Could Private RTOs replace TAFE

So for a while now I have been tossing this idea around in my head as, in the great tradition of philosopher’s everywhere, a thought experiment and I just wanted to put some of that thinking down on paper to hopefully garner the opinions of others.  Firstly it needs to be said that I am a believer in equality of educational opportunity, everyone should have the same opportunity to receive the best education and that, within some boundaries, that education should be available at little or no cost to them.  I will talk about boundaries and co-contributions in a later piece, but any structure or framework for the delivery of educational outcomes need to meet the equality of educational opportunity position.  Now it has often been suggested that it is the equality of educational opportunity proviso which creates the need for public educational institutions to deliver such outcomes.  I would posit, that this is not necessarily the case, that at least theoretically one could construct a system where public education was replaced by private providers, particularly if we are able to let go of ideological positions.  Now before we go on, while I think I could probably make a case across the entire realm of education I am going to in this instance restrict myself to considering the delivery of Vocational Education and training.

So the question then for me becomes could non-public RTOs replace public providers (TAFE)?  Now there are in my opinion some areas where we have and also probably should have seen the vast majority of vocational education being delivered by non-public RTOs.  Take for example the community services sector, an enormous amount of training in the community services sector is already outside of the public provider system and of that training, a significant proportion is done by organisations (mostly not for profits) who are already service providers themselves and who hold RTO status to either simply train their own staff or their own staff and other people who want to enter the sector.  We see disability support providers delivering disability training, aged care providers delivering aged care, and despite some arguments to the contrary doing it quite well and meeting the needs of their own sectors.

So could this concept be translated to other areas?  One of the arguments raised by the public sector against the proliferation of non-public providers is that non-public providers play in the low delivery cost, high student number areas (often referred to as low hanging fruit), which leaves the public providers with having to deliver high cost, both in terms of delivery and infrastructure, programs and programs which may have very small intake numbers, which makes them less financially viable therefore requiring more support.  However, and here for me is the nub of the question, are for example trades, such as plumbing and electrical, delivered by organisations other than public providers?  The answer is, of course they are, they are delivered by industry associations, employers, and other non-public providers.  So if and again I would posit that this is the case, non-public RTOs are just as capable of delivery training and assessment programs across the range of qualifications within the VET system, given that they have or have access to the appropriate resources and infrastructure, the argument, if we ignore ideological commitments, is simply one about funding and structure.  If we ignore ideological positions, there seems to be no fundamental reason why public institutions need to be involved in the delivery of vocational education.  It appears that we could develop a framework where all of vocational education and training was delivered by non-public providers and that we could still meet the proviso for equality of educational opportunity.

Bear in mind here I am looking solely at the delivery and assessment of vocational education, I am not considering the other social contributions it is often suggested public providers make to communities, however as I have suggested in other places at least a significant proportion of these social contributions may be able to be achieved through other means.  Also it is important to note that I am not suggesting that this is what we need to do, as I said at the beginning I am simply tossing an idea around in my head to see where it leads me, and it seems, that it is possible to hold a position that says there should be equality of educational opportunity and at the same time hold the position that there is no requirement for the public provision of Vocational Education.  It appears that the basis for the public provision of vocational education is at its heart an ideological one and that equality of educational opportunity could be met through non-public provision given the right regulation, structures and funding.  There seems in my view no fundamental reason why public provision is required.

Anyway, as I said I am just playing with some ideas here and my thinking is still very early on a lot of this, but I would appreciate any input that others might have about this.  I would ask though that as I am particularly  focusing here on structural and theoretical ideas and not on an ideology that prefaces on viewpoint or another, that if we could keep ideological positions out of the mix that would be useful.  At least in the first instance I am simply interested in whether or not it is possible to create a structure of non-public provision which could meet an equality of  educational opportunity proviso and achieve outcomes similar to what are currently being achieved.

