Australia needs to stop using the term “VET Market”

Jul 7, 2023

Education should not be seen as a “buy and sell” commodity.

Words matter, and the choice of the term “market” when referring to Australian vocational education and training (VET) is more than symbolic; it shows a preference to continue Australia’s deeply problematic policy of marketising (substantially privatising) the VET system. The term underlies and reinforces a philosophy that private, competitive provision of VET services, including to disadvantaged learners, is the best means to skill Australia. I believe that is a wrong approach, and strongly encourage Commonwealth, state and territory governments to adjust their terminology to reflect a system that emphasises quality of provision and ethical behaviour by training providers, rather than a “competition” that seems like it will include “cost efficiency” as a major criterion. Lower costs will not equate with quality provision.

The latest example of “VET market” use is the title of a Commonwealth SEE Program discussion paper: Market Preparation Paper for Stream 1 of the Skills for Education and Employment (SEE) Program, issued by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations. Aside from the title, the Preparation Paper includes the following:

  • “Introduction of longer-term contract arrangements of up to 10 years to provide greater stability in the market.” (page 7)
  • “These will be detailed in the RFT when released to the market.” (page 8)
  • “This document, being the formal approach to market process for the SEE program.” (page 28)

Why not re-word those phrases:

  • “Introduction of longer-term contract arrangements of up to 10 years to provide greater stability in the VET system.”
  • “These will be detailed in the RFT when released to VET providers.”
  • “This document, being the formal approach to possible providers for the SEE program.”

Every time a department is tempted to use the phrase “VET market”, why not remove the word “market” and insert the word “system”, so it reads “VET system”. Does it still make sense? I suspect 99% of the time it not only will make sense, but it will also lead the reader to a better understanding of Australian skills and training, one based on how the system operates, not that it is a “buy and sell” market.

In what strange world do we now call the provision of foundation skills through the SEE Program, which delivers primarily to disadvantaged and vulnerable Australians, a “market”? In other words, use of the term “VET market” will continue Australia’s deeply misguided policy of VET system privatisation. I respectfully request all governments in Australia to change that approach.

Why have government agencies persisted in referring to Australia’s VET system as a “market”? Education should not be seen as a “buy and sell” commodity. Yet that’s exactly how Australian VET is treated. NCVER data tells us more than 74% of the 4.3 million VET learners studied with a for-profit provider in 2021. While most of those 3.2 million students at for-profit providers paid full fees, 36.6% of government VET funding went to more than half a million students enrolled with for-profit companies; TAFE had 45.5% of the nation’s government funded students; and adult and community education (ACE) providers only 5.1% – despite being the best providers in delivering to disadvantaged learners.

A growing literature and government reporting proves marketisation of government services in Australia is misguided and frequently produces poor outcomes, especially for disadvantaged learners and clients and rural residents. Marketisation encourages choice of service providers that bid “low” and can achieve a high profit margin with accordingly reduced quality. At the same time, marketisation has frequently hurt public and not-for-profit service providers, and assisted for-profit providers, adding to their bottom line. We need look no further than the disastrous experience with VET FEE-HELP, which The Sydney Morning Herald called “the biggest public policy scandal in Australian history: the systematic rorting of the vocational education and training system.”

Is this what we want from government-funded VET? To see for-profit providers taking the “easy” students in the most convenient locations, with the least disadvantage, leaving the hardest to reach and teach to the not-for-profit ACE providers and the TAFEs. If we persist in using the term “market” for SEE and other government programs, we increase the chances of that result and move Australia further away from the cause of ensuring education remains a public good.


Republished from Community Colleges Australia July 3, 2023

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