The Productivity Commission has undertaken a five year review of Australia’s productivity performance, identifying skills and the VET sectors as an area of concern. But have they got the answers?
The recently released Productivity Commission report Shifting the Dial: 5 Year Productivity Review makes the following statement:
The VET system is in a mess, and is struggling to deliver relevant competency-based qualifications sought by industry.
One would expect such a strong statement to be followed by recommendations for strong action, but unfortunately that is not the case. The report also identifies the need for confidence and stability in the VET system given the “raft of problems” that the sector has experienced. But the one recommendation does not address the VET status issue either.
The problems referred to by the report include rapidly rising student debt, high student non-completion rates, poor labour market outcomes for some students and unscrupulous and fraudulent behaviour on the part of some training providers. The wide scope of such problems would appear to require a wide range of solutions, but this is not suggested either. The report goes on to describe what might have led to these outcomes such as the expansion of VET FEE-HELP without “suitable regulatory oversight”. This in turn led to “considerable uncertainty and reputational damage to the sector”. Training Packages not “serving the needs of employers and students” and which were too vocationally specific was a further problem identified.
The recent overhaul of the VET system by the current Federal Government did nothing to address the well-documented problems with Training Packages, and again overlooked the mismatch between the needs of an innovative economy focussing on skills that include communication, creativity, critical thinking and adaptability and the very narrow vocational skills provided through many Training Packages.
Stakeholders consulted by the Productivity Commission for this report identified a number of reform areas required, including “the provision of more generic transferable skills, ensuring youth have good career advice prior to entering VET, and improving VET teacher capabilities and effectiveness”. The report also recognised that there has been a call by many in the sector for a “comprehensive re-assessment” or review of VET, but again the Commission shirked its responsibilities, and instead of supporting such suggestions or at least giving them consideration, outlined a proposal for the introduction of a “graded assessment” system to supplement the current competency-based assessment as its only VET recommendation.
Supposedly this “proficiency-based assessment for skills”’ would arise from a plan involving governments and the Australian Industry and Skills Committee (AISC). While there has been recognition for some time that in general assessment practices require strengthening, this is not the answer to a “system in a mess”.
The recent Union supported inquiry Taking back Control – a community response to privatisation – titles its chapter on VET as “VET Privatisation – a public scandal of the highest order”. It traces the story of privatisation in the VET sector, and agrees with the Productivity Commission in some areas. The report states: “The quality of the VET system is declining and students are facing debt for courses they either did not complete or were of a poor standard.” Both inquiries see quality and high costs of concern. However the Union-supported inquiry also gives focus to the impact of funding cuts in the VET sector as well as the implementation of the competitive training market, an issue apparently ignored by the Productivity Commission. As well as recommendations that address privatisation of public services, this report recognises the need to re-build the public sector role by resourcing TAFE and removing public funding from private vocational colleges.
It is interesting to consider both reports in the light of 2017 National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) report In their words: student choice in training markets, which as it says, represents the voice of students. According to this report, the factors that matter most to students in choosing a training provider are: training location; those offering advice and information (trusted influencers); timetables; fees and affordability; and the perceived quality of the training provider.
Again funding and quality are important factors. However not only are these real problems ignored by the Productivity Commission, but they are also named (but rarely addressed) by Federal and state governments alike. It would be good to see a comprehensive statement or policy by government or opposition parties that demonstrated their understanding of the scope of the VET sector and what is needed so that students can have confidence in their qualifications and job prospects, both today and in the future. Restoring confidence and quality and ensuring a strong public provider takes more than just money. It takes a vision for the sector, with funding to ensure quality, accessibility and broad educational provision from professionally qualified teachers.
Linda Simon has been a teacher in schools, TAFE and now at university. She currently teaches subjects relating to adult education at Charles Sturt University. She was Secretary of the TAFE Teachers Association for over fifteen years, and Federal TAFE President of the Australian Education Union for six years. Currently she is National Convenor for Women in Adult and Vocational Education (WAVE), an executive member of the Australian Vocational Education And Training Research Association, and an organiser of the TAFE Community Alliance. She has served on the Board of the NCVER and on the Board of Vocational Education and Training in NSW, and is an educationalist and researcher committed to equity and public education.