ASQA Review and VET Standards Consultation paper.

Well what a big week it has been with the release of the ASQA review and the Consultation paper on VET Standards, so which one to start on that is the question as I think no matter which one I pick and what I say there are certainly going to be a percentage of people who strongly and vocally disagree with me.

ASQA Process Review

A couple of points of note I think before I start looking at the review itself, firstly ASQA is a relatively young organisation having only commenced operations on July 1, 2011 and secondly, while it is referred to the National VET regulator, everyone knows that isn’t the sole regulator and does not have responsibility for all RTO’s across the country.  So onto the review; Firstly and I am going to come straight out and say this, I don’t think there is anything damming in the review, while there were 21 findings made in the review, they can and have been broken down into six main themes and when you examine the themes, a number of them have to do with things which are not entirely in the control of ASQA itself.  So lets look at the themes;

  1. ASQA’s existing ICT systems do not facilitate the most efficient and effective business processes for the future of ASQA as a regulator. – Implementing and maintaining efficient and effective ICT systems is something that affects almost all organisation at some point in the growth, be they Government, Private or NGO’s and as stated in the report ASQA has commenced an ICT transformation program.  As one looks through the actual findings in the review 10 of these findings relate to, or will be addressed by the ICT transformation program, so in essence almost half of the findings relate to systems issues to at least some degree.  I am sure that most of us have worked in organisations where ICT systems have not been as useful as they could have been and know the frustration for both internal staff and external stakeholders and clients.
  2. ASQA is constrained by a variety of factors in the regulatory architecture. These factors drive some process inefficiencies that impact its timeliness and transparency of operations. – ASQA operates under the requirements of two separate acts ESOS and NVR, having the government harmonise these acts would assist ASQA in its operations.  Again having worked in sectors where there were multiple acts which needs to be operated under, there is always limitations and inefficiencies that occur, particularly where there is a need for staff to move between acts.  This is more an issue about the regulatory system itself than it is about ASQA, the regulatory architecture itself makes the operating environment more difficult that it needs to be.
  3. ASQA has evolved its risk model, but requires additional data about the sector and ICT capability to deliver further improvement. – I don’t think anyone would argue that ASQA’s risk model is perfect, but this is a function of lack of data and the necessity for the model to be ‘Hand Tuned.’  The lack of data about the particular industries in which various RTO’s operate and the effects that this might have on the risk profile of an RTO’s means that ASQA’s risk model focuses almost solely on the provider itself, meaning that an RTO’s operating in a high risk environment like mining, is essentially modelled in the same way as an RTO delivering retail courses.  The ‘Hand Tuning’ of the risk model seeks to address this issue, but as indicated in something which has a range of limitations and is by its very nature somewhat subjective and definitely time-consuming.  Again however this risk modelling process is something, which with additional data sets and the ability to analyse that data more effectively should be improved markedly.
  4. A lack of coordination in training package updates issued by ISCs creates unnecessary work for Providers and impacts ASQA’s operations. – Yes yes it does and the lack of coordination of training packages and the way in which they are updated have always been an issue for the sector.  There needs to be a better system for dealing with package updates which make the process simpler and more efficient for both ASQA and the RTO’s.  However is this something, the blame for which can be laid at ASQA’s feet, no probably not.
  5. A lack of guidance and clarity about the rules for Standards and training packages is creating unnecessary work for ASQA and Providers. – Again, Yes, yes it is, but as indicated in the report ASQA are not funded to provide this guidance and therefore it seems difficult to take them to task for not providing this service.
  6. Communications with Providers are not fully effective. – Hand on heart and I have said this many times before, I have always found no difficulties in communicating with ASQA, however, I also know that other people have had a range of difficulties.  What is clear is that the majority, not the vast majority, the majority of providers think that communications are clear, effective, timely and accessible.  I would also agree with the two main issues raised, that is difficulty in obtaining information about your particular case, and the redirecting to the website.

So given these themes and the findings I think what becomes clear is that as I said earlier a large proportion of the issues around ASQA relate to data and ICT issues and with the exception of theme number 6, they are issues which are not entirely within ASQA’s control and even with theme 6 most providers seemed to be satisfied with ASQA and its processes.

