LINDA SIMON. VET system a dud? I don’t think so.

The VET system has again been criticised by the Government, this time by the Prime Minister in his recent address to the National Press Club, when he referred to it as a ‘dud’ system.

As part of his JobMaker plan for economic success post-COVID-19, the Prime Minister recognised the importance of “an educated and highly-skilled workforce”. As a consequence he highlighted there would be further reforms to the VET system to ‘fix the problems’.

The Prime Minister’s sudden interest in the vocational education and training (VET) system was revealed in his 26 May address to the National Press Club. Along with industrial relations, his main focus was on skills and Australians being “better trained”. The Prime Minister depicted the VET system as “clunky and unresponsive to skills demands”, and later in answering a question, that it was a ‘dud’ system not worth investing in. His comments raise a number of issues:

· Is VET a dud system? If so, why is this the case?

· Why is the VET system so often criticised by politicians, when the structure is of their making, and the funding cuts their responsibility?

· And why is the Prime Minister suddenly so interested in VET?

The importance of the VET system to drive skill development for a post-COVID-19 economy, has been obvious to most of us for some time. Jobs are changing and many will be different, whether as a result of scale, of the need to rebuild a manufacturing base in Australia, of changes to trading relationships, of changes to immigration and skilled overseas workers, the need for new innovative ways of working, or just due to different ways of doing things. Educationalists and educational researchers have for many years now been concerned with the narrow range of skills being developed through Training Packages, and the need for broader based education leading to multi-skilled workers; workers with the flexibility to adapt to a post-COVID-19 world and new job roles.

But this does not make VET a dud system! It does make VET a system that has been underfunded and short of supporters, particularly at the government level where there are few with real experience of the VET system and its educational potential.

According to the Mitchell Institute, total investment in the VET sector is at its lowest level in real terms since at least 2008. Most states and territories are spending less in real terms on VET recurrent funding than they did ten years ago. Total investment was only $7.7 billion in 2017, down from $8.2 billion in 2008. The Mitchell Institute makes the point that: “just as the country bounced back from the global financial crisis, it allowed spending on VET to fall as if there was no need to worry about the future.”

This story is not the same in other educational sectors where funding to schools and universities has not suffered the same cuts as in VET.

This is also the time to be worried about our future and the ability of Australians to meet the skills needs of a changed economy, and this is definitely the time to invest in VET. The Prime Minister appears to have discovered VET, but he has not made any commitments around an increased investment in the system. Instead he appears to be more interested in systemic changes including the role the National Skills Commission which will provide detailed labour market analysis, including an annual report each year setting out the skill needs of Australia.

Labour market analysis is not new in helping to drive skills development through the VET sector. Apparently the Prime Minister was not aware of the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, for one, set up in 2012 by the Government with two key functions: “to provide the government with independent advice on workforce skills and workforce development needs, and to provide advice on the allocation of Commonwealth funding. In providing this advice, AWPA would identify training priorities, helping to increase workforce participation, improve productivity and competitiveness, identify and address skills shortages and promote the development of a high skilled workforce”. Labour market analysis is not easy, and I imagine, even more difficult at this current time.

The development of Training Packages is driven by industry. The VET system over the last decade has been referred to as ‘industry/employer/business led’. If the system is ‘clunky’, it is partly as a result of an educational system put in the hands of those who are not educationalists and whose first job is not the training system. The ‘clunky’ bureaucracy that oversees the VET system has been created by governments. It is industry that has called for the “over 1400 qualifications” that the Prime Minister refers to in the VET sector.

The Financial Review last year identified that there had been 465 reforms to the training sector in the last 21 years, an average of one every two and half weeks for more than two decades. If there is a lack of national consistency and some problems in the VET sector, this could be one of the reasons. 465 piecemeal reforms.

The Prime Minister referred to the recent Joyce review and its recommendations. Few of these have been put in place, not that I am suggesting that a number of them should. We are still waiting for the Productivity Review of the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development, an agreement that the Prime Minister criticised in his speech. The interim report is due 5 June. This all begs the question as to how much tinkering the Government will continue to undertake of the VET system without addressing the real problems.

He said: So it’s time to make some changes.

  • Better linking funding to actual forward looking skills needs, based on what businesses need.
  • Simplifying the system, reducing distortions and achieving greater consistency between jurisdictions, and between VET and universities.
  • Increasing funding and transparency and performance monitoring. Taxpayers, students and employers should know where the money is going.
  • And better coordinate the subsidies, loans and other sources of funding, we’ve got to make the valuable support that is provided is going where it needs to go.

And with a further kick to VET, its hard-working dedicated teachers, other educational staff and its millions of very satisfied students, he finished: “And this is a system I’ve made very clear to Premiers and Chief Ministers that my Government would be prepared to invest more in, but throwing more money into a bad system does not get you results.”

It’s neither a ‘dud’ system nor a ‘bad’ one, Prime Minister, but serious investment and support is needed so that VET, and particularly the TAFE system, can rebuild into a flexible, innovative educational sector, that will meet the needs of a post-COVID-19 Australia.

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Linda Simon has been a teacher in schools, TAFE and now at Charles Sturt University. She was Federal TAFE President of the Australian Education Union and is an educationalist and researcher committed to equity and public education.

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