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Enhancing training advantage for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners

By John Guenther, Melodie Bat, Anne Stephens, Janet Skewes, Bob Boughton, Frances Williamson, Sandra Wooltorton, Melissa Marshall, Anna Dwyer Research report 29 May 2017 978-1-925173-84-0

Description

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in very remote parts of Australia are increasingly participating in vocational education and training (VET); however, completion rates remain low and employment outcomes are not improving. This project identifies how retention and completion can be improved and what other indicators of success are important outcomes of training in remote communities.

Using a case study approach to investigate five unique training programs in remote areas of Australia, the report finds a that range of factors contribute to retention, including:

  • trainer qualities and characteristics of delivery
  • family, personal, community and cultural factors
  • training coordination and support
  • supportive relationships with other students
  • local community ownership of training
  • training that is connected to culture and local knowledge.

A related good practice guide, VET retention in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, has also been produced based on the findings of this report.

Summary

About the research

Across Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have embraced vocational education and training (VET), with participation in VET increasing, particularly at higher qualification levels. This report shines the spotlight on remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learner engagement in, and completion of, vocational education.

The proportion of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners holding VET qualifications is growing and the evidence shows they are engaging in VET in increasing numbers; however, qualification completion rates remain low and employment outcomes are not noticeably improving. Of real concern is that vocational training is not demonstrably translating into employment for many remote community learners.

Key to increasing the translation of training into employment is determining how retention and completion in VET can be improved, in conjunction with identifying how VET can enhance the employability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living in remote communities. Also of importance is understanding the indicators of success — other than completion — and how these can be used to evaluate the outcomes of training in remote communities.

This project focused on providing insight by investigating five unique training programs. Specific sites were selected across remote Australia, each of which was considered to be successful in training and training completions in their respective communities. In each site students, trainers/training providers, employers, job service providers, community organisations and cultural advisors were interviewed to gain a wide range of perspectives on the factors that contribute to retention in training programs, as well as the indicators of successful training.

Key messages

  • Factors identified that contribute to retention include:
    • trainer factors such as trainer qualities and the characteristics of delivery that helped learners stay on track
    • family and community support, given that family, personal, community and cultural factors were more likely to be inhibitors to completion
    • training coordination and support, which helps learners to remain in the training course; particularly important is communication, administrative support with paperwork, organising transport and sitting and listening to the needs of students
    • relationships with other students, including being a member of a team, having a sense of solidarity, and being part of a tight community of learners.
  • Indicators of successful outcomes from training include:
    • enhanced self-confidence and identity, with students proud of their achievements and trainers seeing the transformational impact of training
    • the development of foundation skills, including literacy and numeracy skills, communication and work-readiness skills
    • the extent of local community ownership with training, which is especially valued when it is connected to aspects of culture and local knowledge
    • training that leads to employment or improved career prospects.

Although there are employment-related advantages to completing courses (such as registration to work as paraprofessionals in health fields), for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners from remote areas, the advantages of training relate to cultural, personal and social transformation, which can be achieved through building local knowledge and cultural resources and local community ownership into training programs.

NCVER has also recently published the report Indigenous VET participation, completion and outcomes: change over the past decade, available on the NCVER Portal.

Dr Craig Fowler
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive Summary

Enhancing training advantage for remote learners

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have notably embraced vocational education and training (VET) in places classified as very remote by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Participation rates are high and qualification holders are increasing as a result of strong participation (Crawford & Biddle 2017; Windley 2017). Despite this strong participation, the employment outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander graduates in very remote parts of Australia remain low. It would seem that training is not translating into employability or employment for many (if not most) learners. One reason for this is completion rates of less than 20% for many courses, meaning there is high attrition. Completion rates are particularly low at Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) certificates I and II. In 2015, completion rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in very remote areas across Australia were 10.6% for certificate I courses and 16.6% for all AQF courses. For participants then, the expectations of training may not be realised, and, for training providers and trainers, the inefficiencies created by non-completion mean that too much attention is placed on attending to the needs of administration rather than on the learners.

Recognising this problem, a team of researchers representing five different institutions from around Australia set out to uncover how training retention and employability could be improved. Drawing on their experience, they identified five programs in their institutions that are considered successful in achieving above-average retention. By studying these case examples, the factors contributing to successful retention could be identified, as well as the approaches that worked. The team also examined quantitative data, available through the National Centre for Vocational Education Research’s (NCVER) VOCSTATS database, to understand the dynamics of participation, retention and completion in very remote parts of Australia.

Research questions and design

The research is built on mixed methods approaches, whereby qualitative data builds on the quantitative analysis obtained from individual case study sites and the regional data obtained from public sources. The qualitative data draw from the five ‘case study’ sites.

