Misunderstanding Vocational Education Diminishes Innovation Effort

As published in Australia’s Nobel Laureates Vol III: State of Our Innovation Nation: 2021 and Beyond
One Mandate Group, 2020

By Craig Robertson

June 2021

Rote, competency-based learning will always be playing catch-up to the present, and desperately behind the future innovation skills Australia needs to build to drive prosperity.
Craig Robertson, CEO, TAFE Directors Australia, and Chair, World Federation of Colleges and Polytechnics, calls for a refocus of how training is delivered in Australia.

The near drowning on the Ohio River in 1831 of the French aristocrat and social scientist, Alexis de Tocqueville tells something about America’s success in innovation and why Australia struggles.

Around midnight on November 26 his vessel struck a sand bar and sank suddenly, drowning some, although Tocqueville survived. He was on his discovery tour of the great American experiment with democracy and equality. Concerned at the shoddy shipbuilding, which was a large part of the cause of deaths, he asked the ship owners why. They told him that the steady supply of new craft made it unprofitable to worry about the present. A healthy protestant belief of a better tomorrow added to this innovation spirit and the dream of something better around the bend.

This tells a story about vocational education and innovation policy in Australia. Structural deficiencies on the one hand, and on the other, back casted skills development, which is the anathema to innovation. There have been chances for reset but they have failed.

The Cutler review gave the intellectual underpinning for education and training input to innovation.

A highly-skilled workforce is essential not only for the generation and application of new knowledge, but also to use and adopt the knowledge produced elsewhere.

Cutler was commissioned by the Rudd Government to examine the role of innovation as the next source of productivity surge. Industry cheered as it had been staring down extended periods of flat productivity, especially multi-factor productivity.

While much was expected of the report in the important areas of human capital it deferred to COAG processes and the Bradley review of Higher Education for the necessary design to support innovation. The rest is history, as they say. Taming the rapid growth of university bachelor places from the demand driven funding system implemented at the behest of Bradley has focused the mind of federal governments since and the mess in vocational education and training resulting from marketisation strategies had all governments cleaning it up.

On elevation to Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull turned to the ideas boom through the National Innovation and Science Agenda. Again, it identified talent and skills as the building block of innovation but failed to mention vocational education and training, riling many in the sector considering those functions had been in the responsible portfolio less than six months prior.

At least the sector was mentioned in Australia 2030, the priorities identified by Innovation and Science Australia, the body established by Turnbull to guide the nation’s approach to innovation. In the vital area of skills and talent it said ‘Australia’s vocational education and training system can be made responsive to the new priorities presented by innovation.’ Recognition at least, but a rank disregard for the role it could play, confirmed by the Government simply noting the recommendation in its response. Insiders will know, ‘noting’ is a signal of disinterest at best.

These are opportunities lost almost entirely from misunderstanding of the basics of innovation. Much written about innovation in Australia starts with its research structures and funding, then laments the poor state of STEM education and lands on R&D tax concessions to encourage industry on the innovation journey. Australia’s annual innovation report is hardly encouraging. It reported:

Australia’s Vocational, Education and Training (VET) sector was recognised as an underused resource, with challenges identified in ensuring VET training packages remained relevant to industry needs.¹

Innovation is far more than the linear journey starting with science. Helinä Melkas and Vesa Harmaakorpi in their book -Practice-Based Innovation: Insights, Applications and Policy Implications – offer other forms of economic order and origins of innovation. The focus on science and clusters as the source of innovation clouds the potential for practice-based innovation. They work from a practice-based approach to innovation operating at the interaction between the two sub-systems of innovation – acquisition and assimilation of knowledge and transformation and exploitation of knowledge.

Lundvall² uses the term practice-based innovation policy, or DUI – doing, using interacting as the other end of the continuum to science and technology-based innovation, or STI. While this field of enquiry is young, intuitively it rings true and is validated by the OECD view on innovation.

The OECD’s OSLO manual for measuring innovation takes a DUI position in describing four types of innovation within the firm.

Innovation Types Sub-components



Knowledge capturing goods and services












Table 3.2 OECD OSLO Manual 2018³

These components are the natural home of vocational education, however, structural failure holds it back.

The purpose of VET in Australia is described variously but inevitably comes down in most public pronouncements to preparing people for work. The Government’s response to Australia 2030 tells the story – the VET sector has a critical role to play by assisting Australians to acquire new skills, enabling them to respond as the jobs market evolves throughout their working lives⁴. The sector’s focus on competency outcomes is the limiting factor.

The competency model has been in place for over 30 years in Australia and has its roots in a behaviourist approach to education. Outcomes are defined by occupation by industry and assessed as demonstrated tasks. They can only describe known tasks within current technologies and business and production models. As qualifications take time to be develop and agreed for national application through elaborate centralised structures the tasks are often out of date.

The outcomes-based education is defended as the source of flexibility – training design can respond to the needs of the client. This collapses in the wake of diminishing public funding within a contestable market. It is all too easy for providers to aim for the ‘outcome’ and cut delivery corners. Inputs central to quality, such as curriculum and teaching are often sacrificed.

Ultimately, the collateral damage is knowledge and knowledge transfer. VET qualifications simply list knowledge ‘as unproblematised concepts that have been decontextualised from disciplinary systems of meaning’⁵ according to Leesa Wheelahan, a long-term critic of the competency model in Australia.

Qualification and curriculum policies are structural elements of the sector and should be seen as major levers for transforming vocational education. Intransigencies and the misunderstanding of the role it should be playing in innovation, is holding back Australia.

DUI brings experts from all fields together at the firm level in joint problem-solving. The skilled practitioners equipped by the VET sector play just as important a role than the scientist and the manager. Australian has benefited from good vocational education to date, but it’s at risk of redundancy in an innovation rich and digitally driven world.

Even on the cusp of economic rebound from COVID the sector is identified as a key lever for recovery, but there’s no focus on the nature and purpose of the vocational education effort. The attitude toward vocational education needs changing as does its qualifications if it is to deliver on innovation through transformation and exploitation of knowledge.

The last word is best left with Cutler.

The other great cultural divide is between the realm of the conceptual, the intellectual, and the artisan and craftsman. The role of crafts and trades in innovation has been massively neglected, particularly in the important areas of continuing incremental innovation in the workplace. Often major breakthroughs come from seemingly little ideas or insights arising from hands-on engagement, and from learning by doing. There is a tendency to forget that much of the scientific progress since the Renaissance has depended on the innovative development of new tools and instrumentation.⁶

We can only hope that public policy will reprise his input and government, industry and the sector itself transforms structures and attitudes to enliven a spirit of innovation in Australia much like Tocqueville observed all those years ago in America.

¹Australian Innovation System Report – https://publications.industry.gov.au/publications/australianinnovationsystemreport2017/documents/australian-innovation-system-report-2017.pdf

²Lundvall, Bengt-Åke, 2007 Innovation System Research and Policy Where it came from and where it might go

³Table 3.2 https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/9789264304604-en.pdf?expires=1593480363&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=E550343718D57C16177CBBD54DE1330B

⁴ https://www.industry.gov.au/data-and-publications/government-response-to-innovation-and-science-australias-australia-2030-prosperity-through-innovation-report

⁵Wheelahan, Leesa Vocational qualifications and access to knowledge, in Knowledge and Identity, Concepts and Applications of Bernstein’s Sociology, 2010 Routledge

⁶P48, Venturous Australia: building strength in innovation [Cutler review] –https://www.voced.edu.au/content/ngv%3A12472

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