AVETRA 1998 Conference Proceedings
The following is the Introduction to the 1998 Conference Proceedings: “VET Research: Influencing policy and practice”.
Research Centre for Vocational Education and Training
University of Technology Sydney
Sunshine Coast University
In the introduction to a set of proceedings such as these, it is usual for editors to reflect on the extent to which the proceedings addressed the conference theme. It is a timid pair of editors that will not venture some critical remarks on what is and what is not said in the papers about the theme, and what new insights they bring to it. So having laboured over files foreign and familiar, we exercise our prerogative to do so.
The conference theme was the influence of VET research on policy and practice. What insights did papers and presentations bring to these theme or, to put this more sympathetically, how did this theme resonate with the current interests of VET researchers as they are expressed in these Proceedings?
We can begin to answer this question by looking at the categories of papers. In the Proceedings we have retained the categories used at the conference. The categories themselves reflect the kind of interests operating in the field, including the research agenda funded by the Australian National Training Authority (ANTA) through the National Research and Evaluation Committee (NREC) program. The following are a few observations about the research interests represented in these papers:
- equity in participation .Who gets access to vocational education and training (VET), and what factors beyond individual control make completing training more or less likely, seem set to be areas of ongoing critical scrutiny.
- partnerships and stakeholders This was not a strong area at the conference in terms of the numbers of papers presented. Papers grouped under this theme mostly presented successful case examples of close relationships between VET institutions and industry.
- practice and practitioners .This was the largest group of papers, reflecting the strong interest at the conference in research aimed at improving what practitioners do in the field.
- research and policy relationships . This emerged as an important sub-theme of the conference, with vigorous questioning of a number of assumptions underlying VET research and its influence on policy. The most important questioning centred on the assumed neutrality of political agendas in determining VET policy, leading to the view that the links between research and policy are not simple or necessarily satisfactory.
- learning, work and organisations . The complex links among these three elements and the ways they constitute both the venue and the vehicle for VET also emerged as a key area of interest and conceptual development and critique in VET research.
- markets and the economy . This area received surprising little attention given its currency in general debate about VET policy. We might attribute this to a certain tentativeness on the part of new researchers about tackling such a broad topic, though a vigorous critique of the role of markets and the economy in VET policy issues emerged in several papers dealing with research and policy relationships.
As a result of the controversies that emerged from the conference theme of ‘the influence of research on policy and practice’, questions were raised about what role the new Australian Vocational Education and Training Research Association (AVETRA) should take in VET research. The final plenary session culminated in the expression of the need for VET researchers to be critical of the ways in which research is influenced by the demands of policy and practice in VET. Leo Maglen made the point in his presidential address:
[AVETRA] should … be an association of independent researchers, who are free to conduct their research without undue influence from their employers, whether they be in the public or private sector, in higher education or the TAFE sector, in industry or wherever; from research funding bodies or from government policy makers.
Of course, we all need to work within the terms of our employment, to submit to the requirements of funding bodies and to respond to requests of policy makers. However, at all times we need to act with professionalism and integrity, to pursue our research rigorously, objectively and ethically, and to subject VET policy and practice to critical reasoned analysis.
In our view there is evidence in these papers for the vigour with which research interest in VET is being pursued and for the analytical and critical nature of that pursuit. But why should it be necessary to assert the need for a critical approach to research? Part of the reason perhaps is the way that the economic and policy imperatives (and the funding regimes that have done much to stimulate and underwrite research activity in the field) have demanded relevance and usefulness from VET researchers. Chris Robinson referred to the results of this funding effort in his review of the field:
The striking thing about the research reviews examined in this paper is … the sheer volume of VET research that has been carried out in Australia over the 1990s, particularly in the last two or three years. While not every study reviewed was an Australian one, most were, and while some of the studies were examined in more than one of the reviews of research, in total the eleven research reviews referred to in this paper looked at around 700 research papers and reports in their reviews of VET research literature in the 1990s. Quantity of VET research is now not a major issue in Australia. The next challenge is the quality of research undertaken.
The keynote addresses obviously canvassed the question of the influence and impact of the VET research that has been conducted since the first round of research advisory committee funding first began to have an impact on the field. There is no doubt that among the peculiarities of the field are its concern for research that is relevant to policy and practice, encouraged by unambiguous state funding priorities. Two of the keynote papers reported on a project funded to assess such an impact. It is appropriate that policy relevance should be a concern, and the papers reflect the research agendas that have constructed the field of VET research, and their critical engagement with those agendas.