About pauldrasmussen
Paul Rasmussen is one of Australia’s most widely read Vocational Education and Training Commentators. He provides deep, unbiased analysis and insights not only on topical issues, but also on the underlying structure and policy which supports the industry. His writing and analysis has been praised for its uncompromising and thought provoking style and its ability to focus on the issues of real importance to the sector. He has advised various government departments and ministers, training providers, public and private organisations, not for profits and small to medium enterprises on the VET sector and the issues and opportunities facing it. He is one of Australia’s most awarded learning professionals and a regular speaker at a range of conventions and forums. His extensive experience in vocational education, and learning and development coupled with formal qualifications in philosophy, ethics, business and education management allow Paul to provide a unique view of the road ahead and how to navigate it.

8 Responses to Could Private RTOs replace TAFE

  1. David Lang says:

    I personally don’t think that there is any difference between TAFE and private providers – apart from the obvious funding implications.

    Both types of institution should be following national training guidelines, so outcomes should realistically be the same.

    Of course, that is not the case due to the “open market” having the ability to respond more rapidly to market variables.

    However, TAFEs have traditionally been excellent for trades training and I would like to see this continue.

    One key issue that I have seen for many years is the fact the many RTOs (public and private) have limited links to industry so that students can receive “real life” experience. Even apprentices, who are working in their chosen industry, often have trouble practising what they are taught in class back at work.

    I’d like to see a more robust network that allows students to get exposure to a range of job sites and industry practices. Not all businesses need to be involved (there’s clearly issues with insurance and liability), but those interested could be supported and encouraged to help with the professional development of the workforce.

    Yes, group training providers work along these lines, but I’m sure there are ways to offer a better solution for the practical development of students. Plus, this could surely address a number of issues with skills shortages, etc.

    I’m sure there are lots of issues not raised here, but it is just a suggestion. look forward to hearing thoughts.

  2. Rob Beckett says:

    The following thoughts and views are my own and are not necessarily representative of any TAFE.

    I have just seen this discussion and while there is no real reason why training currently done by TAFE can’t be done by private RTOs and I feel it is being done by private RTOs.
    There is another dimension to the discussion. TAFE is flexible, does deliver onsite assessment and training, and provides online, face to face and blended delivery. In trade and business areas they do offer simulated worksite experiences for training that mirror actual job sites and conditions and also offer training in specialist areas that not all apprentices get a chance to experience in the workplace.

    More importantly look at having TAFE’s released from the confines of Government cutbacks and sudden changes, (not policy changes as every RTO is affected by those) and let them operate in the market place without those restrictions placed on it by way of charters and social agreements. If TAFE could operate this way, it too then adapt rapidly and could pursue the types of programs private RTOs can, finding the bums on seat courses and delivering those to maintain its viability. Not that they aren’t doing that to some extent but they are large organisations delivering thousands of courses across vast areas or Australia in all states and territories.

    If private RTOs had to operate under the direct control, funding implementation and whims of Government, it would become much clearer to all as far as the restrictions to planning, responding to Market and Industry needs is concerned, that TAFEs have to work with.

    It is not simply ideology or the Social responsibility arguments at play here. Private RTOs have the ability to react quickly, change direction, plan and make their own decisions good or bad. They can make decisions, change buildings, up or downsize, within their own organisation, while TAFE’s need to have approvals to change almost anything and has to carry enormous inherited infrastructure.

    My trade industry has very close ties with TAFE as do many trades that I have contact with, we validate all our training with them regularly. Skills Council National Cooperatives across Australia exchange ideas and strategies online and face to face with RTOs both TAFE and Private. The Wall & Ceiling Lining industry national body is an RTO in Victoria and we still maintain a professional working relationship.

    As far as trade training is concerned apprentices have suddenly gone from $2,000 for 3 years of trade training (often CITB fund subsidised) including onsite, face to face and online delivery, to approaching approximately $6,000. This when the expected newly trade trained worker can only expect to earn $50,000pa (SA) working 6 days a week. This has all but decimated some trade areas as employers cease to hire apprentices and leaves apprentices with large debts to complete their training.

    Industry does not want to pay for training (Generalisation I know), but screaming for trained workers in some states, Government doesn’t won’t to pay for training, someone does have to train the disadvantaged and deliver the expensive materials intensive courses and TAFE seems to be it for now anyway.

