take one of them, the property services, for example, and describe how you'd see a cluster qualification or pathway qualification working in property services?

David Morgan (08:49)
Sure, perhaps I can quickly pick up on some of the other comments. So, the contrast between construction and property services is something that both fascinates and frustrates us as an SSO. So John's comment about a one-to-one correlation being unhelpful, I completely agree with him. But in an industry such as construction where industrial frameworks and regulatory frameworks have been in place for a long time, that one-to-one correlation is actually very helpful. The property services sector is entirely different to the construction industry. And that perhaps would just give a little bit of context. We use a term of bookending. So the property services industry bookends the construction industry, and it covers a vast array of sectors from building designs, surveying, through the construction process to real estates, security, pest management, waste management. So all of the ancillary services around it.

David Morgan (09:57)
And what is fascinating about it is, it's actually a parody in terms of size to the construction industry and is growing three times faster than the construction industry and its fundamental challenge in this entire debate around rationalisation is that it's data structures don't fit the traditional ABS type models. So, we don't have occupation qualifications that are visible in the property services sector. So strata managers that manage the many millions of properties around Australia don't even exist. The ABS still talks about architectural drafts people, which are now called building designers and have been for 20 odd years. And so we have from a policy setting, which we will lead to, I'm sure in this conversation, not having the right data sitting to inform evidence is a significant challenge. We have for the last three years, been pushing a clustered model of trying to get support for a clustered model.

David Morgan (11:08)
That's in a sense of, as Simon put it a Dutch model of looking at a core set of skills in the property sector and then building lots of modules around it. There are two fundamental drivers or there's a core skill set that everybody in the property services sector have and that's around the auditing of a building against a framework. So we've coined this term, a built environment auditor. And by that, I mean, people in the property service sector, design buildings to national codes of construction, design codes, they assess buildings for fire safety against codes. They assess sustainability, thermal performance, etcetera, against codes. So there's a clustered skill set around the function of auditing and reading standards and codes. The second bit that's massively changing the industry is a concept term from Singapore called integrated digital delivery.

David Morgan (12:18)
So this is where the entire value chain we're building as a digital backbone and all of the service providers in that industry through the construction process, design construction commissioning process access the same digital framework. It has other terms more commonly known in Australia as building information modelling, but it's effectively the delivery of information in a digital framework. So we have been putting a clustered model, what we want to do in the property services sector. We have completely redeveloped their training package. Thankfully, we don't have the issues of low enrolments or no enrolments in construction and property. They're numbers four or nine out of the training packages, so they sit each with property as 128,000 enrolments a year, construction double that.

David Morgan (13:18)
So we have a lot of people doing these qualifications, but the core structure of all of those jobs is morphing into a skill set around auditing massive digital delivery, but then some very specialist skill sets. So we've been trying to create a new qualification model, like the Dutch model that will replace a lot of the other 50 or so other qualifications in the property sector in time, as that one-to-one relationship of real estate become a real estate agent as that model disappears over time. That's what we've been trying to do. I can go on, but let's let the conversation run, perhaps.

Steve Davis (14:10)
You used the term model and it goes to transition to any model can take time. And I note that in New Zealand, their transition took seven plus years. John, would you like to reflect on what David's been talking about? And share your thoughts on the patience that might be required for the Australian system to embrace this new perspective of looking at the VET sector.

Professor John Buchanan (14:37)
Yeah, absolutely. Look, I think a real problem with so called vocational VET reform in the English speaking world is this idea that you can just pull a lever and get a change. Ewart Keep, the English researcher, uses the expression, that the English VET system is the biggest policy train set in the world. And the assumption is you can just pick the tracks apart and reassemble them any way you like. This has been incredibly damaging to the standing and the quality of the VET system in the UK, in Australia and in South Africa. And I think if we're interested in improving quality education and getting quality qualifications, we've got to position ourselves for the long term. And that's not just long-term, time in itself, time is not a healer on its own and equally time is not a solution on its own, it's time for what? And I think the other big thing we've got to do is build trust back in the system. If you don't have trust in the system, qualifications are worthless. The Australian system is a massively low trust system.

Professor John Buchanan (15:48)
It has high degrees of regulations and standards specification because there's no trust in the parties. And there's no trust for good reason, because if you look at the scandals around VET FEE-HELP, the system has fundamental design flaws, and people have tried to over-engineer the regulatory structure to do it. So the answer to your question is, yes, it will take time, but time alone is not enough. We've got to put in place a new regime, which is built around trust and in the work that Leesa Wheelahan and Serena Yu and I did earlier this decade funded by the NCVER, it's that we said, if you're looking at qualifications reform, there are two dimensions. You've got to look at what the domains of expertise are. And that was a beautiful example we heard from the property services sector. An underlying auditing capability in an integrated digital capability.

