If there is no crisis in VET, why is it so difficult to tackle “acknowledged weaknesses”?

Feb 9, 2021

How does the Productivity Commission see vocational education and training: is it about quality training needed now by employers and employees and provided by TAFE during the Covid-19 pandemic, or about a competitive training market?

Three recent reviews into vocational education and training (VET) with three very different perspectives. All suggest significant changes are needed but have any of them got it right?

The Productivity Commission’s Report on the National Skills and Workforce Development Agreement was released publicly on 21 January 2021, with the intention of providing advice to government around what should make up a new National Skills and Workforce Agreement. It acknowledges that a new agreement is needed and that it was commissioned to review progress against the targets, outcomes and performance indicators of the current agreement.

It also took into account the 2019 Draft VET Reform Roadmap, the 2019 Joyce review, and the 2020 Heads of Agreement for Skills Reform. The focus of the review was essentially around VET funding, pricing, national consistency and increased transparency. In its 500 plus pages, the report takes on a lot more, but little that is new. The Commission begins the report with the statement that it “has not found evidence of a vocational education and training (VET) system in crisis” but that VET has “acknowledged weaknesses”.

VET reviews over recent years have addressed a range of issues: funding shortfalls, the benefits of increased competition, qualifications meeting industry needs and future job requirements, better career advice and information on Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) for students, increased enrolments, increased apprenticeship completions, the role of VET in a tertiary sector, and sometimes a passing wave to VET’s role in tackling social inclusion. This report is no different. But it does raise the question: if there is no crisis, why is it so difficult to tackle these “acknowledged weaknesses”?

The report focuses on a continued competitive VET market, with recommendations stating:

  • Governments should continue to support the development of a more efficient and competitive VET market through informed user choice and a focus on quality, and
  • applying more contestability and transparency to public funding of TAFEs and enhancing the operational autonomy of public providers

Like many reports before it, this one is predicated on the basis that the competitive training market has been good for VET and for Australia. Many students, some of whom are still owed money due to shonky training providers, might have a different opinion. Many teachers in both public and private RTOs who care about a quality educational outcome for students, not just increased enrolments, completions and meeting audit requirements, in general also have different opinions.

The Productivity Commission report states in the Overview:

Competition is further weakened by governments reserving a large share of public funding for TAFEs. On average, State and Territory governments allocate about half of total VET funding to public RTOs without market testing. The remaining funds are contestable for both public and private providers. Altogether public providers receive about 70 per cent of public funding — the government-funded VET market is still largely a market of direct government provision. Recent years and the Covid-19 pandemic have seen a greater reliance on TAFEs for the creation of additional VET places and an increase in free-TAFE programs. While these programs may increase training overall, they come at the cost of reduced contestability in some markets.

This is a rather interesting commentary on how the Productivity Commission sees vocational education and training: is it about quality training needed now by employers and employees and provided by TAFE during the COVID-19 pandemic, or about a competitive training market?

There is a stark difference between this report and the just-released Macklin Review on Future Skills for Victoria. This is a state report that can go into far more detail than a national report, but the language and focus are different. This difference can be seen in the principles of “reform undertaken with the system” and that “place students at the centre of learning”. This report sets out to do a number of things the Productivity Commission should also have done. It:

  • addresses the need for leadership in the VET sector and sets up a new independent body FutureSkills Victoria. An independent body that includes all players, not just big business, is needed at a national level, and is surely one of those “acknowledged weaknesses”;
  • focuses on the future, not the past, which appears to drive the Productivity Commission thinking. Under FutureSkills Victoria, there will be FutureSkills labs to bring together educators and others to co-design new approaches to skills development;
  • recognises the importance of innovation to jobs growth, especially given the implications to the economy of Covid-19. The issues raised by the pandemic are mentioned by the Productivity Commission, but do not drive this report’s recommendations nor lead to forward-looking vocational education programs;
  • is about bringing together the partners in a variety of forums, to make the changes acceptable to all parties. This includes recognising the need to address continuing tensions with the university and community sectors;
  • is about supporting a quality TAFE network, with TAFE having a clear anchor role in the VET sector, a different perspective to the need to increase the competitive training market taken by the Productivity Commission.

The third report was undertaken by the Audit Office of NSW into the One TAFE NSW modernisation program. It was released just before Christmas when most teachers and students were on break.

It also is focused on the competitive training market and its implications for TAFE NSW. It refers to the 2016 government policy ‘A Vision for TAFE NSW’, which set up the One TAFE model, not to achieve better educational outcomes, but to reduce costs. This new model was to initially deliver savings of $250m. per year from 2018-19, but as the report finds, this has not occurred.

The report suggests that one of the problems for TAFE NSW was that it does not have the legislative autonomy to operate as a government-owned business in a market economy. The implication is that this is not a good thing, although the recommendations call for clarification as to how TAFE NSW should balance social and commercial objectives.

It is unfortunate that the report does not question whether these changes, so-called TAFE modernisation, were to the advantage of the students, organisational and quality educational outcomes. As one former TAFE Institute Director pointed out, the institute structures never made anything like the losses incurred by One TAFE.

Three reviews, a lot of public money. It would be good to think that a review as comprehensive and forward-looking as the Macklin review might be picked up by other states and territories, and dare we hope, by a Federal Government that is committed to quality vocational education and training.

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