Valuing VET in the bush

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Educational success may look different in regional Australia

Demand-driven higher education funding was introduced in 2012. All eyes have since been on the university sector’s role in increasing the proportion of young people with tertiary education A recent report from Curtin University’s National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) might give us pause to ask whether for young people in rural and remote Australia in particular, we have put too many eggs in one basket.

The title of the NCSEHE’s report is Successful outcomes for regional and remote students in Australian higher education: Issues, challenges, opportunities and recommendations (19 pages). It points out the national goal of increasing the proportion of young Australians with higher education degrees has met with considerable success. The number of undergraduate students increased by 34.7 per cent between 2008 and 2015.

Benefits are eluding regional and remote Australia

That policy goal has served to lift higher education participation for underrepresented groups. But one group has not experienced comparable increases. NCSEHE’s report notes:

‘Regional student representation fell from 19.0 per cent in 2008 to 18.8 per cent in 2015, and remote students’ representation fell from 1.0 per cent to 0.9 per cent.’

The report is a nuanced, thoughtful analysis of motivators for, and barriers to, higher education participation for rural and remote young people. It’s worth reading in full. This article concentrates on a couple of the report’s propositions about the VET sector.

There’s a need to consider regional and remote students as part of their communities, and as playing a role in the future of their communities. Demand-driven higher education delivers unbalanced outcomes. It draws young people away from home, and prepares them with a knowledge and skills base for which there is limited demand in regional communities. They tend to stay away. Those who stay at home less often participate in higher education.

The need for a ‘parallel and equal VET sector’

VET offers part of the answer, in inner cities as much as outback. There’s a problem though: a persistent mindset that a university qualification is ‘better’ than a VET qualification. In reality, a VET qualification for many young people in the bush might be more useful, personally and collectively, than a university degree. The report puts it well:

‘While many businesses and industries in regional Australia require university education, many regional jobs are focused on practical and hands-on skills, which a well-funded forward-looking VET course may be better placed to provide than university.’

The NCSEHE’s report goes on to say:

‘High university attendance by regional students isn’t always the right indicator of success. What works in skills development and what is relevant to shaping the lives of people in regional Australia is what matters most.’

To put in place what works and what’s relevant, the report suggests we need a ‘parallel and equal VET sector.’ Young regional and remote Australians, and their communities, will be better served if we ‘harmonise’ rather than separate VET and higher education. Both have a role in responding to local needs and local definitions of successful educational outcomes.

Valuing VET in the bush | VDC