Health check for VET system

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has published the results from an expert review of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training (VET) program – and there is definitely work to be done.

Late last year, the Prime Minister announced an independent review of Australia’s VET sector to examine ways to deliver skilled workers for a stronger economy. The review was led by Steven Joyce, a former New Zealand Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment.

During the review, Joyce consulted with a broad range of stakeholders in each state and territory capital city, and in regional areas. He says that although most participants were passionate believers in the “learn while you earn” model, they shared some concerns about the system.

“Slow qualification development, complex and confusing funding models, and ongoing quality issues with some providers were cited as issues that needed addressing,” the report says. “Careers education, VET in schools and access for disadvantaged learners were also cited as needing attention to ensure VET continues to deliver for Australians.”

In all, the review contains 71 recommendations for improving the VET system. Many of these did not come as a surprise to those in the education sector, but there were some observations that raised eyebrows.

Numbers down for VET

The goal of the vocational system is to provide skilled labour for industry. And yet the report found that employer satisfaction with the Australia VET system has been declining in recent years. In 2017, a survey of employers with jobs requiring VET found that approximately 75 per cent were satisfied that vocational qualifications provide employees with the skills they need for the job. This compares with a peak of 85 per cent in 2011. Employer satisfaction is now at its lowest rate in 10 years.

The report also found that the VET sector is coming off distinctly second best in attracting students.

“Competition from higher education providers is strong,” the review notes. “Universities are offering sub-bachelor qualifications overlapping with qualifications offered in the VET sector. At the same time, increases in the school leaving age mean that more young people remain in school for longer. VET providers, particularly the bigger TAFE providers, are feeling squeezed in the middle.”

Over the past five years, enrolments in higher education have risen significantly while government-funded VET enrolments have declined. And a lack of government funding has not helped.

Funding for the sector is currently down 7 per cent in real terms compared to what it was nearly a decade ago. Over the same period, total government university funding has gone up by 28 per cent and funding for schools has gone up by 24 per cent.

“The vocational education system clearly needs a new vision and a new reform plan,” argues the review, “to help it improve its reputation and meet Australia’s skills needs now and in the future.”

The review recommends that the Commonwealth, states and territories agree a new vision for the VET sector that places work-based learning at the forefront of Australian skills development.

Concerns around compliance

One of the biggest concerns raised by participants was the variation in the quality between education providers.

Many providers and employer representatives were concerned about the continuing presence of what they called “tick and flick” providers.

“These providers encourage people to complete qualifications in a much shorter time than is standard (for example completing what is generally acknowledged as a six-month course over a three-day weekend),” the review notes. “It was argued that the presence of even a few such rogue providers gave the sector a continuing bad name.”

But the review also heard frustration from providers about the auditing regime, managed by the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA).

“Many providers, both public and private, had concerns about the way ASQA currently conducts its audits. These included concerns with the inexperience of some auditors and in particular what they saw as an excessive focus on minor issues that did not impact on the quality of teaching and learning. They were also critical of variability between the treatment of providers by different auditors and a lack of positive guidance from the regulator.

A previous report had already found that failure to comply was often not the result of unwillingness, but rather “being overwhelmed with the enormity of the task of compliance”.

The review noted that – although not within ASQA’s current view of its remit – it was vitally important to provide guidance to providers.

“A measure of a good regulator is not so much who it catches out as ensuring that the whole regulated community is operating confidently and effectively within the regulations set by the governing jurisdiction. Viewed in that way, the provision of guidance and advice is a crucial part of the role.”

Ranks and measures

In the longer term, the report recommended that ASQA should expand its auditing role to ranking providers on the quality of their educational offering and their management – in a similar vein to the New Zealand system. It would work with federal, state and territory funders to encourage high-quality providers.

The report also recommended that benchmark hours be specified in qualifications by qualification developers as a guide to the average amount of training required for a new learner with no experience in the industry to develop the required competencies in the qualification.

Benchmark hours should be developed for Australian Skills Quality Authority designated ‘high-risk’ qualifications first and then progressively introduced. They can be used by the Australian Skills Quality Authority and other quality assurance regulators as a guide to assist in determining whether delivery times in courses and qualifications are of a reasonable length.

The review notes that these and the other reforms will improve the system now and into the future.

“Most importantly, it will ensure millions more Australians are ready and able to take advantage of new opportunities for skilled work whenever and wherever they arise.”

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