Linda Simon says that the vocational education and training (VET) system in Australia has faced many challenges over a number of years, including cuts to funding, lack of government attention and a system that has enabled students to be rorted by unscrupulous providers. Yet, current events and processes do not give one confidence that this is all about to change.
November can be an important month of the year in the vocational education and training calendar. The Australian Training Awards occur, and this year they took place in Darwin with some wonderful inspiring people of all ages taking out the Awards, showcasing their skills to the nation. The second is that State and Territory VET Ministers often use the opportunity to meet with the Commonwealth Minister, discuss VET issues and make some decisions.
This year they were due to meet on 18 November in Darwin as the COAG Industry and Skills Council, but only three Ministers turned up from Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory to meet with the Commonwealth Assistant Minister for Vocational Education and Skills, Karen Andrews. You would think that they had nothing to talk about, that all was well in the world of VET! As there was no quorum, no formal decisions could be made, and out of session procedures will need to occur. The agenda included:
- Registered Training Organisation (RTO) regulation
- Training Package reform
- Training Products reform
- Assessment review;
a host of needed reforms in the sector.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Australian Industry Group and Business Council of Australia released a joint statement the day before, calling on the Council to meet and put in place “a comprehensive and cooperative reform agenda … to ensure our young people, workers and businesses will reap the benefits of a world-leading vocational education and training system”. Their statement points at problems with the apprenticeship system and Training Packages, calling on the Council to address these issues. But their calls were apparently in vain.
The scandals around the VET FEE-HELP scheme and the need for greater oversight of a flawed marketised VET system surely deserved more attention from VET Ministers than just a no-show! $2.9 billion was borrowed to fund VET FEE-HELP loans as of 2015, and the Government has stated that it does not expect a large proportion of these loans to be repaid.
Whilst the Government has stated that the new VET Student Loans scheme will commence at the start of 2017 and that the VET FEE-HELP loan scheme will cease on 31 December 2016, the package of three bills to replace the VET FEE-HELP loan scheme with a student loans program, is at this time still in the Senate. The VET Student Loans Bill 2016 provides that student loans are approved only for eligible students for approved courses; limits course eligibility for loans through a courses and loan caps determination; imposes stronger eligibility requirements for qualification as an approved course provider; bans providers from using brokers or agents to interact or engage with students in relation to the loans; and provides for monitoring and investigations powers and enforcement powers such as civil penalties, infringement notices, enforceable undertakings and injunctions.
However, there are two main problems:
- That it is unclear whether the additional regulatory requirements under the new scheme will be effective in ensuring appropriate provider behaviour and lead to better student outcomes;
- There are concerns that the transitional measures do not go far enough to support students who have incurred a loan debt under the old VET FEE-HELP scheme due to inappropriate provider behaviour
However in what has become typical around VET policy, this has been another rushed process, with Labor and possibly the cross-benchers having amendments to improve the Bills but only another Parliamentary sitting week to go for the year. One might have thought that concerns such as these would have been enough to draw the Ministers to Darwin to discuss possible ways to tackle these continuing problems
What happens if these Bills are not enough to prevent similar behaviour from private providers looking to make money rather than provide a quality educational experience? Is there just another patch-up and hope for the best again? What is required is a comprehensive, independent and well-resourced Inquiry into the whole tertiary sector. This Inquiry would set out to define the respective roles and contributions of the various types of institutions constituting the Australian tertiary education system, including Community providers, private providers, TAFE Institutes, teaching universities and the top research universities, together with the pathways allowing for the fluid movement of students through the system. It would also redress the serious and growing imbalance in public funding to VET relative to higher education, consider how student contributions can be made according to their means without creating a further debt crisis in this country and whether Australia needs over 4000 organisations in the artificially competitive training market. Such a holistic approach is essential. The introduction and implementation of VET FEE-HELP, and now the VET Student Loans scheme, are prime examples of what can happen when public tertiary policy is made on a piecemeal basis and when the Government seeks to fix the problems arising from marketising vocational education by introducing yet more marketisation.
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 AVETRA, 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.