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VET and learner choice

New research explores the drivers influencing VET student behaviour and their impact on choice of provider and course in a competitive training market, as Justin Brown explains.

Research undertaken by ACER to explore the policy and operations of Australia’s vocational education and training (VET) system is helping policymakers and education practitioners to better understand how people navigate and make their choice of training course and provider. The findings reveal a complex decision-making process and challenges some key assumptions.

Funded through the National VET Research Program, the research investigated Victorian VET students’ experiences in choosing a vocational training provider and course.

The report, In Their Words: Student choice in training markets – Victorian examples, reports insights into students’ understanding of choice and explores the extent to which the consumer model of training introduced in Victoria, aimed at increasing student choice, is changing the dynamics between prospective students and vocational training providers. Victoria was the first state to initiate reforms in the sector through the Victorian Training Guarantee.

Findings

Despite it being a centrepiece of recent training reforms across Australia, the research has found that ‘choice’ of training course and provider can be extremely limited for many prospective students due to their location and access to comparable information on what is available at a local level.

The research also found that decision-making process for VET students can be influenced by a range of factors beyond the control of the individual student including cost and the availability of local offerings

According to the In Their Words report, an array of factors influence students’ training choices in their local environment. These include:

  • location, in terms of the number and composition of RTOs within ‘travelable’ distance
  • job prospects, in terms of the opportunities available in the local area
  • affordability and return on investment, in terms of costs of study
  • affordability and access, in terms of income support, and
  • entitlement to government-subsidised training.

It appears rarely to be the case, however, that one or two factors alone influence training decisions and resulting student choices.

Ultimately, many students have limited control over choice, given that influential factors such as location, timetables, course content and fees are ‘fixed’ – often there is no or very limited choice. While trusted sources of advice and information are growing and improving, the primary concerns for prospective students relate to information accessibility and whether the information is straightforward, independent and trusted.

Implications

For policymakers, the findings of the In Their Words report suggest that the concept of student choice in VET is a worthy policy aspiration, although the potential problems associated with the concept have not been adequately defined. The choices available to students are not unlimited, and choice is currently imprecisely measured through the routinely used indicators of numbers of students participating, the reasons (often predefined in surveys) for choosing a provider, and the numbers of RTOs in the system.

With the growing emphasis on training markets in VET policy in Australia, there will likely be increased interest among policymakers, practitioners and researchers in understanding the types of decision-making and choices raised in this research. The challenge, however, remains in addressing the limitations of transferring and applying economic models and rational choice theory to an ‘experience good’ offered through an eligibility-based entitlement to government funding.

From the student perspective, there is a clear need for the system to communicate information that is accessible, independent and trusted, relevant and customised to prospective students. There is also a pressing need to ensure that this information is made relevant through segmentation of student types, while also recognising that many segments are not well equipped to navigate the complexity of the VET system and, ultimately, may have limited control over the training choices available in their local environment. ■

Read the full report:

Download In Their Words: Student choice in training markets – Victorian examples by Dr Justin Brown.

[rd] reported on Dr Brown’s preliminary research in ‘Improving our understanding of learner choice in VET.'

RD

About the author

Dr Justin Brown is a Senior Research Fellow in ACER's Tertiary Education research program. 

More [rd] articles by Justin Brown

View selected works of Justin Brown

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