Applied research can be embedded in high-quality vocational education to bring innovation to businesses and empower workers with new skills. It draws on established research methods to find practical, evidence-based solutions to real-world problems.63
Innovation in production, business processes and work organisation is changing the nature of skills needed for work and to build a career. Victorian universities and research institutions develop world-class research but the challenge of implementation across society and industry remains.
The Victorian vocational education and training (VET) sector is strongly connected to industry and local communities. The application of new knowledge to solve real-world problems is a universal feature of the sector, making it a natural conduit for conducting applied research and helping industry and the community realise the benefits of innovation.
Applied research in VET often depends on staff, committed to their industry, driving solutions. The scope to invest in the capability of VET to apply new knowledge and technologies to solve problems for industry remains largely untapped.
Conducting research and disseminating the findings is integral for championing innovation and supporting the commercialisation of productivity-enhancing ideas. However, workforce skills gaps often hinder uptake.
Applied research benefits
- is valued by employers – small and medium firms lack resources to fund their own research and rely on partnerships with education and training providers to generate new ideas and realise productivity benefits.
- benefits training organisations allowing for knowledge transfer that builds the currency of their programs and teaching staff.
- generates knowledge transfer to and among learners and helps build an innovative workforce, providing opportunities to work with leading technology on real-world problems.
While there has been a strong emphasis on applied research by universities and other research institutions, the role of vocational education has been unrecognised.
Skills ministers have signaled the role of TAFE Centres of Excellence in the forthcoming National Skills Agreement. Centres will be TAFE-led partnerships to grow high-potential and strategically important industries. Each can be a focal point for design and delivery of innovation and new skills, especially through supply chain firms which may not have capacity to evolve their operations.
The Macklin Review also highlighted the importance of the VET sector partnering with industry to drive innovation.
Applied research is the process of identifying innovation opportunities, framing support to firms and developing the skills solutions. The model can place high level vocational education at the forefront of industry development and drive contemporary skills.
Prioritising applied research
The TAFE Centres of Excellence provide the platform for structured development of applied research capabilities.
Applied research is the natural extension of the Australian vocational education model. While it must be limited to providers with in-built capabilities, applied research identifies leading industry practices and can define skills at pace. Combining this early skills identification with self-accreditation – as discussed in the preceding section – will give TAFE Network providers the ability to develop new, industry-valued qualifications years in advance of the current system. Applied research leverages the strong support relationships from high-level vocational education providers to businesses, brings currency to teaching practice and exposes participating learners to the sometimes messy process of innovation.
To be successful, applied research should only be translated through the right institutional form. This includes strong leadership and long-term commitment and requires strong business partnerships. Internally, staffing capabilities entailing deep industry expertise and knowledge of innovation practices and teaching design skills are required.
Victorian TAFE Network providers and universities can also partner in applied research. Doing so would support capacity building in the Victorian TAFE Network, expose learners (at TAFE and university) to learning opportunities and leverage potential funding sources (for example, Australian Research Council grants).
Elevating the role of vocational education institutions in applied research and in innovation in Victoria will require a long-term vision and strategy. Through applied research, part of the vocational education system can help elevate Victoria’s capacity and capability for innovation. This applies especially in renewable energy, where projects will bring new production and equipment to Australia.
Through a Skills Lab, develop approaches and principles to embed applied research in the education and training delivered by Victorian TAFE Network providers.
Consider using the Workforce Training and Innovation Fund to prioritise applied research projects in the vocational education and training sector.
63 Victorian TAFE Association (2019), Doing Applied Research in Victorian TAFE Institutes – An Introductory Guide(opens in a new window), September.