Is this the vocational education and training system we need?

Jun 4, 2016

Hearing or reading about vocational education and training (VET) today, we expect it to be another story of rorts and wrongdoings. And it is an horrific story, a story of for-profit private providers accessing public funding and not delivering the education and training students expected. It is a story of a number of private providers using brokers to search out vulnerable and naïve prospective students, and signing them up to a lifetime’s debt with promises of free courses and iPads. How did we get to such a position in such a short time?

Unfortunately Australian VET students have been let down by both major parties. Federal and state governments have set about pursuing an ideology around creating open training markets with supposed choice for students as to where they will study, with funding following the student. Such entitlements have been introduced in states and territories, with significant problems, including the Victorian issue of an overwhelming number of personal trainers being qualified, despite the lack of jobs. Whilst this is just one example of a market failure, an open market dependent on public funding will of itself encourage behaviours that are focused on profit-making rather than a service of quality education.

The 2012 National Partnership Agreement between the Federal Government and the states led to a requirement for skills reform. For their share of an additional $1.7 billion, states were required to implement reforms leading to a training entitlement for eligible groups and access to an expanded system of income contingent loans through VET FEE-HELP. It is these VET FEE-HELP loans which have been the subject over the last year or so of much media interest.

These loans, like those that operate in universities, were supposedly to ensure equity in vocational education and training. Rather than making students subject to upfront fees, they could sign up to a loan which they would pay off when their earnings reached a certain threshold, currently $54,216. This would be available for courses at Diploma level and above, and a few Certificate IV courses.

The results were predictable. The number of students accessing these loans has increased from 5,262 in 2009 to around 272,000 in 2015. Public borrowing for VET FEE-HELP has increased from $26 million in 2009 to over $2.9 billion in 2015. The Federal Government does not expect a large proportion of these loans to be repaid. The average cost of VET course fees has increased from an average $4,060 in 2009 to $14,018 in 2015. There is no doubt that now many more students find the cost of undertaking a VET course truly challenging! Only six courses account for over half of all VET FEE-HELP loans, generally Diplomas in Management and Business.

This is the scandal that we are hearing and reading about. How training organisations were able to access these government funds by signing up students to courses they didn’t need, that weren’t delivered or that they did not have the capacity to undertake. When those organisations involved in such rorts were identified, a number closed their doors leaving students stranded and taking their money with them.

The Federal Government is undertaking a review of the current VET FEE-HELP system, and it is asking the right questions about safeguards that should be put in place for any new system. But unfortunately there appears to be a great difference between having the ability to ask the questions and having the courage to make the changes that are necessary. This current Government has not shown its willingness to take advice from the students and educators who matter, but rather to focus its decisions on the advice from just a small group of industry leaders.

But the other scandal that does not get the same attention, is that of our public TAFE system. There are now over 4000 providers of vocational education and training in this country. Do we need 4000 providers? Can we afford to regulate 4000 providers and ensure that they are providing students with quality vocational education and training? At the same time funding for vocational education and training has declined 31.5% over the last ten years, with the greatest impact on TAFE, the public provider. Government policies have led to a deliberate reduction in funding to TAFE, resulting in some TAFE Institutes becoming insolvent. The relatively new Labor government in Victoria has introduced a $320 million TAFE Rescue fund to reopen campuses and help restore confidence in the Victorian TAFE Institutes.

This is the scandal that also needs to be highlighted in this Federal election campaign. If we do need a quality vocational education and training system in this country, then we need to ensure that we maintain and fund a quality public TAFE system. This is a serious message for any party or candidate to consider in the lead-up to the elections. How can they help to ensure that the skills needed by so many Australians are delivered by qualified teachers in up-to-date facilities? It is not just the VET FEE-HELP system that needs reforming. It is time that there was a comprehensive review into the whole of vocational education and training, with the aim of ensuring a quality educational experience for all students into the future.

Linda Simon, currently teaching 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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