When funding hinders research into VET foundation skills

About ten days ago, I had the good fortune of sitting down with a researcher who has been investigating and advising on foundation skills in Australian VET for over twenty years. Me, a relative newcomer, jumped at the opportunity to listen to her vast knowledge and experience over an English breakfast tea.

Many topics were discussed, from surveys to policy to teacher qualifications, and, thankfully, she did most of the talking, only really pausing to sip her three-quarter long black.

(Note: I haven’t asked permission to includ her name.)

One issue I was keen to explore was that of research. Since I first started looking into best practice of foundation skills support services in VET in late 2018, I have struggled to find articles and reports on this specific field. Yes, there is some research into broader foundation skills in Australian VET, but what about support services for foundation skills development, the area I am involved with?

My question was: Why hasn’t there been much research into best practice for foundation skills support services in Australian VET? (A pretty specific topic, yes.)

And her answer? Well, it was the one point that continued rattling inside my brain days after our conversation had ended … and still does.

To paraphrase her response …

Funding is the most crucial aspect of all VET delivery. Without funding, everything stops. And if you look at the history of VET foundation skills in Australia, you will see a series of intermittent and temporary programs that start and then stop, initiated by governments that come and then go, despite the clear situation that foundation skill levels in Australian adults are not improving.

At the time, I didn’t really grasp the full weight of what I had just heard, and, to be honest, I’m still playing with the implications in my head. What I did know, however, was that that was important.

Let me postulate a few implications.

  1. If funding is temporary and uncertain, with programs starting and stopping, researchers are less inclined to study best practice.
  2. Lack of knowledge of best practice, in turn, can hinder the relative effectiveness of the practitioners and their workplace systems.
  3. Possible questions over effectiveness, may, in turn, propagate the notion that funding be only temporary.

Yes, there are a few assumptions in there, but could it be that the temporary funding of past programs is the direct cause of temporary funding for future programs, almost ensuring a lack of research and knowledge of best practice?

If you look at funding sources for foundation skills support services today, you will see a disparate and inconsistent approach. One TAFE may be financed using Community Service Obligation funds, while another may rely on recruiting students into Foundation Skills Training Package units.

As a consequence, one relatively large TAFE may employ over twenty foundation skills support teachers, yet another TAFE of similar size may employ less than five.

Additionally, one TAFE with one type of funding with a particular number of staff will have certain practices and systems required for them, yet another TAFE with a different funding approach and different staff levels, require a different set of practices and systems.

How can a researcher possibly identify best practice of a particular field when the practices and systems of those in that field are quite different?

Can we ask, therefore, …

Is permanent and consistent funding of foundation skills support services in VET the key to permanent and consistent research, which, in turn, leads to best practice and greater effectiveness and results?

For these questions, I don’t have clear answers yet. One thing is for sure, though, I do need to find out.