 

Now onto the VET Standards Consultation Paper

Now to be fair I am only going to make some cursory comments on the VET Standards consultation paper at this point and will follow this up with a more detailed analysis early next week.  However, with that being said, what are the major changes proposed in the standards.

Well the first and most striking difference is that there is only 8 Standards, however it should be noted that some of the standards have quite a large number of parts to them, in general though they seem to make sense to me and clarify some of the issues that sat around the previous standards.  On of the things I am particularly happy is the requirement for independent validation of the delivery of TAE qualifications.  It makes sense to me and is something which I think is way overdue.

So with that little comment I am going to leave the Standards for the time being to give myself time to read over them in detail and make some more in-depth commentary early next week.

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Rubber Stamping and the Qualifications Factory Mentality

As I am sure almost everyone OTEN Part of Western Sydney Institute (TAFE)  has  been the subject of a report of rubber stamping of VET Qualifications on 9News.  Now whether or not the allegations are true or not is not what is really of interest to me.  What I find really interesting is that this sort of thing is still going on.  It wasn’t that long ago that the issues with construction qualifications in Victoria were bought to the attention of the media, we have  also seen ASQA de-register a range of RTO’s across several sectors for breaching the Standards and everyone I talk to knows at least one RTO, be they TAFE or otherwise who are well be shonky, be it across the board or only in relation to certain qualifications.

Yet on the other hand we see discussions at the highest level of government about returning regulation back to the states rather than having RTO’s regulated federally, and the suggestion that certain RTO’s would be able to self-regulate.  I am betting that most TAFE’s would fall into the category of being allowed to self regulate, yet if the 9NEWS  report is to be believed even in an environment of regulation they can’t be trusted to do the right thing and obey the standards.

The Australian VET system is one that is respected around the world and in general I think has a good reputation within Australia, but if we don’t see this Rubber Stamp, Qualification factory mentality stamped out, the industry will decline even further and will be nothing more than a joke.  But what can be done to ensure that VET maintains its high standards and that RTO’s be they TAFE’s or commercial providers, both maintain the standards and ensure that all of the stakeholders involved in Nationally Accredited Training in this country have their outcomes met;

  1. One set of rules, applied equally to all RTO’s whether they are a TAFE, a Commercial Provider or Enterprise,
  2. One regulator – A single Federally managed regulator, not the mishmash we have now, or a state based system or a self-regulated system, one single regulator, and
  3. A greater degree of regulation or at least investigation into what is actually being delivered by RTO’s and how it is being delivered.

Now I am not suggesting that this is all that is necessary, but it is i my mind a very good start.  Now I know that there are going to be people out there who disagree with these statements and would really like to hear what you have to say.  I would also like to hear from those who agree with me.

 

 

 

 

VET-FEE HELP, Diplomas, Certificates and actually getting a job

If you have no other skills or experience is a Diploma going to get you a job!

 

There had been a lot of talk recently about VET-FEE Help programs, the cost of the Diploma and above qualifications and the way in which these courses are being marketed by some RTO’s and their Agents, but in addition to all of the other things that trouble me about this issue, Debt, quality, outcomes, what really worries me is that it seems that a large amount of the marketing of these programs is being done to people who do not have any other formal qualifications and little who possess little or no experience in the area in which they are commencing study.  Which leads me to today’s question,

Is that Diploma that you spent $10-20,000 on actually going to help you get a job if you don’t have any experience or would you have been better spending $3000 or less (and much less if you are eligible for government funding) on a Certificate III or IV?

I think if we are being really serious about this, the answer is pretty straightforward; if you don’t have relevant experience or other qualifications a Diploma is not going to get you the job you think it will.  Lets look a scenario or two shall we.  So you are in your 20’s and unemployed, your friends say you would make a good counsellor, so when you see an add on Facebook to become a counsellor for no upfront charges and not have to pay until you make a certain amount of money you jump at the chance, particularly when you get a free Ipad as well.  So you do your course (which in reality ends up costing you nearly $20,000, but you don’t really notice because it is on VET-FEE Help), get your certificate and go and go and look fora job.