We refer to ‘employability’ in the following research questions rather than ‘employment’, partly because the issue of destinations beyond training is outside the original research scope, and partly because it is difficult to track employment outcomes. We recognise that outcomes other than employment may be important for participants. At a national level, however, the need for VET, and even foundational literacy and numeracy skills, to increase productivity is paramount. While recognising the multiple reasons for engagement in training, our research questions explicitly make the connection between training and employability. The project commenced in October 2015 and concluded in October 2016.

Two research questions guided the research:

  • How can retention and completion in post-school training be improved (to improve employability) for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living in remote communities?
  • What indicators of success other than completion (in post-school training courses) would be important for training in remote communities (to improve employability)?

Case study sites

The five case studies and sites were:

  • West Kimberley: the Nulungu Research Institute investigated a case involving ranger training in one community, south of Broome.
  • Northern Territory: Batchelor Institute examined one of its own courses, a health worker training program.
  • Cairns: James Cook University examined the case of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander training college in Cairns that caters for learners from Cape York and has a focus on community service and mental health.
  • Western New South Wales: the University of New England investigated the Literacy for Life Foundation’s ‘Yes I Can’ adult literacy campaign.
  • Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands (northern South Australia): TAFE SA examined an aged care worker training program for Anangu students.

The research project was auspiced through Ninti One Limited. With the exception of the Yes I Can case study, all the programs are accredited VET programs.

The appendix discusses some definitional issues and contains the literature review.

Key findings

While the case study sites were selected because of their apparent high completion rates, we found that retention rates were mixed across the case study sites. The ‘Yes I Can’ campaign recorded a 78% completion rate, while the Cairns-based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander training college recorded 53%. However, the TAFE SA aged care program achieved a 17% completion rate and the Batchelor Institute health worker program achieved just 15%. We were not able to determine the actual Kimberley ranger program completion rate because of changes in providers.

Factors contributing to retention

We found several common factors contributing to retention. Trainer factors were discussed in terms of trainer qualities and the characteristics of delivery that helped learners stay on track. Respondents described the importance of positive relationships with students. Issues categorised as family, personal and cultural barriers were more likely to be inhibitors to completion, with respondents discussing how personal circumstances, cultural obligations, health issues or competing family priorities caused people to drop out. Positive training coordination and support was a factor that helped trainees to remain in courses, despite their personal and family circumstances. In part, this related to communication flow to and from trainers to trainees, but it also included administrative support with paperwork, organising transport, and sitting and listening to the needs of students. Community and family support was a factor that in most cases was helpful to trainees’ progression towards completion, but a lack of family support was, conversely, seen to be an inhibitor. Many trainees talked about family members who had shown the way through previous training and employment, while others explained how elders had actively encouraged participants to stay in the course. Finally, the issue of relationships with other students was reported as a substantial factor across all sites. Respondents discussed the importance of being part of a team, having a sense of solidarity and being part of a tight community of learners, separate but not necessarily disconnected from community and family support.

Indicators of success, other than completion, contributing to employability

Several common themes across the five programs pointed to success. The most frequently cited indicators of success were related to confidence and identity, with, for example, trainees describing being proud of their achievements. Trainers saw the transformational impact of training. The significance of foundation skills was also frequently cited. This included basic literacy and numeracy skills, but it also encompassed work-readiness and employability skills. An important indicator of success for many respondents was the level of local community ownership of a course. Often ownership was connected to aspects of culture and local knowledge: where the learning was mediated by local trainers, in language, ‘on Country’ or for a cultural purpose, training was viewed as being more valuable and ultimately more successful. Funding security was another common theme that resonated with stakeholders across all of the sites. Conversely, where funding for courses was inadequate or uncertain, the likely effects were seen to be negative. Finally, among the common themes, respondents from all sites talked about employment outcomes; that is, training was deemed successful when it led to employment or when it led to improved career prospects.

Summary

All of the programs we investigated were considered to be successful and were highly valued by the institutions running them. However, they did not all meet the criteria we had set for success. Does that mean that those who did not meet our criteria were unsuccessful? The answer to that question could be considered subjective and depends on the definition of success — or benefit — as understood by an individual.

What we can say however is that, if trainers are to increase the advantage gained from training for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners, they probably would not focus on course completions, unless it was an indicator of some other transformative process (such as improved self-confidence or social transformation). That said, for any advantage to be realised, adequate and reliable funding must be available. There are advantages for many in completing courses; for example, only those who have completed health worker or aged care qualifications can register to work as paraprofessionals in their fields. But for many students and their communities, advantages, in terms of positive cultural, personal and social transformation, are not dependent on completion. However, our data confirm unequivocally that benefits for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people increase through local ownership of training and when local knowledge and cultural resources are integrated to facilitate transformative learning.

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