Adult language, literacy, numeracy, and digital skills as well as employability skills (e.g, collaboration, problem solving) often referred to as foundation skills—are key ingredients that help people get a job, remain employed, look after their mental and physical health, and participate in their community. The role of VET in helping people develop these skills is of interest. Using Total VET Activity and National Student Outcome Survey data this research explores the enrolment paths, program completions and employment and further study outcomes of learners who had enrolled in nationally recognised foundation skills programs between 2016 – 2019. The research highlights the complex enrolment journeys foundation skills learners take through VET.
About the research
Adult language, literacy, numeracy and digital skills (LLND), and employability skills (for example, collaboration, problem-solving and self-management) — often referred to as foundation skills — are key skills that: assist people to get a job and remain employed, look after their mental and physical health, and help them to participate in their community. The role of vocational education and training (VET) in assisting individuals to develop or improve these skills is of interest.
The aim of this exploratory research was to learn more about those who undertake nationally recognised foundation skills programs after school and to investigate their training and employment outcomes. A key aspect of this research involved using the unique student identifier to track learners’ pathways through VET based on the learner’s enrolment status in a defined list of LLND and employment skills programs between 2016 and 2019. In doing so, the research identified four distinct groups of foundation skills learners, with each having varying student, program and provider characteristics:
- ‘foundation skills only’ learners, who enrolled in an LLND or employment skills program in 2016 and only enrolled in LLND or employment skills programs subsequently
- ‘foundation skills followed by other VET’ learners, who enrolled in an LLND or employment skills program in 2016 and enrolled in other VET programs in subsequent years
- ‘foundation skills and other VET concurrently’ learners, who enrolled in an LLND or employment skills program and another VET program concurrently in 2016
- ‘other VET followed by foundation skills’ learners, who enrolled in a VET program in 2016 (not LLND or employment skills) and enrolled in an LLND or employment skills program in subsequent years.
- Foundation skills learners often embark on complex journeys through the VET system, with these involving multiple enrolments in LLND or employment skills programs and, in many cases, other VET programs.
- Learners who enrol in foundation skills programs in some combination with other VET programs are more likely to complete any nationally recognised VET program than those who only enrol in foundation skills programs.
- Learners who complete a foundation skills qualification have poorer employment outcomes than their non-foundation skills qualification completer peers. This is not to say the training is not beneficial. For example, the foundation skills qualification completers who were employed after training were significantly more likely than their non-foundation skills peers to indicate that they found the training relevant to their current job.
- There are a broad range of reasons why learners enrol in foundation skills programs: understanding their underlying intention or motivation for enrolling must also be considered when gauging a program’s success or otherwise.
Adult language, literacy, numeracy and digital skills (LLND) and employability skills (for example, collaboration, problem-solving and self-management) — collectively often referred to as foundation skills — are essential ingredients for greater social engagement, as well as for workforce participation and productivity (Skills Australia 2010). For some time national and international research has demonstrated the relationship between increased proficiency in literacy and numeracy and positive outcomes for individuals, communities and the economy (for example, Balatti, Black & Falk 2006; Clark & Dugdale 2008; Earle 2010; O’Dwyer & Mihelic 2021; OECD 2021; Schwerdt, Wiederhold & Murray 2020; Shomos & Forbes 2014).
The need for individuals to build and develop these skills is becoming even more important, with the continuing growth in the use of technology in the workplace causing a shift away from low-skill work (Payton 2017). Data from the 2011—12 Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) show that between 10% and 16% of employed 15 to 64-year-old Australians at that time had literacy and numeracy skills assessed as being at a level that may have impacted on their ability to fully participate and function in a technologically advanced economy (ABS 2013a). Further, approximately 13% of 15 to 64-year-olds who were employed at that time were assessed as having low levels of digital literacy, while around 18% of employed people were unable to have their digital literacy proficiency classified at all (that is, people with no computer experience, those who opted out of computer-based assessment and those who failed the information and communication technology task; ABS 2013b).
For individuals, the relationship between LLND skill proficiency and employment is particularly clear. For example, PIAAC data show that around 82% of all working-age Australians assessed at proficiency Level 4 or 5 (the highest levels) in literacy were employed (either full-time or part-time) compared with the approximately 56% of working-age Australians assessed as having literacy proficiency at or below Level 1 (ABS 2013a). Schwerdt, Wiederhold and Murray (2020) suggested that the proportion of adults with low levels of literacy skill can have a greater impact on economic growth rates than the proportion of adults with high literacy proficiency.