Now the real question here is is this person going to actually find a job as a counsellor?  My initial reaction is probably not, (ok they could set themselves up in their own business, if the course they have just finished is accredited with one of the registration bodies for counsellors, bet they didn’t ask that before they signed up) I don’t know many organisations who are going to employ someone with just a Diploma of Counselling and no other experience in the Community Services sector, particularly when there are a lot of people out there with higher qualifications and better experience.  So in the end the person takes a role in an organisation as say a support worker, or an admin assistance or intake officer, if they can get one, over people who actually have a qualification (which is likely to be  a cert III or IV) relevant to the role.

This is of course not just the case in the community sector, is just having a Diploma in Project Management is going to land someone a role as a project manager, probably not, again they will probably end up in a role like a project officer or something similar.

Of course the real problem with both these scenarios is that the person in question has accumulated a massive debt, to get (if they are lucky) a role they could have got with a qualification which would have cost them much less.

Unless you have some relevant experience, or at least some other relevant skills, then a Diploma by itself is not going to necessarily help anyone get a job, and they may well have been better off in the long run, doing a government-funded Certificate III program and saving themselves $10-20,000 in Debt.

But you know, that’s just my opinion.

Queensland VET Investment Plan 2014-15

So as most of you are aware the Queensland Government has released its VET investment plan for 2014-15, so let’s have a look at the plan and see who the winners are.

It is important to remember that one of the things which underpins the decisions made in the investment plan is the Annual Skills Priority Report delivered by the Ministerial Industry Commission and based on in part a healthy consultation process with industry.

At a high level we see the following

  • $225 Million in User Choice funding
  • $155 Million in Certificate III Guarantee funding
  • $55 Million for Higher Skills and
  • $26 Million for Strategic Interventions

There is also $154 Million allocated to Public Providers because “The department recognises public VET providers play a significant role in Queensland’s VET system and initially have a higher cost base compared to other providers in the market. To address this, the department has opted for an annual grant model to subsidise the cost differential, as opposed to a higher subsidy rate payable through investment programs. This grant will reduce over time as reforms reduce the cost differential faced by public providers.”

Out of the $225 million in user choice most of it goes towards Apprenticeship and Traineeship funding ($200M) with the rest allocated to a range of foundational, skill gap and other programs.

From the Certificate III funding most, as would be expected goes to fund Certificate III places with $10 Million for Cert I & II programs and $20 Million for foundation skills.

The $55 Million in higher skills funding is designed to meet crucial skill needs while not duplicating funding from federal sources.

The $26 Million in Strategic Interventions is broken up with $10 Million going to Community Learning (up to $400,000 per project), $10 Million to Industry Partnerships (up to $400,000 per project with a 50:50 co-contribution) and $6 Million to indigenous training (again up to $400,000 per project)

 

Now there has been some criticism levelled at the government for reducing the amount of funding provided there are now a wider range of  courses and programs being funded and in my opinion that is win.  Yes it means that some RTO’s will choose to increase the amount of the mandatory student contributions, but others won’t as the funding levels still provide a solid level of income in most cases it seems.

So is the 2014-15 VET investment plan a good one?  I think on the whole it is, it addresses some of the issues with previous funding models, and provides a fairly wide range of funded qualifications for students, wanting to either enter the workforce, change careers or upskill for a new role.  Will everyone be happy?   Of course not, the reduction in subsidies in some areas already has people alarmed, but all in all I think it is something that will work for at least the next 12 months.

 

 

So why do VET FEE-HELP programs cost so much?

I have to admit over the past week or so I have had a bit of a dilemma floating around in my head, it start when the changes to VET FEE-HELP were announced in the federal budget and has continued to grow across a number of discussions I have had in various forums and the fact that I am seeing more and more facebook ads for VET FEE-HELP courses.  So my question is really quite a simple one.

Why does the cost of a Diploma vary from $4000 to $20,000?

 

Now let’s be honest here and look at some figures, even at a base price of say $4000 per student, a cohort of 25 students produces a gross income of $100,000, however at $15,000 per student it produces a gross income $375,000.  I guess my question here is

does it really cost, even with making a profit, $375,000 to deliver a Diploma to 25 Students.

One of the arguments I have often heard around why some providers charge much higher fees for these programs than others is that their course is the best and provides the best outcomes and is delivered by ‘insert name here’, however these aren’t university courses we are talking about, these are VET, nationally accredited courses, all of which have exactly the same performance criteria and everyone who is deemed competent, whether they have paid $0 or $20,000+ for their Diploma ends up with a piece of paper that says the same thing.  It doesn’t matter how much you have paid for your Diploma, the system says they are equal.

