In order to critique the notion of ‘learner voice’ in vocational education and training (VET) policy, this paper draws from a project conducted by the authors on behalf of the Australian National VET Equity Advisory Council (NVEAC). The term ‘learner voice’ is used extensively throughout NVEAC documentation to describe the engagement of ‘disadvantaged’ students within the VET system. However, the concept of ‘voice’ being advocated, we argue, is a particularly ‘thin’ one which is linked to notions of client feedback, managed participation and the commodification of training rather than any broad sense of democracy, equity or social transformation. The paper critically examines current practices in relation to learner voice within the VET policy framework and their implications for the contested role of VET in contributing to social equity and redress of social and economic disadvantage.
The paper will report on an ongoing research project being conducted by the authors, on behalf of the Australian National VET Equity Advisory Council (NVEAC), in which we are required to conduct “a review and analysis of effective models and underpinning principles for gathering and responding to feedback from learners, particularly disadvantaged learners”. The term “learner voice” is used throughout the NVEAC documentation to describe engagement with students of vocational education and training. But the “voice” that has unashamedly dominated the policy discourse in vocational and adult education and training in recent decades has been that of business and industry. Recently, however, particularly in England during the final term of the New Labour administration, and increasingly is some Scandinavian and European countries, a renewed emphasis on policies of social inclusion has introduced the notion of “learner voice” into policy considerations. Especially important are the voices of learners who are perceived to be disadvantaged or marginalised. In Australia, too, discourses of both inclusion and human capital have led to policies of involving students, their interests and their views in some way in the education project. The engagement of students with the tertiary education sector and institutions has come to be regarded as a way of promoting students’ learning by making their education and training more relevant to, and inclusive of, their “needs” while simultaneously contributing to the more efficient utilisation of human capital in an increasingly competitive national economy. Such inclusiveness, therefore, is promoted as facilitating the twin virtues of equity and efficiency, and is seen by some as having the potential to empower learners and transform their learning experience, and also to transform and expand Vocational Education and Training (VET) and Adult and Community Education (ACE). The paper will critically examine the dynamics of the vet policy framework and the range current practice in relation to learner voice. It will particularly emphasise contradictions in both practice and policy in relation to who speaks and with what authority, and who listens to what effect.