Dealing with demons, facing futures | ACPET wrap

What do you do with an industry that’s taken a high profile media hit from the unsavoury practices of a few, but which remains one of the top contributors to the national economy and a key player for the innovation agenda? Tackle it head on, and start working on what the future could look like.

On 24th-25th August I attended and presented at the 2016 ACPET National Conference (Australian Council for Private Education and Training) . The broad theme of ‘Connecting Knowledge, Skills and Futures Through Innovation’ was not un-typical of an education industry conference, allowing some creative interpretation for speakers and panels to share ideas and practice.

Dealing with demons
We started with a cautiously optimistic opening speech from the Hon. Simon Birmingham MP, Minister for Education and Training. On the positive, Minister Birmingham noted the following:

  • There are more than 3 million students currently at private training providers;
  • Recent QILT data has demonstrated the highest levels of overall student satisfaction occur amongst private education providers;
  • So far in 2016, we’ve seen an estimated 13% growth in enrolments for international VET students compared with the same period in 2015.

In line with our own colleague’s commentary on internationalisation Minister Birmingham noted in particular the benefits of international students, beyond the obvious economic contribution:

They include internationalisation of our education and training institutions and the provision of opportunities for students; both Australian and international, to forge lifelong international connections that also enhance our long term diplomatic, cultural and security ties

However, significant air time was also given to the issues which have plagued private providers in recent years, particularly regarding VET FEE-HELP and high-profile stories of unethical sales practices. Later that day, Denise Boyd (Director Policy & Campaigns, Consumer Action Law Centre) gave us a full run-down of some typical issues during a panel session on Quality in Private Tertiary Education. Courses are being ‘sold, not sought’, she noted, some with completion rates as low as 7% for a 3-year course. Her solutions included a ban on unsolicited sales (unscrupulous doorknockers ‘float from sector to sector’ and don’t have our best interests at heart!), a mandate to investigate all unfinished courses, access to a Vocational Education Ombudsman and a general call for institutions and the sector to go above and beyond in their attempts to maintain quality and integrity.

You can read the full transcript of Minister Birmingham’s speech here.

Facing futures
Having addressed the very present elephant in the room (which continued to trumpet throughout the conference!) there was plenty of time and space to look to the future. Or perhaps not, given the future already appears to be here!

The first ‘futures’ session began with a grand-sounding panel called ‘The Big Debate: Future Architecture of Tertiary Education in Australia’.  There were representatives from both VET and Higher Education, including our own Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Helen Zimmerman.

Wide-ranging discussion touched on the future of work and automation, dealing with disability and the intersection between vocational and higher education. Some key points made by speakers included:

  • Skills and capabilities have become tradable commodities and we need to continually upskill to remain relevant;
  • The consumer (student, client) should be at the heart of what we do; this should include student-centred funding (moving away from the provider);
  • We need to ensure learners have good data to help them make decisions about their study;
  • We need to move beyond a ‘public vs private’ provider debate – why discriminate?

The ‘futures’ theme continued in the afternoon, with Catherine Caruana-McManus (Director, Giant Ideas) showcasing some big trends in ‘New Technologies and Innovation in Disruptive Times’.

Education trends she noted included some we’ve seen earlier this year, from ROI/return on education to Big Data, ‘knowledge as a currency’ and changing learner expectations (multiple careers, informal courses and skills to supplement learning and increased expectations on mobility).

The final sessions of the afternoon took us right to the heart of industry, with Will Kestin, CEO of Tasmania ICT, noting that ‘every business is a digital business’ now. His examples included:

  • Agriculture (drones on farms, chip technology for irrigation)
  • Tourism (Disney’s programmable wristbands for room access, ticketing, and even setting appointments with Mickey!)
  • Aged care/disability (remote medical treatment, braille iPhones)
  • Medical/nursing (3D bone printing, smartphone testing)
  • Mental health (Virtual Reality and virtual support groups)

We also heard from Construction Skills Queensland (‘The Farsight Project’) and – perfect for a Tasmanian conference – the salmon fishing industry (Huon aquaculture) with some surprising ways that technology is changing how they do their work. For the education industry and VET in particular, there are exciting challenges in keeping up with what’s happening and responding with the right skills and teaching approaches.

Foundation skills, academic integrity and other highlights
Beyond the core themes of the conference, a few other sessions stood out for me:

1) An interactive session called ‘Beyond Foundation Skills’ by Jana Scomazzon and Sharyn Bellingham, where we looked at how LLN (Language, Literacy and Numeracy) has been supported over the years, and how it could be improved. The group I was involved in agreed that the biggest challenge, beyond identifying foundation skills needs before learners start, was in supporting our teachers to work with LLN issues and tackle differing needs among their students. Sharyn (National Business and Professional Development Manager, ACPET) concluded the session with a reminder that their LLN assessment tool is currently in the validation stages, and that there are a number of free resources available in this space, including a LinkedIn Community of Practice.

2) Also highly enjoyable was Tracey Bretag presenting on academic integrity. I missed her full-length session, but she was the shining light on a panel tackling ‘Quality & Integrity’ in tertiary education standards – which on the last afternoon of the conference was an achievement! Her approach to plagiarism in its many forms is authoritative, constructive and refreshing, looking beyond the media scandals to see what we can achieve if we work together:

Let’s stop worrying about individual reputations and start worrying about the sector as a whole

Coming full circle from the first themes of the conference, she concluded by saying that education must be high quality, relevant and provide for future learning. We must put students first, over profits and revenues.

So that’s it for ACPET 2016! There was heaps more to explore and you can connect on Yammer with others from Navitas who attended to find out their own views on what was presented and discussed, or explore #ACPET2016 on Twitter. Keep an eye out for some re-runs of Navitas presentations on this website soon!