LINDA SIMON. Australian VET in crisis! Are there lessons to be learned from the UK?

Aug 5, 2016


For some the crisis in vocational education and training (VET) and the fate of TAFE was a critical issue in the recent Australian Federal elections. For others it hardly made the radar. Unfortunately a number of those others included members of the re-elected Federal Government. Karen Andrews is now the fifth Minister or Assistant Minister responsible for VET since September 2013, bringing another new face to the sector.

The continuing crisis in Australian VET has ranged across many areas. There have been extraordinary rorts by some for-profit private providers using government funded student entitlements and loans as their private cash-cows. Aggressive marketing tactics have lured potential students to sign up to courses that do not deliver a quality education or a useful qualification. In 2015 the cost to the Government of the VET FEE-HELP loans scheme blew out to $2.9 billion, with the acknowledgement that many students will never earn enough money to pay off these loans, incurring a lifetime’s debt.

Governments have spoken of the importance of VET to Australia’s economic productivity, but government real recurrent expenditure per annual hour for VET has declined 31.5% over the last 10 years. The forward estimates in the 2016-17 budget show a further cut of $500 million. Apprenticeship numbers are down, and community and industry has lost confidence in VET. On top of this are the continuing cuts to TAFE’s funding, facilities and staff, undermining the role of Australia’s public VET provider.

A recent report from the UK ‘Post-16 Skills Plan’, accepted by their government, recognises some of the challenges that Australia has also faced in VET. However the UK has not sought to address the problems by cutting the heart out of the sector, but is looking to have a different conversation. The UK is also concerned about the status of their VET (now technical education) sector, the complexity of the number of providers and qualifications, the standards of some of the courses on offer, and the need to move to higher levels of technical education to meet the need for technician level skills including in STEM areas. Whilst some of the problems may be similar, this does not mean that the answers for the UK are those that we should adopt here. But recommendations in this and other UK reports on skills, apprenticeships and adult learners, can at least provide us with insights as to different conversations that we could engage in.

The UK report sets out to offer young people post-16 an academic and a technical option of education. The technical option offers a college-based technical education which includes a work placement or employment based technical education such as an apprenticeship with at least 20% college-based education. The college based education includes transferable workplace skills. Students have the option of then moving to higher levels of technical education or degree apprenticeships. The technical education qualifications will be simplified into 15 routes, centred around occupational areas. Quality of all technical education will be regulated by the expanded Institute of Apprenticeships, and standards will be set by panels of experts in those technical areas.

Whilst student loans will be available for some higher level technical qualifications, funding will also be accessed via an employer apprenticeship levy.

In an Australian context, such changes would help to address:

  • the need for alternative funding sources. Surely if employers want a say in vocational education standards and outcomes they should also be willing to invest in its success;
  • a new status for the VET sector, building on its strengths, rather than making it a poor cousin of the university sector. As the report says VET should not be seen as the dumping ground for those students not taking ‘A levels’;
  • the need to increase the numbers of students attaining higher level VET qualifications in a wide range of vocational areas, not just increased numbers of Diplomas in Business;
  • support for VET’s role in building innovation in Australian industry; and
  • the need to diversify apprenticeship opportunities for young people and to take apprenticeships into degree qualifications.

The report also acknowledges that the social impact of an effective technical education sector needs to be recognised, not just the economic outcomes. Targets are recommended for involvement of equity groups, including an increase in the numbers of women taking up engineering apprenticeships. Recommendations are also made for investment in bursaries and funding to enable development of the teaching workforce.

But most important of all, as outlined by Gavin Moodie in his article for the Conversation on 22 July, is that the conservative government in the UK is questioning the effectiveness of many aspects of a market-driven technical education system. The original report comments on the high costs associated with ‘world-class’ technical education, and states that the committee drafting the report sees a “strong case for public funding for education and training to be restricted to institutions where surpluses are reinvested into the country’s education infrastructure”.

The Government’s report in response makes the following comments and recommendations:

Good technical education requires expert teachers and lecturers. It also requires industry-standard facilities which are costly to develop and maintain. A rationalisation of specialist technical education facilities is required, concentrating them in a smaller number of high-quality, financially-stable institutions which are easily recognisable to both employers and prospective students. We recommend that, when national and local decisions about the provision and funding of technical education are being taken, consideration is given to restricting funding to colleges and training providers which meet clear criteria of quality, stability and an ability to maintain up-to-date equipment and infrastructure.

Australia has been known to adopt overseas (particularly from the UK or US) educational programs and policies whether they are applicable to the Australian conditions or not. In this case our Government should be listening. Marketisation of vocational education and training has not worked in the UK, and it is not working in Australia. It is time to have a different conversation and learn some useful lessons from the UK.

Linda Simon, currently teaches in adult education at Charles Sturt University.  She is National Convenor for Women in Adult and Vocational Education (WAVE), a member of the Executive of AVETRA and an organiser of the TAFE Community Alliance.  She is a former TAFE teacher, Federal TAFE President of the Australian Education Union and Secretary of the NSW TAFE Teachers Association.


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