National vocational education and training student numbers report in COVID year one

The national vocational education and training (VET) student data from “COVID year one” – the 2020 calendar year – is now available, and shows a national decline of 260,240 (6.2%) from 2019 to 2020, from 4,181,535 to 3,921,285 students.

Drawing on reports from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), CCA has analysed the data, and produced the report Australian Vocational Education and Training Students 2020: Breakdown by Provider Type, the first of a new VET data fact sheet series. Because 2020 was the first “COVID-19 year”, the report provides important insights into the impact that the pandemic has had on Australian VET student numbers, emphasising how different provider types have fared. Download a copy of the report here (PDF).

The national student decline was replicated in New South Wales, down by 8%, and in Victoria, down by 13.6%. The New South Wales and Victorian declines are logical, considering the higher level of lockdowns and restrictions which took place in those states during 2020.

Other key findings:

Adult and community education (ACE) student numbers

Of the 2020 Australian VET students, 386,225 (9% of the total) studied with a not-for-profit ACE provider: this represents a substantial decrease of 20.7% (100,910 students) compared to 2019, the largest drop in recent history. The national decrease was replicated both in New South Wales – down 19.8% – and in Victoria, down 35.2%. This reduction in ACE students reverses many years of growth in student numbers in the ACE sector, reverting to the situation in 2017.

The NCVER 2020 data does not count New South Wales ACE students who studied non-accredited courses with vocational intent. Nor does that data appear to fully count pre-accredited ACE students in Victoria, given the large enrolments reported by ACFE. It is likely that both non-accredited (NSW) and pre-accredited (VIC) ACE student numbers increased from 2019 to 2020, because of the additional flexibility in funding provided by respective state governments, so the drop in student numbers may not be as significant as NCVER data suggests.

Community education government-funded student numbers were down 11.8%, including a consistent drop of 13.9% in New South Wales and of 12.3% in Victoria.

Why the drop in ACE student numbers

Much of the decrease in total ACE students appears to be due to the COVID-19 impact of less formal learning engagement by vulnerable and disadvantaged students, many of whom were unable to transfer to online and distance learning as the pandemic closed face-to-face training, and who are the first to leave training in times of stress and the last to return. This trend resurfaced in mid-2021 with COVID-19 Delta strain outbreaks and resultant lockdowns in New South Wales and Victoria, and has since deteriorated. Irrespective of some increases in non (NSW) and pre (VIC) accredited training, drops in training numbers need to be addressed urgently because many of the most vulnerable learners are likely to be missing out in important skills development. Both the learners and the economy will suffer as a result.

TAFE and other sectors

Total VET students enrolled in TAFE, with 18.2% of the total – 778,010 students, up by 2.5%, an increase of 18,635 students; private for-profit providers – 66.2% (2,831,795 students, down 6.6% on 2019); university providers with 1.8% (74,885 students); school providers with 2.6%; and enterprise providers with 2.2%, which included a substantial 22.9% drop, down 28,075 students.

The decline in student numbers from 2019 to 2020 was not uniform across all VET sub-sectors, with TAFE students increasing nationally by 2.5%, increasing in New South Wales by 16.5%, but decreasing in Victoria by 11.3%.

Government-funded VET students across all providers overall increased slightly – by 54,160 – to 1,300,520 students in 2020, a 4.3% national increase. Almost all of that increase came from TAFE, with an additional 59,560 students (up 9.6%), just under half of all government-funded VET students. Much of the TAFE increase resulted from New South Wales, up 58,285 students, or 25.2%, and representing almost two-thirds of government-funded VET in that state. The aggressive implementation of the TAFE JobTrainer Program in NSW is likely to account for a proportion of this increase. By contrast, Victorian TAFE declined by 11,370 students (8.1%).

Most other provider types kept relatively stable government-funded VET numbers, except enterprise providers, which dropped 43.6% nationally, including 20.8% in New South Wales and 19.6% in Victoria.

Download a copy of the CCA report here (PDF).

Future CCA Reports on NCVER 2020 VET Students

This Fact Sheet is the first of four CCA reports on 2020 Australian student VET data. Subsequent reports in this series will examine the changes that occurred from 2019 to 2020 with respect to various “equity” groups: Indigenous Australians; residents of regional, rural and remote Australia; people from lower socio-economic backgrounds; people from non-English speaking backgrounds; people with disabilities; older Australians; and women. These analyses are important because VET has traditionally been much more accessible to lower income, regional and rural residents and Indigenous learners, by comparison to university study.

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