Leesa Wheelahan – Professor, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education – University of Toronto
Competency-based training (CBT) has been the model of curriculum in vocational education in Australia since the 1980s. The current model, called training packages, was introduced in 1997. CBT was introduced to align vocational education with the needs of the labour market, to increase the links between jobs and qualifications, and to support people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access vocational education by focusing on what they can do, rather than what they say they know.
Unfortunately, it does none of these things.
Training packages were then and still are a bad model of curriculum that restrict students’ access to the knowledge and skills they need to live productive lives and to support their families and communities. It leads to the fragmentation of work, results in graduates who are supervised workers, and makes students’ access to higher levels of education more difficult.
Training packages comprise units of competency that specify the standards of performance required in the workplace. Units of competency include elements of competency that break down the unit into ‘essential outcomes’; performance criteria to demonstrate achievement of the element; foundation skills (language, literacy, numeracy and employment skills); and, assessment requirements that include ‘performance evidence’, knowledge evidence, and assessment conditions (Community Services & Health Industry Skills Council, 2015a).
The focus is on work as it is now and not as it will be in the future.
This results in ‘[a] rigid backward mapping approach, in which the state of the art on the shop floor is the untouchable starting point for the definition of occupational competencies, leading to routinised job descriptions, in which the proactive and reflective worker is left out’ (Biemans et al. cited in Brockmann, Clarke, Méhaut, & Winch, 2008: 237).
Moreover, CBT contributes to the fragmentation of work and occupations. Rather than start with the notion of the person in the occupation, training packages start with discrete workplace requirements and qualifications are made up of discrete units of competency that are aggregated in this or that way for this or that occupation.
In 2016, only 33% of government funded vocational education graduates worked in the occupation associated with their qualification (NCVER 2017: Table 13). Only 18% of graduates who had a job before undertaking their vocational education qualification were employed in a higher skilled job after their graduation in 2016, and only 44% of those who were unemployed before their training had a job after training (down from 55% in 2007) (NCVER 2017: Table 5).
It is difficult to argue that CBT results in efficiencies by training people for specific workplace tasks or roles when most people will not be employed in those jobs. It is difficult to sustain an argument that VET qualifications directly increase access to higher skilled occupations if this is measured by transition from a lower to a higher skill level, and it is difficult to argue that VET provides access to the labour market for disadvantaged students. Yet these are the narrow purposes of VET qualifications as defined in policy, and these are how they should be measured.
But there is more.
In response to critiques of training packages over the years, there have been efforts to improve the definition of competency, particularly to include theoretical knowledge as a core part of units of competency. However, the theoretical knowledge to be included is defined by the requirements of the specific task, and not by the theoretical system of meaning. For example, the Knowledge Guide for CHC Community Services Training Package states that:
Knowledge evidence specifies what the individual must know in order to safely and effectively perform the work task described in the unit of competency. It is intrinsically linked to performance and like all evidence must be current.” (Community Services & Health Industry Skills Council, 2015b: 6)
By tying knowledge to specific tasks students are only provided with access to contextually specific applications of theoretical knowledge, and not the relationships between concepts that are the definition of theoretical knowledge. And, rather than providing students with access to the applied disciplinary knowledge that underpins occupational practice (as in the professions), they are only provided with contextually specific applications of knowledge. This is because knowledge is delocated from the applied disciplines and tied to specific workplace requirements. Students may be able to associate a contextually specific application of knowledge with a specific context, but it does not help them if they need to select a different application of knowledge, understand why they need to do this and not that, and creatively apply knowledge in new contexts.
Students’ lack of access to theoretical knowledge in vocational education is unjust. It makes it difficult for students to progress to higher skilled jobs and to higher level studies. It also makes it difficult for them to contribute to debates and controversies in their occupation, and in debates in society about what we, as a society, should be like.
It is patronising and simply untrue to assert that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are not able to engage in
abstract theoretical knowledge, or to use this knowledge to think about their lives and their communities.
Teachers who are appropriately qualified and supported by their institutions are able to support the most disadvantaged students through supportive pedagogic practices to engage in high quality learning.
In the mid 1990s I was teaching in community development and justice courses in TAFE, from certificate III to diploma. Many students in the community development course were refugees, and a majority were from non-English speaking backgrounds. In one subject, students were required to write an essay about which theory of community development they most supported and why. One student, a Vietnamese refugee who has spent years in refugee camps, wrote an essay in which she explained that in her heart she was a Marxist, but in her head, she was a liberal, because of her experiences as a refugee. I have never forgotten this essay. I also remember teaching students about feminism and the impact that this had on the lives of younger and older women in the course. Access to knowledge matters, and CBT denies students this access.
Brockmann, Michaela, Clarke, Linda, Méhaut, Philippe, & Winch, Christopher. (2008). Competence-Based Vocational Education and Training (VET): the Cases of England and France in a European Perspective. Vocations and Learning, 1(3), 227-244.
Community Services & Health Industry Skills Council. (2015a). Assessment Strategies Guide for CHC Community Services Training Package.
Community Services & Health Industry Skills Council. (2015b). Knowledge Guide for CHC Community Services Training Package.
National Centre for Vocational Education Research. (2017). Government-funded student outcomes 2016.