Australia’s National VET Review: The Story So Far

The National VET Review being conducted by Steven Joyce, former New Zealand Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, has become a major platform for discussion on the future of VET. There has been some press commentary about the National VET Review which gives a good indication of where the Reviewer is at, and the tenor of some high-profile submissions. Here is a summary of the main points:

Stephen Joyce, quoted in the Australian Financial Review:

  • Performance-related funding is likely to be a recommendation of the review.
  • The current financing arrangements were “confusing” and created “strange incentives” that encouraged people to “study things that might not be in their long-term interest”.
  • Training packages were not responsive to industry needs. One way to improve this would be to make government spending relate to outcomes such as student retention, graduation rates and “long-term employment destinations”.
  • “In New Zealand we put a bit of work into outcomes measures and how they inform future funding. We want to encourage the sector to be responsive. We want to focus on employment outcomes.”

Steven Joyce quoted in The Age:

  • Australia needs is to set up a system where people are encouraged by demand and opportunity to find careers that suit them.
  • “We want to encourage the sector to be responsive. We want to focus on employment outcomes.”
  • There is a lack of information for students about pathways out of school and on the merits of VET over university education.
  • There is a lack of trust in the sector, mainly owing to the reputational issues but also over the quality of private operators.
  • He would most likely recommend some short-term initiatives to make the system more responsive to demand.
  • In the longer term he wanted to turn attention away from politics and towards “how to run this system better”.
  • There was a momentum building for rethinking VET, evident on both sides of politics.

Discussion about “national takeover of VET” in the Sydney Morning Herald (7 February 2019):

  • “Business groups are pushing for a federal takeover of the troubled vocational education and training sector in a historic reshaping that could face resistance from some state governments.”
  • The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), the Australian Industry Group and the Australian Council for Private Education and Training (ACPET) are among those proposing that Canberra take responsibility for the sector from the states and territories.
  • “The Commonwealth and COAG should address declining investment in VET and increasingly uneven investment across jurisdictions, by examining the possibility of moving towards a nationally funded and nationally operated tertiary education system,” the Australian Industry Group said in its submission.
  • ACCI said the sector should be governed by a national body and that a national approach to funding and policy be gradually put in place “to improve consistency and skills outcomes, and minimise inefficiency and duplication between the activities of the federal, state and territory governments”.
  • ACPET said all post-school education should fall under a national tertiary system.
  • TAFE Directors Australia did not make a submission to the review but has previously backed a federal takeover as a more “coherent, workable and simplified funding model”.
  • Martin Riordan, senior fellow at the University of Melbourne’s LH Martin Institute, said a funding squeeze had made vocational education and training the “poor cousin” of the education system. A lack of coherence in national policy was a “fundamental flaw” plaguing the sector’s funding, policy and regulations.

In the Australian Financial Review, 28 January 2019, “Work practices and lack of co-ordination between states dragging VET sector down”:

The consulting company EY (formerly Ernst & Young) submission to the review says:

  • The sector was struggling with conflicting state-based TAFEs where courses and qualifications in different regions did not match up, inefficient use of real estate, ageing infrastructure, lack of cohesion between public and private providers and quality assurance problems.
  • The biggest problem was schools automatically sending students to university instead of encouraging them to look at skills development and apprenticeships.
  • The government needs to organise the training sector better so that qualifications from one state are recognised in another. And if a student switches state halfway through a training program they should get automatic credit for the study they’ve already done.
  • The ability of public providers to embark on swift and effective operational change is challenged by legacy work practices, EBAs and employment structures that remain. Staff, government and union engagement is required to rationalise the workforce profile to match the changing industry needs and new learning practices.

Community Colleges Australia (CCA) Comment

Dr Don Perlgut, CEO of CCA comments:

The tenor of the discussion and the submissions to the review has been a very positive addition to Australia’s ongoing debates about the future of vocational education and training in Australia. Given the timing – the Review is due to report in March and a national election is likely to occur in early May – the Review will not result in any short-term changes in national policy. Some commentators have noted that the Review is acting as a “safety valve” for national VET issues, and I tend to agree with that assessment. However the Review is VERY relevant to the medium and long-term discussions about VET, as it is operating as the biggest current platform for discussions prior to the national election in May. Federal Labor has already promised its own inquiry into post-secondary education, if it wins the next election. If the current Government is returned, dealing with Steven Joyce’s recommendations will be a high priority – or at least we hope so.

