Education Public comment

Public v private: the great trade training debate

November has been a busy month for skills training in Australia. The federal and Victorian governments combined to announce funding for up to 62,800 new fee-free TAFE positions in Victoria – with the construction industry highlighted as a major area of need.

Meanwhile, the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) released a report suggesting that employers are more satisfied with training courses offered by private registered training organisations (RTOs) than they are with TAFE courses. The data shows that employers prefer RTOs across all seven key fields identified by the report, with the numbers painting a seemingly grim picture of the public TAFE pathway.

But is it really that simple?

Weight of numbers

Soon after the publication of the NCVER report, the Independent Tertiary Education Councial Australia (ITECA) – a membership-based peak body representing the higher education, independent skills training, and international education sectors – released a statement interpreting the findings as a major win for private RTOs. ITECA Chief Executive Troy Williams says the numbers paint a clear picture.

“What the NCVER data confirms is that independent skills training is great for students, great for employers, and great for Australia,” Williams says.

The NCVER figures certainly seem to support this point of view, especially when it comes to flexibility, assessment, and facilities.

Employer satisfaction by measure TAFE RTOs 
Relevance of skills taught 80.1% 85.7% 
Condition of equipment and facilities 74.1% 84.9% 
Cost-effectiveness of the training 72.8% 80.6% 
Flexibility of the provider in meeting your needs 66.9% 86.8% 
Trainer’s knowledge and experience of your industry 76.8% 86.3% 
Standard of assessment 72.9% 87.8% 
Overall satisfaction with training 76.6% 85.9% 
Source: Employers’ use and views of the VET system, NCVER

It’s not clear whether the timing of the NCVER report – released on the same day as the announcement of the additional fee-free TAFE courses in Victoria – was deliberate. What is clear, however, is that ITECA wants the federal and state governments to shift their focus away from TAFE and towards private RTOs.

“Currently, there is a significant push by the government to put ‘TAFE at the heart’ of the skills training system, which many employers are pushing back against,” Williams says. “Instead, ITECA firmly believes in putting students at the heart of the system, where their freedom to choose their preferred training provider is backed by the government.”

But not everyone involved in skills training thinks the NCVER figures – and ITECA’s interpretation of them – tell the full story.

A complex picture

Veteran educator Steve Smith worked at TAFE NSW for 35 years before moving to his current role of Education Relationship Manager at Superior Training Centre. As someone who has seen both the public and private sides of the training landscape, he offers a more critical take on the NCVER report.

“They say that numbers never lie, but as with everything, there are many ways to interpret the numbers,” Smith says.

He points out that some of the figures, such as assessment satisfaction, shouldn’t be taken at face value, as some private providers are more likely to offer recognition of prior learning (RPL) than their TAFE counterparts.

“The people receiving this would overwhelmingly report total satisfaction with the assessment process,” Smith says.

“Another consideration is that TAFEs tend to stick to nationally accredited courses, while the private organisations can quickly accommodate short niche training for manufacturers and the like. This has become a lucrative mechanism today, and a factor that is propelling state governments away from nationally accredited training.”

Smith also notes that the NCVER report isn’t always comparing apples with apples, as factors such as the quality, type, and duration of courses can vary dramatically between TAFEs and RTOs.

“Some courses take a couple of weeks, while others take a few years,” Smith says. “And students, particularly apprentices, can take four to five years to complete a three-year course.”

He adds that there are significant differences between non-trade courses, trade courses, and apprenticeships. And while the vast majority of students at TAFE are doing trade courses, the opposite is true in private RTOs.

“Non-trade courses require no resources so are considered low-hanging fruit,” Smith says. “Trade courses are in the low to moderate bracket, while apprenticeship courses are extremely expensive. Private RTOs tend to take all the low-hanging fruit, leaving TAFE with the expensive courses.”

According to Smith, the increased presence of private RTOs on the market has taken place as TAFE funding has been reduced over the past decade, leading to the current situation.

“Every state government has had a go at relinquishing the burden of public training in the vocational education and training sector, with a view to moving towards the university model where the student pays a very high proportion, if not all, of the cost to deliver the training,” he says.

“Funding to TAFEs around the country had reached an all-time low by 2017, triggering something of a public kickback. By 2020, politicians were tripping over themselves in an effort to return the TAFE mechanism to its previous status and funding, but the damage has been done.”

What’s next?

Smith’s read on the future of skills training in Australia is bleak, particularly for TAFEs.

“The only conclusion I see is a gradual move from public to private training, with the eventual shrivelling of TAFE to a minor, or non-existent, condition,” he says. “Many of the ‘informed’ people from TAFE have found new employment within the raft of private RTOs, accelerating the switch. We will soon see funding once again slowly stripped from the TAFEs around the country and funnelled into the private organisations.”

The end result? Smith believes students will bear the financial burden of this new model. 

Unsurprisingly, ITECA has a much rosier perspective. According to Troy Williams, the solution to skills shortages is to give students more freedom and provide more flexible solutions for businesses. 

“As businesses across the nation continue to grapple with skills shortages, the survey data shows that they have confidence in the work of ITECA members that deliver quality skills training,” Williams says.

Which training pathway do you believe provides the best value in the HVAC&R industry? Let us know in the comments below.

2 Replies to “Public v private: the great trade training debate

  1. Smith’s comments are based upon a false premise. Independent RTOs deliver more than two-thirds of higher qualifications (e.g. Certificate 4 and Diploma) and more than half of all apprentices and trainees. The NCVER data also shows Independent RTOs lead on all key measures of employer satisfaction.

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