Under the pressure of an upcoming Federal election and little action taken to address ongoing issues in the vocational education and training sector, in November 2018 the Prime Minister announced a review into VET. The review was to be undertaken by a New Zealander with a report due in March 2019. One suspects this is only ‘review lite’ for the VET sector with restricted consultations and limited recommendations.
On 27 April 2018 I posted a blog questioning why there was not a Royal Commission proposed for the VET sector. The blog reflected on some of the similarities between the types of behaviour that have led to a Royal Commission in the financial services sector, and those that have dogged the VET sector for a number of years now, including the rorting of customers/students, poor regulatory practices, funding being misused by some educational providers and a lack of confidence in the sector.
The blog also proposed several recommendations including students having their debts forgiven and the Government reinvesting in the public TAFE system to start rebuilding that confidence. But most of all I suggested we needed to know the full story as to what has happened in the VET sector. It’s not good enough to push the funding catastrophes under the carpet and say that we have moved on, unless all of the facts are put under public scrutiny. The Royal Commission has done that for financial services with 76 recommendations broadly accepted by the Federal Government and Labor opposition. These recommendations include compensation for customers to have their cases heard and greater oversight of the regulator by an independently chaired body and a further review in 3 years to ensure there have been changes. This might be a good place to start as well in VET.
The current VET ‘review lite’, states that it is focused on “how the Australian Government can ensure millions of Australians have the skills they need to succeed in a changing labour market. It will also focus on ensuring Australian businesses, including small and family businesses and businesses in rural and regional areas, have the skills they need to support their business growth.” That appears to be an enormous job, beyond the scope of a three month review. It also stated that there would be a series of focused discussions, but when the TAFE Community Alliance asked to be included, we were refused the opportunity. One of the Alliance’s concerns has been that the review would take into account the needs of businesses but not that of communities, a crucial area of VET activity
Major stakeholder groups have made some of their VET concerns public, including a call for a takeover of VET by the Federal Government. This proposal keeps on being revived every 5or 6 years, the last time being by the Abbott government. But whether this would be a useful change is dependent on associated issues raised by the Australian Industry Group (AiG), Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), amongst others. There is need for increased investment in VET, and one of the problems with a system where funding and responsibilities are shared between the Commonwealth and the states, is that often one side (or both sides) don’t live up to their responsibilities. As a consequence we now have the critical issue of an underfunded TAFE system in most states.
Aside from money, this Federal Government came into office and cut national independent bodies that provided research and advice to the sector. The loss of Skills Australia and the National VET Equity Advisory Council (NVEAC) have been felt in many ways, most importantly through the lack of bodies that talk to the sector including teachers, and provide advice to government. In turn, government needs to listen and be prepared to act. So whatever a new body might be called, there is a need for a national group representing more than just a few major businesses.
If it wins at the Federal elections, the Labor opposition has undertaken to conduct a review of the tertiary sector. This also is most important as current funding policies undercut the VET sector whilst building up higher education and schools. There needs to be a comprehensive post-school policy that supports the work and role of each sector and the opportunities for those who want to undertake education beyond their school years. What exists at the moment is a shambles and lacks any transparency.
Federal Labor’s proposed review is not a Royal Commission but it would appear to ensure that issues beyond the sector itself are recognised and made part of the deliberations. It might also allow the opportunity for many of the problems to be exposed and recommendations made to a government willing and able to enact them. One has to be a little sceptical about a review undertaken just before an election, with little chance of implementing any changes.
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) and an organiser of the TAFE Community Alliance. She has served on the Boards of NCVER and BVET in NSW, and is an educationalist and researcher committed to equity and public education.