Call for a renewed focus on basic literacy and numeracy skills

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On international comparisons, Australian VET graduates underperform on LLN skills

Almost one in five recently graduated Australian VET student’s lacks basic literacy and numeracy skills. Numeracy skills are a particular problem. To put this in an international perspective, our VET graduates do much better on LLN skills than those in the United States, England and Turkey. Australia’s performance is on a par with Canada and Poland, and slightly better than New Zealand.

But here’s the rub – in a host of other nations less than one in ten VET graduates lacks basic LLN skills, including France, Korea and Germany. In Austria and the Netherlands, it’s less than three in a hundred. In comparative terms, too many Australian graduates are underperforming and that has significant implications for their life chances, for social inclusion, for industry, and for economic outcomes.

We can build on VET system strengths to tackle LLN underperformance

The wake up call comes via the Organisation for Economic Development which in late September released Building skills for all in Australia: Policy insights from the Survey of Adult Skills (90 pages). As the title suggests, the report does not simply retail international comparisons. It offers suggestions about what kind of policy and programs Australia could adopt to lift the LLN skills of VET students.

The OECD’s report indicates we are well positioned to make advances in LLN skills, commenting that ‘the Australian skills system has strengths that the country can build on.’ We are not starting from scratch by any means. But we do need to prioritise LLN if we are to make best use of our existing capabilities.

What should we do?

The report’s Executive Summary covers the main changes required, particularly to improve numeracy skills. It’s worth observing some items on the agenda are beyond the direct scope of VET provision. But most items on the OECD’s list are VET-focussed, or could be materially influenced by VET activity. Here’s the VET shortlist:

  • Identify students in post-secondary VET who are at risk of low basic skills and provide targeted initiatives to support them
  • Ensure literacy and numeracy skills are part of the quality criteria in post-secondary VET
  • Encourage post-secondary VET providers to address weak literacy and numeracy skills
  • Use pre-apprenticeships to help those not in employment, education or training to re-enter study and find work.

VET practitioners might look at that list and think ‘but we’re already doing all of that.’ The OECD’s message might be, ‘much more effort required.’ The OECD suggests, for example, that Australia’s VET providers

‘…should be encouraged to address underperformance in basic skills more vigorously and effectively. For example, progress in basic skills made by students in postsecondary VET programmes could be one of the criteria of government funding for institutions offering the corresponding qualifications.’

Call for a renewed focus on basic literacy and numeracy skills | VDC