HERDSA 2012: Connecting with VET

As part of the final session I attended in the general conference, I attended a talk by A/Prof Anne Langworthy and Dr Susan Johns who co-presented a talk on “Why is it important for Higher Education to connect with the VET sector?” As a point of clarification, VET stands for Vocational Education and Training, as I’ve previously mentioned, and is generally concerned with trade qualifications, with some students going on to diplomas and advanced diplomas that may be recognised as some or all of a first-year University course equivalent. If a student starts in a trade and then goes to a certain point, we can then easily accept them into an articulation program.

The Tasmanian context, a small state that is still relatively highly ruralised, provides a challenging backdrop to this work, as less than 18% of school leavers who could go on to University actually do go on to University. Combine this with the highest lower socio-economic status (SES) population by percentage in Australia, and many Tasmanians can be considered to be disadvantaged by both access to and participation in University level studies. Family influence plays a strong part here – many families have no-one in their immediate view who has been to University at all, although VET is slightly more visible.

Among the sobering statistics presented, where that out of a 12 year schooling system, where Year 12 is the most usual pre-requisite to University entry, as a state, the percentage of people 15 years or older who had year 10 schooling or less was 54%. Over half the adult population had not completed secondary schooling, the usual stepping stone to higher education.

The core drivers for this research were the following:

  1. VET pathways are more visible and accessible to low SES/rural students because the entry requirements aren’t necessarily as high and someone in their family might be able to extol the benefits.
  2. There are very low levels of people articulating from VET to Higher Ed – so, few people are going on to the diploma.
  3. There is an overall decline in VET and HE participation.
  4. Even where skills shortages are identified, students aren’t studying in the areas of regional need.
  5. UTAS is partnering with the Tasmanian VET provider Tasmanian Polytechnic and Skills Institute.

An interesting component of this background data is that, while completion rates are dropping for the VET skills, individual module completion rates are still higher than the courses in which the modules sit. In other words, people are likely to finish a module that is of use to them, or an employer, but don’t necessarily see the need of completing the whole course. However, across the board, the real problem is that VET, so often a pathway to higher ed for people who didn’t quite finish skill, is dropping in percentage terms as a pathway to Uni. There has been a steady decline in VET to HE articulation in Tasmania across the last 6 years.

The researchers opted for an evidence based approach to examine those students who had succeeded in articulating from VET to HE, investigating their perceptions and then mapping existing pathways to discover what could be learned. The profile of VET and HE students from the SES/rural areas in Tas are pretty similar although the VET students who did articulate into Uni were less likely to seek pathways that rewarded them with specific credits and were more likely to seek general admission. Given that these targeted articulations, with credit transfer, are supposed to reflect student desire and reward it, or encourage participation in a specific discipline, it appears that these pathways aren’t working as well as they could.

So what are the motivators for those students who do go from VET to Uni? Career and vocational aspirations, increased confidence from doing VET, building on their practical VET basis, the quality and enthusiasm of their VET teachers, the need to bridge over an existing educational hurdle and satisfaction with their progress to date. While participation in VET generally increased a student’s positive attitude to study, the decision to (or not to) articulate often came down to money, time, perceived lack of industry connection and even more transitional assistance.

It’s quite obvious that our students, and industry, can become fixated with the notion of industrial utility – job readiness – and this may be to the detriment to Universities if we are perceived as ivory towers. More Higher Ed participation is excellent for breaking the poverty cycle, developing social inclusion and the VET to Higher Ed nexus offers great benefits in terms of good student outcomes, such as progression and retention, but it’s obvious that people coming from a practice-based area, especially in terms of competency training, are going to need bridging and some understanding to adapt to the University teaching model. Or, of course, our model has to change. (Don’t think I was going to sneak that one past you.)

The authors concluded that bridging was essential. articulation and credit transfer arrangement should be reviewed and that better articulation agreements should be offered in areas of national and regional priority. The cost of going to University, which may appear very small to students who are happy to defer payment, can be an impediment to lower SES participants because, on average, people in these groups can be highly debt averse. The relocation costs and support costs of moving away from a rural community to an urban centre for education is also significant. It’s easy sometimes to forget about how much it costs to live in a city, especially when you deprive someone of their traditional support models.

Of course, that connection to industry is one where students can feel closer when they undertake VET and Universities can earn some disrespect, fairly or not, for being seen to be ivory towers, too far away from industry. If you have no-one in your family who has been to Uni, there’s no advocate for the utility of ‘wasting’ three years of your life not earning money in order to get a better job or future. However, this is yet another driver for good industry partnerships and meaningful relationships between industry, VET and Higher Education.

It’s great to see so much work being down in both understanding and then acting to fix some of the more persistent problems with those people who may never even see a University, unless we’re dynamic and thoughtful in our outreach programs. On a personal note, while Tasmania has the lowest VET to HE conversion, I noticed that South Australia (my home state) has the second lowest and a similar decline. Time, I think, to take some of the lessons learned and apply them in our back yard!

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