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Insights from NCVER Research: VET Sector’s Pandemic Response

The COVID-19 pandemic has left a lasting impact on Australia’s vocational education and training (VET), reshaping how training providers operate and affecting students at all levels. With its focus on practical experience and face-to-face interactions, the VET sector’s pandemic response addressed the significant challenges during these unprecedented times.

To better understand the effects of the pandemic on VET students and providers, the National Centre for Vocational Education (NCVER) conducted extensive research using a combination of quantitative and qualitative data. The study provides valuable insights to the VET sector’s pandemic response by comparing student enrolments, outcomes, and satisfaction from 2020 and 2021 with pre-pandemic figures from 2019.

Insights from the VET Sector’s Pandemic Response

1. Challenges Faced by the VET Sector

The VET sector encountered unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. These challenges impacted mandatory work placements, student enrolments, engagement, and staff well-being and retention. Disadvantaged student groups faced the greatest difficulties, along with students and training providers in regions with higher infection rates and stricter public health measures.

2. Financial Impact on Training Providers

The decrease in student enrolments and completions significantly affected the financial stability of training providers. They experienced initial declines in these areas at the pandemic’s beginning, followed by a partial recovery in late 2020 and 2021. However, in 2022, the situation stabilised or declined further. Many providers reported revenue and profit losses, leading to staff layoffs and even closures of some establishments.

3. Operational Changes

Training providers made various operational adjustments in response to the pandemic. These included adopting a mix of online and in-person teaching (blended delivery), implementing new hygiene practices, and introducing flexible work arrangements and improved communication strategies. Additionally, they introduced additional support services such as mental health and well-being programs. These changes provide valuable insights into how to tackle challenges and identify opportunities that arose from the pandemic.

4. Shift to Online Delivery

The VET sector quickly shifted to delivering training online, which presented a significant challenge considering the sector’s focus on practical, hands-on learning. However, this transition also showcased the sector’s ability to innovate and adapt. Training providers invested in digital infrastructure and redesigned courses to be taught online, expanding the number of VET subjects available in this format.

5. Government Support

The Commonwealth and state/territory governments offered financial assistance to help the VET sector cope with the challenges posed by the pandemic. Increased investments in VET, including wage subsidies for apprentices and trainees, played a crucial role in stabilising the sector.

Insights and Solutions from Training Providers to Navigate the VET Sector’s Changing Landscape

Various training providers have shared their recommendations to address these challenges and make the most of the opportunities presented by the crisis. Although the specific recommendations may differ among provider types, there are common themes that emerged across all providers and jurisdictions. Here are the recommendations identified in the VET sector’s pandemic response research:

1. Mandatory work placement

Collaboration between training providers and employers is essential to mitigate the challenges caused by limited access to workplaces. This collaboration should focus on establishing alternative approaches for continued learning and exploring using simulations to fulfil training requirements. Additionally, it is essential to offer flexibility to students in care and community services, allowing them to enter employment with the option of returning to complete their qualifications later. Regarding sector consistency and comparability, evaluating providers based on their unique goals and outcomes, providing clear guidelines, and offering flexible funding streams will ensure fairness, regulatory compliance, and the ability to address specific needs within the VET sector.

2. Capacity-building

To address the need for industry learning and development, it is crucial to provide support in areas where the understanding and utilisation of digital tools are lacking. This can be achieved through investments in digital training and delivery, recognising the vital role of digital platforms in regulation and assessment. Allocating funds to training providers to develop digital learning management systems and other online capabilities is also necessary to enhance education delivery. Additionally, exploring simulations and other digital options can significantly improve learning experiences within the VET sector, fostering innovation and engagement among students.

3. Governance and scaffolding support

To strengthen governance and provide the necessary support, offering incentives and resources to cover administration and corporate governance costs is essential, ensuring smooth operations during and after a crisis. Additionally, supporting wrap-around services such as mental health and well-being programs, communication systems, and IT teams is crucial to address the holistic needs of training providers and learners. Moreover, leveraging the operational response plans developed by training providers during the pandemic as a shared resource can enhance preparedness and response for future crises, fostering resilience and collaboration within the VET sector.

4. Learner engagement and well-being

To enhance learner engagement and prioritise their well-being, it is recommended to establish outreach programs and policies that specifically cater to disadvantaged cohorts, particularly young students transitioning into VET, offering them necessary support and guidance. Investing in learners’ mental health and well-being initiatives is crucial in creating a safe and confident environment for their successful return to training.

Strategies should also be implemented to facilitate the transition from education to employment, such as providing funding streams for employers to take on new students, thereby promoting smoother integration into the workforce. Lastly, prioritising digital literacy and foundation skills development ensures that learners are equipped with the necessary abilities to effectively engage with digital modes of learning, which have become increasingly prevalent in the current educational landscape.

5. Access and connectivity

Investing in digital infrastructure, particularly in regional and remote areas, is vital to address access and connectivity challenges in the VET sector. It will ensure equitable access to education, promote safety, and improve connectivity for all learners. Additionally, developing policies that guarantee students have access to appropriate hardware beyond just mobile phones is crucial for effective digital training. Moreover, providing support for international students is essential, including maintaining relaxed working hour regulations, which allows them to support themselves financially while pursuing their studies in Australia.

6. Staff recognition and support

To prioritise the well-being of staff in the VET sector, it is important to formally acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of both teaching and non-teaching staff in navigating the challenges posed by the pandemic. This recognition can help boost morale and motivation. Additionally, establishing mental health support programs, including counselling services, is crucial to address any well-being concerns among staff members. It is also important to provide mechanisms for support outside of educational delivery, ensuring that staff have access to the necessary resources to cope with any personal or professional difficulties they may encounter. By prioritising staff recognition and support, the VET sector can create a supportive and sustainable working environment.

7. VET sector collaboration and resource-sharing

To foster collaboration and resource-sharing within the VET sector, it is important to encourage staff to experiment and collaborate, providing them with opportunities to test different governance and delivery options. Regular communication with staff, whether through onsite or online hubs, is vital for promoting the sharing of resources and information. Additionally, collaboration among training providers should be encouraged, with a focus on developing and sharing course content.

By implementing these VET sector pandemic response recommendations, the VET sector can better mitigate the effects of an ongoing pandemic and be better prepared for future crises. These measures will help ensure the continuity of quality training and support for learners while addressing the challenges and seizing the opportunities that arise during crises.

Learn more about the NCVER research by reading the full Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the VET report.

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