Chris Johnston reports on attitudes to lifelong learning in the first of a two-part series on the vocational education sector in Australia.
WITH less than two months to go before the 2000 Olympic Games commence, the thousands of athletes preparing to gather in Sydney are feverishly training and basking in the glory of being the best in the world.
Facing a less sporting but equally daunting task were the 1,000 delegates gathered in Melbourne earlier this month. They were discussing how to revolutionise Australia's 1.5 million student vocational education and training (VET) sector.
The sector comprises technical and further education colleges - the equivalent of Britain's FE colleges - as well as a growing number of private providers.
Delegates at the Australian National Training Authority's national conference heard how the sector is still moving away from prescriptive curricula set by the TAFE systems in each state, to allowing industry to decide on the competencies that the new "training packages" should contain.
As well as transforming both the system and the content, Moira Scollay, the authority's chief executive officer, said structured, portable qualifications-based training is being introduced into fields such as retailing, community services and health and the arts.
By the end of next year, 85 per cent of Australian industry will be covered by this system.
This "absolutely fundamental change" has been made possible by the creation of the Australian Qualifications Framework, a national system incorporating all recognised qualifications in post-compulsory education.
"Getting the VET industry to adapt to an outcomes, client-based focus, as opposed to an input, supply-driven curriculum-based focus is a really, really big change," Ms Scollay said.
As part of this revolution, the authority has commissioned what she described as world-leading research into the attitudes towards lifelong learning of 4,000 Australian learners and 250 employers.
Twenty-one per cent are "passionate learners", 17 per cent are classed as "learn to earn", 16 per cent want learning to be easier, 14 per cent are "done with it" and 8 per cent say "forget it".
The last two categories Ms Scollay said mainly comprise middle-age working-class men - a group the sector needs to reach. "There are huge barriers between them and the Chardonnay set who they feel have got it all, and they are being increasingly alienated and left behind," she said.
Those whowant learning to be easier - older women, the disabled and indigenous Australians - face many barrierswhich the authority is attempting to break down.
The research has also led to the targeting of the 7 per cent who "might give it away" - mainly 16 to 24-year-olds disaffected with learning. Ms Scollay said this group will be scrutinised in an attempt to catch them before they drop out of education.
While A$500,000 (pound;200,000) will go on an advertising campaign aimed at this group, $1.5 million will be spent on a similar exercise for the so-called "here-and-now" employer segment.
While about one third of employers value their workers doing any type of training, a second group is interested in employees gaining only the skills needed to do their jobs. The authority wants to persuade these employers of the value of other types of training for their workers.
"Individuals now need their portable, transferable portfolio of skills to market themselves to different employers," Ms Scollay said.
The third group of employers, made up mainly of small businesses, is not interested in training and it will be difficult to convince them otherwise said Ms Scollay.
The authority has done much to modernise the Australian VET sector since it began operating in 1994, but there is clearly a lot of work still to do.
The authority's research has revealed that taking a TAFE course, for example, is the public's third option after university study and informal learning.
As a result, the authority is devising ways to recognise prior learning in a systematic way, which Ms Scollay said is vital to switch people on to learning and gaining qualifications.
The fact that each state operates separate TAFE systems can cause some difficulties in reaching agreements, but she said the arrangement lets each system respond to local needs.
While states such as Queensland and Victoria have to some extent emulated the British model of competition between colleges, New South Wales and South Australia remained centrally-controlled systems.
Earlier this month the nation's state education ministers and their federal counterpart, Dr David Kemp, agreed to set up the National Training Quality Council to monitor providers.
More than $8.5 billion (pound;3.3 billion) is spent on the VET sector, almost as much as the bill for universities. Demand is expected to increase by 16 per cent over the next five years.
Australian National Training Authority: www.anta.gov.au