Professor John Buchanan (16:40)
Identifying those things is hard, that's both a research act, but it's also, and this is our second point, it's a cultural and small political act. You've got to get all the people in the room who are concerned about this stuff. And they've got to go through a process of negotiation reach agreement on what those core domains are. So yes, New Zealand offers as an idea about the timescale, but I think we've also got to learn to have a new way of thinking about who we get in the room, how we involve them and how we build trust on the quals? And if you do that, then I think you're getting on a different path to getting a higher state of vocational education system.

Steve Davis (17:20)
Talking of different paths, I just like to take a different tack now to feed in while we have you all here and look at some concepts that have been put forward by the Foundation for Young Australians. In their report, the new work mindset, they highlight some insights and then seven clusters. And I'll just share a couple of thoughts here, analysis of job ads between 2012 and 2015. So demand for digital skills went up 212% over three years, critical thinking 158%, creativity increased by 65% and presentation skills, 25%. And they make the point that the new work order is here and that a national enterprise skills and career education strategy is urgently needed. That would start in primary school and build throughout high school.

Steve Davis (18:10)
And it would be provided in ways that young people want to learn, give them accurate information about and exposure to where future jobs will exist and the skills to craft and navigate multiple careers, engage students, schools, industry, and parents in co-designing opportunities in and outside the classroom. Now, interestingly, they name seven job clusters pointing out that three have more future than the others. Now the first four are the generators, the artisans, the coordinators and the designers. But the three with the brightest futures, are the informers, the carers and the technologists. Now, how does this feed into this discussion from a VET perspective? I'll start with you John, and then I'll go around the panel.

Professor John Buchanan (18:59)
Yes, look, I'm of course familiar with the Foundation for Young Australians work. And I give them 10 out of 10 for initiative and creativity for thinking about the issues, but 5 out of 10 for actual execution. They have, at the end of their report, a very naive conception of what they call building in the importance of 21st century skills. And they have a very weak appreciation of the importance of what emerging domains of expertise are. Their categories, that's why I gave them 10 out of 10 for initiative, but 5 out of 10 for execution, these are absolutely chaotic categories if you look at how people flow through the labour market. Their work is novel. It builds on the burning glass job vacancy data. It is basically a work of text analytics that is looking for commonality in terms, there are two problems with that.

Professor John Buchanan (20:01)
Job vacancy data is very incomplete. It's not a random sample. And secondly, because there is affinity between words and the use of text analytics doesn't necessarily mean that you're capturing a substantive labour market flow. And so with the New South Wales government, I've done alternative work around clustering, where we use longitudinal data from the Australia at Work dataset, which tracked 8,000 workers over seven years and HILDA, which has tracked around 15,000 workers over about 20 years. And that's a better data set because you can actually look at how people move. And when you do that, we've come up with around 42 clusters and they have more coherence in terms of what's viable. So just to take one of the FYA categories, the artisans, there's a big difference between a chef and a carpenter, but they are all clustered together. That's very close to the old ANZSCO classification of trades worker.

Professor John Buchanan (21:09)
I think if we're looking at clusters. We've got to look at both, what are the potential commonalities in terms of the content of skill as provided by text in job vacancies? But we've also got to look at the reality of flows. What is the actual substantive affinity between jobs as evidenced in how people move between jobs? So that's a long way of answering the question but I simply return to my answer. FYA, good start but poor execution, but that's what you expect in this space. This is hard work. There isn't mature literature on this stuff, and they made a great contribution in kicking off the debate. I think it's important though, that we take the ideas further.

Steve Davis (21:49)
David, your thoughts.

David Morgan (21:51)
I won't score these guys, but I do like their work. I concur with the informers and technologists having the brightest futures. And I guess the example I gave for the built environment auditor, are informers and technologists in a combined package. I suppose a quick comment on the timeframe, yes, this stuff takes a long time. We've been pushing this for three years and have been knocked back on an annual basis, but that doesn't stop us because, let's learn from the kiwis. We've got another four years ago. John made a comment about the number of players in this game. And that, it's a challenge you're trying to push and manage a change process that has a lot of embedded thinking. And I guess vested interests in it.

David Morgan (22:58)
So when we put forward, the built environment auditor we were asked for longitudinal work on enrolment history, why a new qualification's needed, where are the jobs? And of course, none of that data is available. And we're really speculating ends and asking the government to take a calculated risk here, which when driven through a plethora of committee structures is quicksand very quickly. The piece that we continually push and this is why we talk about the built environment, it's the skill sets and clusters and movements of people, the ability of people happens within the broader picture of the built environment. So carpenters become leading hands, become foreman, become developers and work across that sector, they don't jump, on John's example, they don't go from a carpenter to a chef and back and forth.

David Morgan (24:02)
There are a set pattern or not a set pattern, there are patterns around those clusters of skills. And so this is why we believe the VET system needs to actually recognise that this what are called cross sector skills are actually probably better considered as cross value chain, industry value chain skills, not ubiquitous across the entire economy. They become bland to the point of useless. So, yes, I like the new thinking. Like I said, I'm not going to score the Foundation for Young Australians, but that new thinking and a more ballsy approach around recognising the future is I think the challenge that we all need to face up to.