CCA met with the reviewer, Steven Joyce, on 7 February, and had the opportunity to elaborate on CCA’s submission. The Executive Summary of the CCA submission is also available. CCA’s concerns are two-fold:

The current review is too short and rushed; a mid-summer January 25th submission closing date (the Friday before the Australia Day weekend) does not promote proper community engagement or provide sufficient time for preparation of submissions.

The review terms of reference appear to be primarily on the needs of employment and industry, with very little attention on the nature of providers. Fortunately, a large number of submissions – including that of Adult Learning Australia (see below) – have ignored that and detailed issues of providers. However the structure of Australian VET, with more than 5000 Registered Training Organisations (the large majority of them private for-profit organisations) is unwieldy and distorted to the needs of the private for-profit sector. The Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) drily notes in its 2017/18 Annual Report (p. 1) that:

“Since it was established in July 2011 ASQA has, on average, received around 500 applications for initial registration each year. ASQA spends a considerable proportion of its regulatory resources on these applications and in recent years has identified concerns about the quality of applicants for initial registration.”

Review Submissions Worth Checking Out

All submissions are due to be posted on the Review website, but have not, at the date of this writing, yet appeared. In the interim, here are some submissions to the Review worth checking:

The Adult Learning Australia (ALA) submission highlights a number of important issues for the community sector:

  • Adult and Community Education providers’ unique delivery model is particularly effective in terms of meeting the needs of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds or who have challenging life experiences.
  • ACE plays an important role in terms of social inclusion, workforce participation and productivity in communities across Australia. Relatively small amounts of government investment in the sector produce significant and positive outcomes for Australian governments. The sector is characterised by high levels of volunteerism, low overheads and strong community ‘ownership’.
  • In some communities, the ACE sector represents the only ‘on-the-ground’ providers of post-compulsory education, and is therefore critically important in terms of addressing access and equity beyond urban centres.
  • The sector is a significant community asset with the potential to be optimised to play a much greater role in supporting adults and workplaces with their training needs; particularly disadvantaged adults in rural and regional locations.
  • Learners from disadvantaged backgrounds who enrol in VET are less likely to complete by comparison with their non-disadvantaged peers. Despite the obvious success of its pathway and vocational programs for disadvantaged cohorts, ACE continues to be marginalised in terms of policy and resources.
  • It is a significant policy failure to allow the successful ACE model to diminish rather than capitalising on their acknowledged expertise to close completions gaps for disadvantaged cohorts.
  • Compliance costs for ACE RTOs place an increasing burden on not-for-profit community organisations that are already bearing much of the load in terms of assisting socially and economically marginalised people to pathway into VET.
  • Other costs for ACE RTOs include the costs associated with offering a broad range of qualifications on scope in order to respond effectively to local community and business needs; particularly in rural and regional areas where class sizes may be small.
  • ACE’s efficient operating model and commitment to affordable education, makes it extremely difficult to recoup the costs associated with providing high quality, individualised and well-supported pathway and VET learning experiences.
  • Outcomes for high needs learners are often undermined by the inflexibility of the VET system.
  • Providers are sometimes forced to withdraw high needs learners due to the funding constraints.
  • Many adults with low level language, literacy and numeracy are attracted to ACE and its supportive model, but some have been issued with unsuitable high-level qualifications from unscrupulous RTOs, and this has impacted their access to government-funded qualifications. High needs learners need a VET system that is flexible, learner centred and can respond to their individual needs.
  • In order for the VET system to remain relevant and sustainable into the future. ACE RTOs must be maintained to a minimum of 10–15% of the total VET market to ensure the VET system is viable and works for everyone seeking vocational education and training.

The National Apprentice Employment Network points out (on page 15) how group training organisations support local communities by providing:

“Valuable services and offering government reliable and widespread support in the development of VET, employment and social justice strategies and policy. With more than a million apprenticeships and traineeships delivered over recent decades, there is an extensive community infrastructure that has been developed that assists many cohorts including school leavers, mature age workers, those with disability, indigenous communities, defence force personnel, youth, refugee and humanitarian entrants, and new migrants. The pastoral care aspect of GTOs has a close synergy with small communities, particularly as many businesses are run by families residing in the region. Such support is highly valued by SMEs in these communities and can play an important role in nurturing entry-level workers through a changing employment landscape in their local region.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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