The need to assist people to improve their foundation skills is recognised by national and state and territory education and training policy, which supports training in these areas. Indeed, one of the priorities agreed upon by all Australian governments in the current Heads of Agreement for Skills Reform is the provision of ‘stronger support for foundation skills and ensuring access for all Australians with low levels of language, literacy, numeracy, and digital literacy’ (Department of Premier & Cabinet 2020, p.2).
In April 2022, to assist in the realisation of this priority, the (draft) National Foundation Skills Framework 2022—32 was released. Its vision is for Australian adults to have access to quality education and training to enable them to ‘continuously develop the foundation skills they need to actively and confidently participate in the economy and community’. This high-level framework allows for the states and territories, and the educational sectors, to align their priorities against the national goals outlined within it. These include increased engagement in further education and/or training and increased employment outcomes.
There is no question that investigating and measuring the impact of foundation skills programs on the employment and further study outcomes of learners is important; this was the original intention of this project. However, as we embarked on this research, it became apparent that it was equally important to gain a better understanding of the learning journeys individuals take on their way to developing these skills. As such, the questions that guided our research were:
- What are the course, provider and socio-demographic characteristics of those undertaking nationally recognised LLND and employment skills programs?
- What are the movements of foundation skills students within the VET system? That is, what does their journey through VET look like?
- What are the completion patterns of those who undertake foundation skills programs?
- Which socio-demographic characteristics of the student are associated with completing a nationally recognised VET program (LLND or employment skills or other VET)?
- What are the further study and employment outcomes of those who undertake foundation skills training?
Our research was exploratory in nature. Using total VET activity (TVA) data at the unit record level, we applied a quantitative cohort-based approach to investigating patterns in pathways through VET for the students who had enrolled in a defined list of foundation skills programs. The estimates derived from the National Student Outcomes Survey were also explored to understand outcomes following training for the students who had completed a qualification, as well as the reasons for discontinuing training for those who had only partly completed.
The nationally recognised foundation skills programs investigated were limited to an agreed list of fields of education and qualification levels within the research scope and are detailed in the body of the report. The period of analysis was limited to 2016 to 2019, which covered the first full year after the implementation of the unique student identifier (USI), in 2015, to the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020. It is important to note that the period of analysis does not represent a definitive commencing/completing period but rather a window of time. This being the case, learners could be enrolled in a nationally recognised VET program prior to 2016 and could go on to complete their program(s) after 2019. Our unit of analysis was students with a valid USI and with at least one nationally recognised LLND or employment skills program enrolment during the period 2016 to 2019 and at least one nationally recognised program enrolment (any LLND or employment skills or other VET program) in 2016.
The focus here on nationally recognised foundation skills programs does not diminish the role and import of non-nationally recognised or pre-accredited foundation skills programs in developing the skills of learners.
Describing foundation skills learners
The scope of the study was 145 540 students and 408 865 enrolments in nationally recognised VET programs, including 228 640 enrolments in foundation skills programs, over the period 2016 to 2019.
Key student characteristics
- Just over half of the students enrolled in LLND programs were born in countries other than Australia (52.4%), with similar proportions of students indicating English either was (45.8%) or was not (46.7%) the main language spoken at home.
- For students enrolled in employment skills programs, around 71.4% were born in Australia, with a similar proportion indicating that English was the main language spoken at home.
- Higher proportions of Indigenous students (15.0% vs 6.8%) or those with disability (37.7% vs 13.9%) were enrolled in employment skills programs by comparison with those in LLND programs.
- Higher proportions of students enrolled in employment skills programs lived in regional or remote areas by comparison with students enrolled in LLND programs (40.3% vs 27.3%), while the majority of LLND students lived in major cities (71.0% vs 59.0%).
Key program and provider characteristics
- The majority of enrolments in employment skills programs were government-funded, certificate I, accredited qualifications and undertaken with a TAFE (technical and further education) institute. For LLND program enrolments, the pattern was not as distinct, likely reflecting the broader range of programs captured under this category.
- Two-thirds of LLND program enrolments were with TAFE and were either at the certificate I or certificate II level. Almost 60% of LLND program enrolments were accredited qualifications, with approximately one-fifth being in accredited courses and a similar proportion in training package qualifications.