Steve Davis (24:56)
Thank you, David. There is no shortage of interesting ideas hearing from what's been going on overseas, and yet we haven't made this fundamental change in Australia yet. And is it because VET reviews tend to be quite conservative here and tinker around the edges rather than overhauling the whole system. Because I just note, the pilot Digital Skills Organisations is pretty vocal about this right now, advocating for more unaccredited training to meet digital skills needs in a timely manner. What are our prospects? Is it going to be glacial? Have we got the wherewithal, for the appetite for really transformative change? Simon?

Simon Walker (25:38)
Well, first of all, I'd say, I think David would be best placed to answer that question, because he's inside the current bubble and the way the system works today. But I do know that there are plenty of conversations going on about how you might reform the development system of qualifications. And we've done a little bit of work to assist policy makers around a conceptual idea of incorporating what we call unaccredited training in those sorts of areas, where it is highly unlikely, despite any improvements, you'll have a national training system able to keep pace with something that's clearly accelerating faster and faster as we go. So I think with the appropriate quality assurance and that those frameworks clearly understood, we think there is a role for recognising good quality training that may sit outside the formal national training system.

Steve Davis (26:31)
David, your reaction to this? Your prospects for the future of these changes being embraced.

David Morgan (26:38)
Well, I think overhauling the whole system when a system is in process is pretty tricky. We have had many hundreds of thousands of students in process at any one time. And every time we put a new qualification up transition becomes difficult, and so forth. And I think there's a distinct difference between entry level preparation for entry level work versus those in the workforce and how they transition through the workforce. Absolutely, there's a role for shorter sharper training sets, but I guess all of us on the call know that issues such as funding immediately put that into sticky ground.

David Morgan (27:27)
And well, digital skills, certainly in the property services sector are highly contextual. John spoke earlier about data scientists, data analytics in a property setting. Yes, there is a skill set that is possibly akin with work that's done by financial analysts, but it's contextualised to the built environment. So these, pushing a barrow without context around it, without some grounding is... as you said, Steve, lots of great ideas, but that gets John's 5 out of 10 for implementation.

Steve Davis (28:09)
Before I turned to John to bring us home with some closing comments. David, if you were given control of the VET sector today, what would you be prioritising to work on first? And what would you be expecting of stakeholders?

David Morgan (28:24)
I would really like to see a lot more leadership around and create a better collective vision around what it is we're actually trying to do. That's not just moving deck chairs around.

Steve Davis (28:31)
Thank you, David.

David Morgan (28:37)
Sorry, short answer. I would like some more leadership, yeah.

Steve Davis (28:40)
Yes, John, can you bring us home with some closing thoughts on this and what you would be doing if you were given the reigns?

Professor John Buchanan (28:49)
Yeah, sure. Look, I think David's raises some really important points and just to finish up, there is a major choice opening up. Google has gone public. It's said it's going to create a qualification in its core skill set, which people can get in six months. And they are going to treat that as the equivalent of a degree. So the IT firms are positioning themselves pretty aggressively to recast the education landscape. So the vocational education system has to think creatively about how it responds to this. And I think David's last point there is the critical one, where is the collective leadership on this? In the current VET system, we've basically got the training package club and the training package club is very happy with why things are, and it's basically, time's passing them by. So if I was to say, what should we be doing next?

Professor John Buchanan (29:47)
What are the key issues? I think we've really got to put the issue of quality back at the centre of the vocational education and training system. And quality isn't something that you write into a quality framework, quality is embedded in people who trust each other and the skills they're impacting. Absolutely integral to that, they've got to be educators who are respected and resourced, who have the capacity to develop curriculum and pedagogy. These are ideas that have been driven out of the Australian vocational education system since the brace of competency based training. We've got a long way to go before we build up that capability. Secondly, David's point is also the critical one, where is the collective vision? Where are the employers? Where are the people who have these emerging domains of expertise getting a forum? And at the moment, we don't have the sites where we can get these people together.

Professor John Buchanan (30:40)
Now Australia's been in this situation before. In the 1890's, there was a huge economic crisis. At that time, the apprenticeship system was on the verge of collapse. In the US, their apprenticeship system did collapse and never really recovered. In Australia, we developed quite novel ways of responding. We created publicly funded technical education then we created the award system, which created coherence for both developing underpinning knowledge and coherence structure to the labour market. Australia in the past has shown it's got the capacity to build this kind of collective vision. I think it can do so again, but we're going to have to move beyond the training package club vision. And if we explore that big vision, I'm very optimistic about the future.

Steve Davis (31:24)
John, David, Simon, thank you for your insights. And the perspective you've brought to this. Vocational Voices is produced by NCVER, on behalf of the Australian government and state and territory governments with funding provided through the Australian government Department of Education, Skills and Employment. For further information, please visit