Yet the keynote papers by McDonald and the Selby-Smiths refuse any simple relationship of research, policy and practice and also insist on the complexities of the things researched. At the same time, they are not short on evidence that research is indeed speaking to policy and practice. There is an appropriately complex view of the field of VET, when it is acknowledged that there are competing value sets and philosophies in play. Rod McDonald concluded, in summing up the influence of research:
… the greatest difficulty arises from the fact that … policy decisions and changes in practice are influenced by many factors. Research is sometimes one of these. But, perhaps in VET more strongly than in some other areas — due to a decision-making setting that is described as complex, complicated, dynamic and contested —- when it is, it is often because it shapes perceptions and agendas, and those making decisions are often unaware of the research on which it might be (indirectly) based.
The papers in this volume support the conclusion that one of the strengths of the emerging field is its preoccupation with empirical research. VET researchers also have a characteristic practicality and application to task, which might be crudely called the ‘heads down and bums up’ attitude. This is a great strength in a research context where relevance and impact are high priorities in allocating research funding. There are many papers reporting work in progress or completed projects. This is not surprising, given the pragmatic culture of VET research and the hands-on culture of TAFE institutions.
However, the debit side of this empirical emphasis is the relative lack of theoretical papers in the proceedings. This is no doubt because the conference theme seemed to call for a demonstration (or was it a celebration?) of the impact of VET research on policy and practice. Where then are the theoretical interests in the field?
Such observations together with the strong focus on a critical role for the new Association lead to the conclusion that the emerging VET research culture deserves more critical attention from researchers than it has been getting before now. VET research culture is itself a researchable topic, not something outside the legitimate scope of research. Within the collection of papers are some which call for more critical analysis of the context in which research is being produced, more reflection and debate about the agendas of VET research. A laudable concern for results and applicability of research need not deflect attention from questions about the culture and context in which research is being produced.
The paper by John Stevenson points to the need to take up those contemporary issues defining the context of VET research and its research agendas and practices. He argues the need to re-examine these influences on VET institutions:
… VET and its major provider, TAFE, constantly change shape as different interests exert new pressure on its overall shape. These changes in shape are not continuous with old shapes, anchored in some unchanging philosophy of what vocational education and training is, but in abruptly changing ideas of the very essence of this education. The latest interest is in what relationship should exist between TAFE and universities; something on which I look with some nostalgia, as when I addressed this same matter in 1987 (Stevenson 1987), my arguments for more continuity and convergence across educational sectors were thought, by powerful people, to be heresy.
The negative constructions of vocational education and training and the continuous pressures for abrupt and discontinuous changes in the essence of what constitutes vocational education and training work against continuity, coherence and clarity. My intention is to identify and characterise some contemporary issues (most of which are ongoing), consider their origins, suggest the goals that are implicit, and consider how they might be made to converge.
Perhaps VET researchers haven’t yet much examined who they are and what is shaping their identities as researchers. Where is the research that is attempting to model and critically examine the big picture issues transforming the nature of vocational education institutions and practices? Now that AVETRA has been successfully established, perhaps it is time to begin to engage in more critical examination of the emerging research culture, not only in terms of its differences from education at large, but also in terms of its linkages and commonalities.
A future conference could be one which focuses on VET researchers and the context of VET research, looking at how the rapid changes in VET and post-compulsory education generally are shaping the research effort and research agendas. Indeed, the next conference with its theme of quality and diversity in VET research promises to provide opportunities for this kind of exploration.
With this in view, we could as an Association explore some of the tensions which emerged in the final plenary discussion about what it means to publish the papers in a formal set of proceedings. We hope that publication will mean a number of good things: that the papers would be easily available to others seeking to learn from the work of Australian VET researchers, and that over time we will be able to track our own progress on many fronts. We would in no sense want to diminish the pragmatic traditions of VET research when many of its strengths result from the different perspectives of universities, TAFE institutes, consultants and other agencies. There is plenty of common ground and considerable strength to be developed from interaction and collaboration of different institutions, all of whom are adapting to a range of forces in the educational policy environment. We might ask: where is the research agenda that is exploring these institutional changes? A few papers in the collection are beginning to point to this kind of research.
Finally, we need to say that in editing the papers we have exercised the usual editorial discretion, hopefully without too heavy a hand, in order to achieve some consistency across the forty papers. Time has not permitted as thorough or consistent an editorial job as we would have liked and of course we have had to deal with the usual difficulties academics have with following guidelines of any kind. We have applied the guidelines originally issued, which called for simplicity and economy in presentation, so that some papers have been changed more than others because they conformed less. Papers that were over-long have been shortened, multiple headings have been reduced, and following NCVER style, capitalisation and punctuation have been minimised. We have done our best to regularise citation practices to conform to NCVER style, though this could be a life’s work.
No doubt there are many places where we have failed to follow our own strictures given the limited amount of time available for the task, but we hope that too much has not been sacrificed to the goal of achieving early publication of the Proceedings.