Vocational Education and Training (VET) helps people grow personally and professionally, and provides a range of skilled workers for every industry. The majority of VET graduates report at least one job-related benefit and/or have an improved employment status after training, such as getting a job or a raise.
Study can also bring benefits related to personal development and confidence or self-esteem. Reducing educational inequality requires that all that VET can offer be available to the full range of students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds who may gain the most.
Who are the disadvantaged students subject to educational inequality? Geographic location can be a source of disadvantage, also known as postcode inequality. In 2016, an estimated 1.2 million VET students were in inner or outer regional areas, in addition to around 115,000 students in remote or very remote areas.
Disadvantage can also arise from socioeconomic inequality, and in 2016 more than 777,000 VET students were in the most disadvantaged socioeconomic quintile (19% of all VET students). These are two possible disadvantages, yet there are more. Students can also be disadvantaged in multiple ways, adding layers of complexity to the task of providing the equitable access to the best possible learning opportunities.
The recent report from the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education acknowledges the unique issues regional, rural and remote students face. A key priority set out is increasing the "availability, accessibility and affordability" of VET courses for remote, regional and rural students. The report also recommends allocating greater support for accommodation, travel and day-to-day living expenses for these students to sustain successful transitions from school to post-school education.
Restricted availability, accessibility and affordability are key limitations facing a range of disadvantaged students interested in VET. Students have reported having only one provider in their local area; essentially having no choice of provider. Remote, regional and rural students may be limited to providers existing in their locality and can choose only the courses, timetable and manner of delivery these providers supply. Students have spoken of preferring to study part-time yet having to undertake full-time study due to the restricted options available locally.
Similar issues with constraints to availability are no doubt faced by other students, who all must try and navigate the system to find a study program that is geographically, financially, educationally and culturally appropriate. Students also mentioned difficulties in reaching the study providers they do choose, with long public transport journeys inevitable for some students. There is then the accessibility of the course work itself, with literacy and numeracy an issue for some disadvantaged learners.
The affordability of VET programs is a topic of ongoing discussion and is central to the decisions many students make. Disadvantaged groups such as those from low socioeconomic backgrounds or who have left school early often struggle with not only the up-front costs of a VET course, but with having to support themselves while studying. VET providers may use flexible funding and provide financial advice services to assist students and explain financial options, but this is not necessarily enough to reduce student disadvantage.
However, the VET system and providers are not wholly failing disadvantaged students. Whole-of-institution commitment is a key strategy by those providers succeeding in supporting disadvantaged students to both start and complete their studies. When a VET provider has an institution-wide practice dedicated to engaging and supporting disadvantaged students, it removes the burden on individual staff to act as all-in-one support workers. This style of support for disadvantaged students involves an institution and staff meeting them at the ‘door’ to their studies and proactively providing them with learning support, rather than waiting for signs they are struggling. These providers do not try to be everything for their students though, referring students to external agencies where appropriate.
VET is just one part of the policy solution to addressing and mitigating the disadvantage and inequality that students face. A VET provider can help students prepare for work, but other regional economic policy needs to support regional and rural jobs. A VET provider can refer students to existing further help, but other Government policy needs to target assistance to students in need to support with transport, housing and food costs while they study.
The range of government supports for accommodation, living allowances and travel for students need to ensure they enable equitable access to VET study options. VET can do much for those who are disadvantaged, but other policy needs to be adjusted to ensure equitable access to VET and successful outcomes. Through all of this, we need to continue to ask if we are doing enough for disadvantaged students.
National Centre for Vocational Education Research, VET student outcomes 2017
, 2017, NCVER: Adelaide.
National Centre for Vocational Education Research, Australian vocational education and training statistics: total VET students and courses 2016
, 2017, NCVER: Adelaide.
Halsey, J., Independent Review into Regional Rural and Remote Education—Final Report 2018
Brown, J., In their words: student choice in training markets - Victorian examples, 2017
, NCVER: Adelaide.
Dommers, E., et al., Engaging young early school leavers in vocational training
, 2017, NCVER: Adelaide.
Lamb, S., et al., Improving participation and success in VET for disadvantaged learners
, 2018, NCVER: Adelaide