    Not for profit organisations do an excellent job training in many areas that TAFE’s also work in and other private RTOs contest almost all funding areas and as long as they abide by the ASQA requirements, deliver quality training to students, deliver the courses as per the training packages and outcomes for students I believe that they can and will deliver training in competition with TAFEs.
    That is the market forces at work, my thoughts anyway.

    • pauldrasmussen says:


      I agree with what you are saying. One of the problems for TAFE is that extended bureaucracy, and the amount of additional restriction that is placed upon them, combined it restricts the ability of our public institutions to adapt to rapidly changing environments. This gives non-public providers an enormous advantage in the marketplace, take for example the RTO and organisation I work for, if we need or want to change something or move in another direction to meet market need, I am able to simply do that and move in the direction we want to, and if it means hiring or firing staff or other changes it just happens. Even quite large expenditures often done as a result of a quick chat with our overall CEO. This enables us to be incredibly responsive and take advantage of changes very rapidly.

      thanks for you comments.

  3. Mark Jones says:

    Hi Paul,

    Again very insightful commentary. I personally don’t think that there is any difference between TAFE and private providers as all are now governed by a National Standards framework administered and managed by ASQA. I guess the big difference is the funding support, eligibility criteria and subsidies differ from one group to the other.

    At the end of the day it’s all about who is best placed to deliver on the needs of both industry and the individual learner? That question in itself has been debated for the past 20 or so years. (MJ)

    • pauldrasmussen says:

      Mark, I agree completely, I was talking about it with a friend who is not involved in the industry yesterday and he said, why don’t they just fund the organisations that do the best job, whether it is TAFE or someone else. It really struck a cord with me, particularly coming from someone outside the industry. One of the things we have seen in QLD in the Community Services Sector and a range of others is that the vast majority of training is being done outside of TAFE by organisations who are service providers and training organisations because well they get and they are producing really high quality graduates who are more employable than those coming from the TAFE system.

  4. I would say the fundamental question is flawed. It is not who delivers but in how Education is resourced and who students are. This must start from early childhood to Adult education for a lifetime learning plan. This is what impacts on what quality is possible and what resources are required. What education can do for a person & society over a lifetime of 8 decades?

    What would happen if a childs psychometric profile and learning styles were known by 6 years as they do in some Scandawiegen countries? What if learning was a lifeskill taught before entering VET?

    Currently we have a growing market model where the definition of learners as clients v students is highly problematic.from I have purchased therefore you must… to providing after hours 24/7 support that counter the ease and economics of online learning.

    Balancing quality over quantity is difficult for any enterprise and the bigger the enterprise the greater the bargaining power.

    Instead what if education had a new model – A social enterprise model informed and supported by Local, Federal and Global industries. How many drama schools do we need???? How many paramedics are actually employed per-year in Aus v UK? what are the reasons for declines in certain industries?

    Linked up collaborative governance . Annually defined industry numbers and completion numbers of skilled personnelle required over 3 year projections with geographic and other sociographic and renumerative information. Applicants then know what their chances of gaining entry or advancement in the industry of choice was. And then those just wished to gain education for personal gain could do so.

    In return Industry pays a membership that institutions utilise to gain research and networking to attain the brightest and best. Scholarship positions could also be funded.

    Education would be a very different beast and the value of learning over income would needs to be attended to. And people need access to knowing what they don’t know before they and society and industry need it!!!

    • pauldrasmussen says:


      Education like that would certainly be a different beast from what it is now, under a model like that, and while I certainly appreciate what you are saying, and thinking about alternative ways to structure learning across a persons lifetime is important there lies at the bottom the fundamental issue that we have the system that we have and it is highly unlikely that any kind of change which significantly disrupted the ability of any of the education sectors to function is unlikely to happen, particularly where VET is often used as part of policy levers around employment, workforce participation and other similar areas. I agree that it makes (or should make) no difference who delivers vocational education whether public, private or some other form of provider it simply doesn’t matter. What should matter are the outcomes which students and the country get from the money which they spend on education.

  5. Kathryn says:

    Well said. There are some awesome private RTOs doing a wonderful job. While TAFE is restructuring many private RTOs are taking the opportunity to gain a portion of the market. If there is quality out there in training then it’s a win for the students.

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