Excellence, Not Competence: Why Competency-Based Training Is Inappropriate for Higher Education

Article excerpt

The competency-based education and training (CBET) movement has gathered remarkable momentum in the past three years. This is because it is supported by each constituent of the corporate state which governs Australia. Universities are caught in a 'pincer movement': on one side are industry and government, both fundamentally concerned with the nation's economic malaise; on the other are the unions. Government is seeking an answer to economic problems in the context of the rhetoric of the 'clever country'; industry is keen to apportion some of the blame for poor performance on a lack of appropriate skills in the work-force, but wants training (such as industry usually carries out in Germany or Japan) to be funded here by the public purse.

The union movement sees CBET as a chance to wrest control of education from the educational elite and use education to serve its own industrial agenda, at a time when older-style industrial relations are being abandoned for the new culture of enterprise agreements. Control of certification of training carries the potential for an alternative means to control union membership, at a time when this is in rapid decline in Australia as in many other advanced industrialized countries. Certification of skills through tripartite bodies also offers a new way to control wages.

There is no question that Australia faces serious economic problems. Together with Britain, Canada and the United States, we are falling further and further behind in the international economic race. Japan and Germany clearly lead the field. The newly industrialized economies of Asia (Hong Kong Singapore, Korea and Taiwan) are rapidly gaining ground. Close behind are other members of ASEAN, and China. Asia generally is a part of the world where educational institutions and teachers are treated with great respect; the same is true of Germany. Sadly, it is not true of our culture.

In recent years we have frequently heard cries for education to respond to the needs of industry and to learn from it. Whilst I do not deny for a moment that there are things to be improved in education, we now seem to be almost slavishly copying the UK pattern of competency-based education, rather than analyzing the patterns of more economically successful nations, where training occurs largely in industry. The UK economy is hardly a model to which we should aspire!

CONCERN ABOUT FALLING STANDARDS

The United States, Australia and other English-speaking nations have all expressed concern in recent years about falling educational standards. In the US the situation was graphically outlined in the publication A Nation At Risk (1983). In Australia the same concern is illustrated by the Business Council of Australia's Report on Education, published in March 1986.

The report was based on a survey of 56 of Australia's biggest companies. Much of the criticism focused on secondary schools. For instance, over half the responses indicated that new recruits from secondary schools were poor or very poor in written communication skills, business knowledge and understanding the nature of work. Over a third of respondents considered that these recruits' general know!edge, ability to work independently, ability to make decisions, ability to solve problems or make recommendations, and leadership ability were poor or very poor. Written communication skills, personal deportment and manners were thought to have declined. Respondents also criticized declining standards in the TAFE system with respect to problem-solving and using technology. Universities did not escape criticism. Companies recruiting large numbers of university graduates considered that standards in mathematics had declined. A significant number of respondents thought that universities were failing to develop skills and attitudes relevant to current industrial and business practice.

Concern about standards in Australia's education and training systems is entirely legitimate. …