Continental or Commonwealth?

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In this latest blog post, ColegauCymru Chief Executive Iestyn Davies, looks again at the old problem of delivering higher level skills in vocational and technical areas. He concludes that as a nation we’re not alone in facing the challenge that values-based and purpose-driven actions and commitments are the key success in transforming post 16 education. 
Attempting to create new ways of delivering technical and vocational skills at a higher level may be a specific challenge for Wales. But as a nation we’re not alone in trying to figure this out. Earlier this month Australia’s National Centre for Vocational Education Research [i] published its latest report and concluded that Integrating VET and HE qualifications is no easy task.

When it comes to technical education, Australia shares many of the same features and characteristics found in Wales and the UK. The sheer size of continent-wide challenge its federal and state administrations puts the discussions we have on skills in Wales, with its alleged long and porous border, into a whole different perspective. It shares a similar education system to the UK and we could refer to their system and ours as the ‘Commonwealth Model’.

The Report’s authors conclude that the concept of integrating vocational and HE qualifications is not new. Indeed, they add that there is “a long history of policies, research projects and reports examining and promoting pathways between the two sectors” [ii]. They also point out very clearly that not all attempts at integration have been successful and as a result they advocate what I would describe as a low ambition model or, as they put it, “less tightly integrated models of integration” that demand less resource. I presume they mean here less money and expertise.

The impediment to effective integration may be what they describe as the binary structure of the post-school education and training landscape in Australia. Again, this is an easily recognisable feature of the Commonwealth Model and one that the recently introduced Bill to create a Commission for Tertiary Education and Research for Wales seeks to replace.

Wales of course isn’t the only part of the Commonwealth Model of post 16 education that is currently considering significant change.
Following the Sainsbury Review in England, it’s fair to say that, and ironically so since Brexit, that the Continental Model of vocational training has never been so popular. The review, as Bill Esmond, Associate Professor Learning and Employment at the University of Derby points out [iii], has had implications for the link between skills providers and employers in England but the implications outside of three areas of T Levels on colleges and universities is still yet to be clear.  
The continental model, if adopted, will impact on the Commonwealth’s binary offer of either FE or university as it is built on a more complex model of delivery of both academic as well as technical education. As Professor Esmond explains, policy choices are complex and driven by a range of competing and intertwined expectations as well as values that often go far beyond the specific policy area in question. Anyone familiar with the arguments around ‘parity of esteem’ will be familiar with this enduring challenge.

When it comes to the future of post 16 planning, funding and quality assurance in Wales, choosing either of the established models of provision won’t necessarily make a success of the proposed Commission for Tertiary Education and Research. Its success will call for a new way of thinking and, importantly, a new way of acting and putting policy into practice. The Australian report pointed to requirements to achieve this. They are:

  • adequate provision of resources and expertise  
  • high trust between, and support from within, integrating institutions 
  • formal collaboration of teaching teams across institutions 
  • geographically close provision of both VET and HE elements 
  • industry and employer support and recognition of both the VET and HE components of integrated qualifications 
  • typical patterns of student study and employment, which make study of VET and HE components feasible over the longer-term 

These are of course essentially values-based and purpose-driven actions or commitments. Most can be delivered or made and certainly encouraged by government.

Within the limited time and scope available to the Senedd to offer scrutiny of the Bill they form a useful line of questioning alongside the nine stated purposes of the Commission itself. However, before the wax is even dry on the seal of Royal Assent both FEIs, as the majority providers of vocational training, and universities must demonstrate that they have the commitment and, above all, the imagination to look beyond current models - be that continental or Commonwealth.   

[i] National Centre for Vocational Education Research - Informing and influencing the Australian VET sector accessed 25th November 2021
[ii] Hodge and Knight (2021) The best of both worlds? Integrating VET and higher education – support document accessed 25th November 2021
[iii] Bill Esmond (2019) Continental selections? Institutional actors and market mechanisms in post-16 education in England, Research in Post-Compulsory Education in England, 24:2-3, 311-330


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