The journey of foundation skills learners through VET
To explore the movement, or journey, of foundation skills learners through VET, we mapped learner enrolments between 2016 and 2019, using the USI as the base linking key across collection years. The focus here was on enrolment activity rather than completions, which were examined later. The mapping exercise resulted in the identification of four major foundation skills learner groups, which themselves were a high-level representation of the many enrolment pathways undertaken by these learners. (These are detailed in appendix B). The four major learner groups were:
- ‘Foundation skills only’ learners, who enrolled in an LLND or employment skills program in 2016 and only enrolled in LLND or employment skills programs subsequently. This group represented 40.7% of students in 2016.
- ‘Foundation skills followed by other VET’ learners, who enrolled in an LLND or employment skills program in 2016 and enrolled in other VET programs in subsequent years. This group represented 13.6% of students in 2016.
- ‘Foundation skills and other VET concurrently’ learners, who enrolled in an LLND or employment skills program and another VET program concurrently in 2016. This group represented 27.4% of students in 2016.
- ‘Other VET followed by foundation skills’ learners, who enrolled in a VET program in 2016 (not LLND or employment skills) and enrolled in an LLND or employment skills program in subsequent years. This group represented 18.3% of students in 2016.
Each of these groups varied in their student, course and provider characteristics, which, along with myriad enrolment pathways, demonstrates the complexity and diversity of learners and their learning choices.
Following our exploration of the enrolment journeys of foundation skills learners, we then turned our attention to identifying, in each of the four learner groups, which of their in-scope programs had recorded a completion outcome in the 2016—19 analysis window. The following are the key results:
- Approximately half (52.7%) of all foundation skills learners had completed a nationally recognised VET program by the end of 2019, either an LLND or employment skills program or other VET program.
- Focusing on the four learner groups, we found that almost a third of the ‘Foundation skills only’ learners had completed a nationally recognised VET program within the period of analysis. This compares with around 60%—70% of foundation skills learners who had also enrolled in other VET programs.
Further study and employment outcomes of foundation skills learners
For this component of the research, a linked dataset was generated using total VET activity and data from the 2020 National Student Outcomes Survey. Propensity score weighting was applied to set up control groups against which to compare the foundation skills qualification completers and part-completers. When we looked at a range of indicators relating to employment and further study outcomes as well as satisfaction with and benefits from the training, we found:
- Foundation skills qualification completers had poorer employment outcomes compared with their non-foundation skills qualification completer peers and they were less likely to recommend either the training they had undertaken or the provider.
- Foundation skills qualification completers who were employed after training were, however, significantly more likely than their non-foundation skills peers to indicate that they found the training relevant to their current job.
- Foundation skills qualification completers and part-completers were significantly more likely to indicate that their writing and numerical skills had improved following the training. This finding provides a degree of validation for the purpose of foundation skills programs.
While this research found the employment outcomes of foundation skills learners were not as good as those of their non-foundation skills peers, this does not mean the training was not beneficial. A narrow focus on post-training outcome measures as indicators of success, risks ignoring the full range of reasons why learners may be undertaking foundation skills training. Understanding their underlying intention or motivation for enrolling is important. For some learners, getting a job may not be the goal; instead, their intention may be to improve their English language skills or their numeracy skills, enabling them to more confidently engage with their community. Similarly, not all learners are looking to complete a full qualification. It may be that improving in specific skills and having the ability to apply those skills is the outcome the learner wanted. Our analysis of data from the 2020 National Student Outcomes Survey indicated that almost 40% of foundation skills qualification part-completers did not complete training for personal reasons, compared with 24% of their non-foundation skills peers, a finding that reinforces the importance of understanding learner intention and exploring reasons for non-completion.
This research also shows that learners who enrol in foundation skills programs in some combination with other VET programs are more likely to complete any VET program than learners who only enrol in foundation skills programs.Further research is warranted therefore to investigate the relationship between learner intentions and outcomes to determine what more can be done to assist particularly ‘foundation skills only’ learners, who do intend to complete, achieve their goal. For example, a more comprehensive examination of the total VET activity data could illuminate systemic patterns in learner and course characteristics, specifically those that signal a likelihood of disengaging with VET before completing a program.
In closing, from a methodological point of view, this research is important as it is the first to explore a learner’s movements through VET by means of the unique student identifier. We are now presented with the opportunity to further refine the methodological approach applied here and to broaden the application to explore the journeys of other learner cohorts through VET.
 For literacy, 9.8% of employed 15 to 64-year-olds were assessed at Level 1 or below, where Level 5 is the highest level; for numeracy, 15.9% of employed 15 to 64-year-olds were assessed at this level.
 Employed persons aged 15—64 years assessed as being at below Level 1 on the ‘Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments’ measure, where Level 3 is the highest level.
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