This research offers insights into the options available to individuals as they navigate the VET market. Importantly, this study directly represents the voice of students, asking how their choices were made and whether their choice was sufficiently ‘informed’. The student voice is contrasted with recent literature and data on measures of choice. Implications for policy and practice are explored, as are strategies for improving and broadening choice. The focus here is on examples from Victoria, the first state to initiate market reforms, by means of the Victorian Training Guarantee.
About the research
This research offers new insights into the options available to individuals as they navigate an increasingly complex vocational education and training (VET) system. It explores the extent to which the consumer model of training, aimed at increasing student choice, is changing the dynamics between prospective students and registered training organisations (RTOs). The focus here is on examples from Victoria, the first state to initiate market reforms, by means of the Victorian Training Guarantee.
Importantly, this study directly represents the voice of students, asking how their choices were made as they navigated these new policy settings, and whether their choice, if one existed in the first place, was sufficiently ‘informed’. It explores the drivers influencing student behaviour and their impact on choice of provider and course in a competitive training market. The way in which choice is restricted by the training available locally and labour market needs is also considered. The student voice is contrasted with recent literature and data on measures of choice. Implications for policy and practice are explored, as are strategies for improving and broadening choice.
- The factors that matter most to students are: training location; those offering advice and information (trusted influencers); timetables; fees and affordability; and the perceived quality of the training provider.
- Ultimately, many students have limited control over choice, given that influential factors such as location, timetables, course content and fees are ‘fixed’ — often there is ‘no or very limited’ choice.
- While trusted sources of advice and information are growing and improving, the primary concerns for prospective students relate to information accessibility and whether the information is straightforward, independent and trusted.
- The concept of student choice in VET is a worthy policy aspiration, although the potential problems associated with the concept have not been adequately defined. The choices available to students are not unlimited, and the issue of choice is currently imprecisely measured through the routinely used indicators of numbers of students participating, the reasons (often predefined in surveys) for choosing a provider, and the numbers of RTOs in the system.
While choice is a necessary component of a well-functioning competitive training market, this research suggests that segments of the VET student population lack both access to choice and control over their choice of course and RTO. The findings caution against assuming implausibly direct relationships between the choices made, statistical participation and/or the quantity of choices available, while giving little consideration to the availability of choice, how the choice was made, or the types and quality of choice available in the first place.
Dr Craig Fowler
Managing Director, NCVER
Increasing student choice is one aim of the current market-oriented approach to vocational education and training (VET) in Australia. This research, which aims to enhance understanding of student choice and entitlements to training from the students’ perspective, has collected and analysed data from over 150 students in Victoria on how they make their VET choices and contrasted this with the existing literature on choice and VET measures of choice.
The research addresses three questions:
- What do we know about the concept of choice, as applied in the VET sector, from the existing literature and data?
- From the perspective of the student, what are the main drivers influencing their choice of provider and course?
- How can the current approaches to the measurement of and reporting on VET choice be broadened to reflect more comprehensive outcomes?
The research seeks to improve the evidence base, with a particular emphasis on the student voice, on this increasingly important dimension of the VET sector. In doing so, the research has identified a number of implications for policy, practice and research.
What we know from the literature review and secondary data
Since 2009, the national training systems in Australia have been undergoing significant and ongoing reforms. Student choice has been positioned as the centrepiece of the reform agenda, consistent with broader national reforms to competition policy in Australia.
The concept of student choice in VET is a worthy policy aspiration, although the potential problems associated with the concept have not been identified or adequately addressed. At a system level, training choices appear to be imprecisely and inferentially measured by proxy through routinely used performance indicators (for example, numbers of students participating, reasons for choosing training and numbers of training providers).
What we learn from the primary research
While the centrepiece of recent VET reforms in Australia, unfettered choice is clearly not available to all students, particularly those in regional locations.
Indeed, as this study confirms, an array of factors influence students’ training choices.
- Training location (the ‘where’). Proximity to home is a determining factor. This is a non-choice for many people, but particularly younger people limited by transport and mature-age individuals with family commitments.
- Timing of the training program (the ‘when’): this is the need to adapt preferences and make compromises to fit the availability of offerings, often another determining factor.
- Training program (the ‘what’): students interviewed found the timetabling and content of programs usually to be fairly fixed and required them to adapt their preference to suit the available offerings.
- Relevance of the training program (the ‘why’): this is usually related to employment prospects; however, it varies by market segment (for example, young people may take a ‘taster’ approach and be willing to try out several programs).
- Registered training organisation (the ‘which’): this is often a non-choice for students in non-metropolitan locations, where there may be only limited choice.
- Information (the source of advice on the ‘where’, the ‘when’, the ‘how’, the ‘which’, and the ‘what’): while information availability is expanding and improving, many students have limited control over their choices in VET anyway, as explained above.
In summary, the factors that mattered most to students in this study when making their choices were: locality; trusted influencers (that is, the messenger[s] of information and advice); timetables; fees and affordability; and the perceived quality of the training provider.
Implications for policy and practice
With the growing emphasis on training markets in VET policy in Australia, there will likely be increased interest among policy-makers, practitioners and researchers in understanding the types of decision-making and choices made by students. These findings have implications for how ‘choice’ is understood in the context of VET and, by extension, how the response is constructed and its impact is measured.
From the student’s perspective, there is a clear need for the system to communicate information that is accessible and independent (and trusted), as well as relevant and customised to prospective students. The findings suggest that this information be made relevant through segmentation of student types, while also recognising that many of these categories of students are not well equipped to navigate the complexity of the VET system. Moreover, ultimately, many students may have limited control over the training choices available in their local environment.
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