The real problem I have with this is that there really is something that is not being made clear here and that is students opting for VET FEE-HELP courses are getting themselves into

DEBT

and often the students who are taking up this option are the ones who can really least afford it in the long run but who are seduced by slick marketing, new ipads or laptops and promise of never really having to pay it off, well unless you earn over, a dollar amount that could be changed tomorrow and severely affect your ability to pay your bills.

I also know that one of the arguments for the costs associated with the deliver of higher level qualifications is that there is a lot of administration and marketing and other costs  involved in the VET FEE-HELP system and that may be true, but even if the delivery of a diploma level program to 25 Students, with everything included (admin, marketing, student toys) was $250,000 ( and I have to say I think I am being really generous here) the gross profit margin is still 33%

I am trying really hard not to think that at least some of the providers out there utilising VET FEE-HELP as a part of their business plans are simply grossly overcharging their students and trying to suck as much money out of the Government and in the long-term the students as they can, but when I think about the figures it really does seem that at least some providers might be.

If anyone has some figures about how much it actually costs for the delivery of Diploma level programs under VET FEE-HELP or a justification for why a Diploma of Counselling and other course should cost a student in excess of $18,000 I would really love to hear them.

 

 

 

 

Creating a sustainable VET sector in Australia

How do we create (and fund) a sustainable VET sector in this country?

 

I was asked for my opinion on this question a little while ago, gave a fairly quick answer and have been thinking about since.  It is one of those questions which tends to dig into your brain and just keep niggling at you for an answer, well more precisely a good answer, or at the very least a better answer than the last one you had.

So why is this question so difficult to answer, primarily I think because there are so many factors to consider when even beginning to think about a question like this.  The problem is also, that there seems to be a not insubstantial number of people (on all sides of politics and everywhere else as well) out there who seem to think that this is a fairly easy problem to solve, where as in reality it isn’t.

For me the place to start when thinking about all of this is the first word in VET, that is Vocational.  This is a system which, at least to my mind, is about vocational outcomes, it is about meeting the workforce needs of the various industry sectors.  It is not a system whose purpose is to create wealth for RTO’s be they public, private or enterprise, or so that organisations can back away from their responsibility to train staff, or to reduce government unemployment statistics.  This is a system whose purpose is to skill people to either get a job or to be better at the job that they already have.

One of the big questions around a sustainable VET sector is of course who pays for it? Which of course brings up a number of really salient questions such as;

  1. What courses should the government fund and at what level?
  2. Should participants contribute to the cost of their courses?
  3. If particular industries need particular skill sets should they have to foot the bill themselves?
  4. Should industry be subsidises for training its staff?

These are all tough questions and I think that the real answer sits somewhere in the middle of the whole swamp of competing agenda here.  We need however to have some sort of sustainable, sensible, cohesive approach otherwise we end up in this strange situation where for example a Diploma of Counselling can cost you between $0 and $20,000 depending on the provider you choose, your circumstances, your employment status and your employer.  That is a big variation in cost for a course which by its very nature should have the same outcomes for students whatever they pay, as everyone is assessed against the same performance criteria.

However I think if we look at thing through the lens of vocational outcomes, funding and sustainability becomes a lot clear, because after this is a system which is supposed to build capacity and capability.  I know this might sound harsh to some, but I have long thought that if a course is not going to result in ‘real’ vocational outcome, like a job, or an increase in productivity or a decrease in workplace incidents, then it shouldn’t be funded.  Further if it is ‘less sexy’, less well paying, difficult to learn or where there are large shortages of trained staff, then there should be more funding, better incentives and easier processes around those qualifications.

The big thing for me is that the system needs to be driven by the workforce needs of the States and Nation as whole, it is not about what providers need or want, again be they TAFE, private RTO or enterprises, or the particular agendas of industry groups.  It is about what is is we as a country need to keep us moving forward and meet our workforce needs both now and into the future.

So do I have a definitive answer, no, do I have ideas, yes and one day with some luck they might form themselves into a more cohesive package of thinking, but for right now it is something that I like to toss around in my head from time to time.

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