The term applied research is often met with apprehension by TAFE teachers because they associate it with finding solutions to scientific problems, and therefore with universities. However, a number of countries around the world have begun building applied research capabilities in their vocational education and training (VET) sector to help stimulate innovation in businesses1.
This concept of applied research differs to the definition used in higher education, referring to problem-solving activities for industry clients seeking a practical outcome, such as a new product or design2. The Victorian TAFE Association (VTA) refers to it as “responsive, outcome-oriented research and development for industry”3.
With digital disruption and emerging technologies rapidly changing the way we do work, embracing applied research capabilities is quickly being recognised in Australia as the future of VET. Applied research enables students to develop competencies for dealing with the complexity of the workforce they’ll be entering and focus on meaningful outcomes4. As a result, TAFE’s produce graduates that are more adaptable, flexible and innovative – all skills that will be needed for the future workforce5.
While the VTA says applied research in VET is still in its infancy, where it’s been implemented it’s starting to yield impressive results for training providers and their industry partners6. In Victoria, many TAFEs are already embracing applied research capabilities, even if they aren’t using the term applied research to describe their projects.
For example, Sunraysia Institute of TAFE (SuniTAFE) partnered with aged care provider Princes Court in 2018 to have students undertake one of their assessments through providing landscaping advice, including plant selection, at one of the company’s residences. Although SuniTAFE didn’t label the project applied research, it fits into the definition by the VTA, whereby a TAFE industry client identifies a problem or promising idea and seeks TAFE participation in responding to it7.
In this case, Princes Court approached SuniTAFE with the idea of a series of new sensory gardens. Students enrolled in the Certificate III in Horticulture and Certificate III in Parks and Gardens designed a solution.
“Princes Court provided us with a brief on what they needed for the residents, which were sensory gardens suitable to the needs of people that resided within that zone. This was a fairly broad brief so part of the learning exercise was for the students to find out further information about what the client wanted design-wise, including accessibility and features,” says SuniTAFE Teacher – Primary Industries Michelle Lindhout.
“The students also had to take into consideration any site aspects, such as sun, shade, soil conditions and existing plants. This included a lot of research about what a sensory garden involves and cultural information about the plant species chosen.”
The students then sat down with Princes Court to present their ideas and the best designs were chosen to be turned into four shared garden areas.
Being placed in a real-life scenario meant the students were much more passionate and put in more effort to produce suitable outcomes for the client rather than if we were just doing a role play or a mock scenario,” says Michelle.
“Close collaboration with local employers and developing real solutions with a business exposes students to the career-side of the program they’re undertaking and enhances the mix of skills they’re learning. Princes Court was very involved in the project and provided individual feedback to the students, so they were getting up-to-date advice on industry best practice.”
These industry-based projects that strengthen the interactions between work and education, are also beneficial to the participating business.
For Princes Court, the project took over a role that would otherwise have been filled by a landscaper from Melbourne, who might not have had the localised knowledge of Mildura’s climate and culturally significant plant species. By using SuniTAFE expertise, Princes Court chief executive Jenny Garonne says they were able to involve the community and ensure the gardens were designed especially for the residents8.
This idea of VET educators acting as local knowledge brokers underpins the applied research model used in Canada, which is often presented as a relevant case study for Australia to follow9. Canada has reaped a number of innovation benefits by incorporating applied research projects into VET, with applied research collaborations opening new markets in 58% of cases and improving market position in 79% of cases10.
Yet in Australia, we are still under-utilising vocational education and training in the innovation, science and research system, according to Innovation and Science Australia11.
Therefore, the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) says it’s important that training providers promote their current achievements to show industry what VET institutions do and how they add value12.
As the organisation wrote in its report VET applied research: Driving VET’s role in the innovation system, “naming and claiming what can be done in the sector is the first step towards establishing VET’s applied research niche.”
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