Why do Qualifications take so long to update?

Updated: Feb 3

We live in an age where jobs are changing at an ever-accelerating pace, especially in technology. We also hear frequently that our qualifications are not keeping up with these changes and that the process of developing new or amended qualifications is too slow.

So why is this?

It may be helpful first to explore the framework we operate within.

Both Australia and New Zealand Vocational Education and Training (VET) frameworks are primarily regulated training ecosystems. This means the balance of power for designing curricula sits with government agencies, and qualifications are developed using a multi-layered approach vetted under a regulatory framework. This regulatory environment also has an inherent risk that training delivery tends to be directed away from employer-based workforce training and towards state-owned training centres that favour classroom-based training and favour teaching expertise rather than industry expertise, which can ultimately see industry disengaged from the process.

In comparison, the dual VET model used in countries like Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Denmark is primarily driven by the private sector. Students reaching the end of compulsory education have the choice to select either a VET pathway with a strong focus on "earn as you learn" apprenticeships and on-job training or general education for those intending to go on to further education in an academic pathway. Curricula design is primarily driven by public-private partnerships where the private sector has the balance of power. Professional organisations such as employers and trade associations working with state governments collaborate closely with the federal government to define curricula, skill sets, and standards for various occupations nationwide. The private sector also takes strong ownership in the delivery of training.

The system we use here in Australia to maintain the qualifications listed on the national framework generally travels through the following process.

  • Industry Reference Committees (IRC) supported by their Skills Service Organisation (SSO) prepare a schedule of work based on skills forecasts, and this is reviewed and agreed by the Australian Industry and Skills Committee (AISC).

  • Based on the work schedule, a case for change is prepared by the SSO as required and submitted to AISC for approval.

  • Once approved, the SSO drafts training package products and then seeks validation from the associated industry before submitting a case for endorsement to AISC.

  • AISC then reviews the case and provides approval for implementation before the final step in the process is reached; skills ministers ultimately endorse the listing of the package.

When researching this article, I received feedback indicating the AISC and skills ministers final review has, in some instances, taken up to 12 months to complete. This also excludes the initial planning and case for change, which adds to the overall timeframe.

Another factor exacerbating the timeframe for which new qualifications are made available is the inclusion of a "train out" period for training providers to transition to the new qualifications; this can be up to 18 months or, in some cases, even two years. This "train out" period means that even after completing the review and approval stages, it may still be some time before industry can access the new qualifications.

In some form or another, the regulatory process is a crucial element to maintain consistency and confidence in the overarching system. We also need to accept that new delivery products will take time to develop. If, however, for argument sake, we remove these components from the timeline and concentrate on the review, amendment and validation activity only, this could take as little as 3-4 months to complete if everyone was engaged in the process.

Experience has shown me that industry validation and providing input into skills forecasting falls to the committed minority as an added component to their core role. The result can be a low level of engagement or requests for more time from industry managing competing priorities. These factors almost always prevent the achievement of the most expeditious review process.

When you couple a somewhat heavy and time-consuming regulatory process with the inherent delays experienced in traditional industry consultation and time taken by providers to make the qualifications available for consumption, it's hardly surprising the process is lengthy!

So what's the fix?

In my humble opinion, good public policy places responsibility where the benefits are most likely to be realised. Even though qualifications are issued to an individual and should be transportable, if the VET system provides a skilled, productive and safe workforce, the benefit is most likely realised by industry.

In an announcement late last year about the formation of Industry Cluster organisations by the Hon Stuart Robert MP, he may have indicated a desire to move some responsibility toward industry. His press release stated, "The new Industry Clusters will strengthen employer leadership and engagement, giving industry a broader, more strategic role ensuring Australia's VET system addresses skills and workforce challenges across the economy, including labour demands".

If we want to see a significant improvement in the timeliness of qualification development and availability, there will likely need to be a similarly significant shift in thinking and approach. We need to accept that there is little time for formal consultation amongst the competing priorities in the business environment; however, to succeed, industry has to embrace a pivotal role in the solution and must see value in engaging in the system. Delivery products also need to be expedited, and rather than being left out of the review process, more concurrent development and quicker qualification retirement need to be explored.

To see change, industry cluster organisations will need to innovate and explore other solutions to engage with industry, such as developing standards using crowd-sourced information to reach a consensus rather than relying on traditional consultation with the "committed minority". There are examples of significant data collection from industry through low impact surveys, such as the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration; however, exploring innovative ideas may be a topic for another day.

We will also need to expedite the development of delivery materials. I suspect the industry cluster organisations could add value if they can form strong co-development relationships with providers and convince providers to accept standardised base material for assessment and delivery.

Even the most innovative and engaged industry cluster organisations will still not be enough to bring about the desired change unless government dare to divest sufficient responsibility for industry-led organisations to act. I note that the industry cluster grant outlines a new assurance body to replace AISC and these assurance bodies along with skills minters have retained the final stages in qualification approval.

So, for now, I am wondering if we can see a future that will see the government willing to vest enough responsibility for standards-setting with industry to enable real change. Will we see the proposed industry cluster organisations take an innovative leadership role and move towards the type of public-private partnerships seen in countries like Switzerland? And finally, will industry value the process enough to take up the mantel and invest