The rise and fall of the key competencies : a study of education policy making with specific reference to vocational education and training in Australia

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This study of education policy making opens a fascinating window into the contested terrain of education at the end of the 20th century, one that sheds light on the challenges that society faces in determining the purposes and responsibilities presumed of education for the future. The thesis analyses the policy trajectory of generic skills within Australian VET, and considers a range of policy contexts at the micro, meso and macro levels in order to consider the implications for our understanding of policy making. It involves a critical assessment of the development, trailing and implementation of the Key Competencies and an analysis of the emerging Employability Skills framework. The research shows that the Key Competencies emerged as a result of various key policy drivers at the end of the 1980’s, forces that continued to exert influence to varying degrees across the policy trajectory of generic skills and Australian VET from 1986-2005. Whilst industrial indifference, educational federalism and conceptual uncertainties came close to scuttling the initiative, key policy actors and supplementary funding ensured that the Key Competencies featured in one of the country’s largest ever educational trials. Despite this platform, the Key Competencies were a policy initiative that came to be overlooked and bypassed, relegated to a second order priority by more pressing policy concerns and the inherent conceptual and operational difficulties they posed as a reform initiative. Whilst the emergence of Employability Skills has reinvigorated interest in generic skills, their progress to date illustrates that generic skills no longer hold the promise of being a vehicle for cross-sectoral articulation, nor the passport for entree into high performance workplaces. This study has illustrated how educational federalism, policy actors and policy institutions play a major role in shaping the policy process, and has suggested a new force-field model of policy making in vocational education that warrants further examination.
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