VET markets have disadvantaged regional and rural Australian learners

Turning Australian vocational education and training (VET) into a market has disadvantaged learners in regional and rural Australia. While introducing “marketisation” (privatisation) competition into VET was meant to increase quality, responsiveness, efficiency, access and more equitable outcomes, the impact of competition has particularly disadvantaged regional and remote Australia, as well as disadvantaged learners generally.

These are the conclusions of Dr Don Zoellner (pictured, left), of Charles Darwin University in Alice Springs, who presented his findings at the Community Colleges Australia national conference in Brisbane on 19 November 2019.

Dr Zoellner’s research examined national and state VET delivery over the period 2004 to 2017. He consistently found that regional and rural government-funded and total VET student percentages and numbers decreased much more than in major cities. He also found similar patterns for the lowest socio-economic quintiles (bottom 40% of population), with the number of students dropping in comparison to increases in the highest socio-economic quintiles (top 40%).

Read Dr Zoellner’s presentation here and a summary of the presentation here.

Dr Zoellner concludes: “The results from big data sources show that the national pattern of … facilitate[ing] contestable markets for VET delivery has not met the range of expectations promised by advocates of user choice. Instead, not only have access and equity goals been seriously diminished, but an equally valid range of other choices have also been reduced or ignored.”

Other extracts from Dr Zoellner’s presentation:

Victoria regional and rural delivery: While student enrolments decreased in all areas of the state between 2009 and 2017, due to cost blowouts, with reductions of 25.9% in major cities and 40.1% less in inner regional, the major impact was felt in outer regional areas (down 61.1%) and remote areas (down 80%). The further students were located from the major city region the greater was the reduction of access to training rather than the promised benefits of the market. In 2018, Victoria had 1014 RTOs: 88% in major cities, 10.8% in inner regions, 1.5% in outer regions and none in remote areas. Of the 777 private for-profit VET providers, only 65 (8.3%) were located outside major cities.

New South Wales regional and rural delivery: From 2004 to 2017, NSW VET delivery has progressively shifted from remote and regional areas to the major cities and the nearby inner regions. Smart and Skilled continued this trend, with major cities and inner regions gaining 10,000 students (up 8.7%) and the outer regions, remote and very remote losing 6,700 students (down 8.7%) between 2013 and 2017. In February 2019, NSW had 1142 registered training organisations headquartered in the state, 98% of them based in major cities and inner regional areas. Of the 972 for-profit NSW VET providers, only 90 (9.3%) are located outside major cities, of which only 10 are in outer regional areas.

Training package enrolments: The intended expansion of the range of occupations and qualifications as part of providing increased choice for students has not materialised nor is the VET market reflecting the new occupations being created in the modern labour market. It is likely the large increase in private provision has been driven more by the qualifications that are profitable to deliver rather than those that meet local needs and preferences.

Decline in community providers: The research shows that the number of learners studying through government-funded VET with adult and community education providers has consistently declined from 10.7% in 2004 to 5.7% in 2017. The number of students has declined from 233,700 in 1998 to 68,200 in 2017 (down 71%), an even more dramatic decline than TAFE (down 54%).

Dr Zoellner’s conclusions:

  • VET public policy implementation has been successful in reducing government expenditure, increasing the diversity of providers and implementing a contestable market.
  • In spite of new technologies, VET studies are increasingly concentrated in fewer training packages, courses and fields.
  • The markets have shifted training (and RTOs) into major cities and out of regional & remote localities, removing training completely for some residents.
  • Increases in number of Indigenous students likely reflect population identification rather than equity improvements.
  • VET delivery is being shifted from the most disadvantaged to the most advantaged.
  • Choice of provider has come at the cost of choice of training location, mode of study, course offerings, range of occupations, levels of study and post school options or even choice at all.
  • Access, equity and the support for lifelong learning have not been achieved despite the stated intentions in many glossy policy launches.
  • Despite taking different trajectories, Victoria and NSW produced the same results by creating their own VET markets.

Sources for Dr Zoellner’s research: the full conference papers can be accessed from: VOCEDplus:

Community Colleges Australia comment

Dr Don Perlgut, CEO of Community Colleges Australia (CCA), comments

“Dr Zoellner’s research findings are both deep and profound. He has definitively proven what we have sensed for a long time. As Dr Zoellner says, the gains obtained through ‘the creation of contestable VET markets driven … came at a substantial cost.’

“That cost can now be measured in how regional and rural Australians have progressively missed out through the withdrawal of VET services. This is paralleled by a progressive shift of VET resources from lower socio-economic learners to higher income learners – just the opposite direction from where it should be heading.

“Who is left servicing regional and rural locations, and who specialises in serving the most vulnerable and disadvantaged learners? Not-for-profit community providers. Even TAFE has reduced regional and rural services in many areas, and the not-for-profit community education providers have picked up a great deal of those in need. But regional and rural servicing has not been accompanied by proper funding. There’s a reason why for-profit RTOs avoid outer regional locations and try to skip non-metropolitan locations generally: it’s expensive.

“It is imperative for the Commonwealth and all state governments – especially Victoria and New South Wales – to absorb the lessons that Dr Zoellner’s research teaches us. Marketised funding means those in most need miss out. Let’s try to fix that system,” said Dr Perlgut.

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