An enormous thank you to everyone

I just wanted to say an enormous thank you to all of you my readers, both directly via the blog and those who contribute to the conversations on LinkedIn and Twitter.

When I started this blog a number of years ago,  back in 2011 as a bit of a thinking and conversation place for myself mostly around organisational learning, there was no way I ever thought that it would grow into what it is today, one of the most read blogs on Vocational Education and Training in Australia, with such an outstanding group of people who offer their own insights and commentary on the subjects and topics I talk about.  I have gained so much both personally and professionally from little project.

I am deeply humbled when I look at the number of people who visit this blog every day and the number of those people who choose to comment and interact either here on the blog itself or on LinkedIn or Twitter.

I like so many others of you believe deeply in the importance of the Vocational Education and Training sector to Australia’s future and ongoing prosperity.  It is easy at the moment to get caught in the darkness and the negativity and to fail to see the amazing work that so many people and organisations both public and non-public do in this sector to really help people, to change their lives. Everyday I hear stories of how VET has changed people’s lives and taken them to places they never imagined that could go and it makes me proud to part of it.

And while I am saddened by the activities of such a small proportion of sector, who put their own wealth over the outcomes that are possible for so many people who utilise vocational education. I am deeply proud to be associated with and be friends with so many outstanding people whose sole  goal is to provide Australians with the best possible educational outcomes.  I feel an enormous sense of privilege to not only know you all to one extent or another, to have so many of you read my sometimes a little ranty musings, but just to be able to work in this sector .  A number of years ago at the Australian Training Awards I was asked what it was that had kept me involved in Learning and Development and the VET sector for so many years.  My answer was simple, because when I wake up and go to work, I know in my hear of hearts that we are doing something good, something worthwhile, and something that changes people’s lives.

I still believe that and feel that way today, what we do matters, it changes lives, it creates futures for people and hopefully makes us better people in the process as well.

So to all the friends I have made along this journey, my readers, be they regular or one-off, all of the people who comment and offer their views, the people I agree with and those who challenge and argue with me.  Thank you and I look forward to us all continuing this journey for a long time to come.

So where exactly is this epidemic of dodgy private RTOs

So a lot has been made recently in the media and senate reports and in statements by places like the AEU and others about this epidemic of dodgy private sector RTOs who are ripping of the government and public and destroying VET in Australia.   Well I for one am just sick of it.  So lets look at some actual facts rather than sensationalist media beat ups and ideologically motivated political posturing and see if we can’t get to the bottom of it.

Much has been made by the ABC in recent days about the results of the ASQA audit into a number of VET-FEE Help providers with claims of only 1 in 3 VFH providers being compliant.  Rather than however relying on the ABC let’s go to the source itself, the actual report from ASQA and see what that says.

Firstly it seems really important to note that this was not a report on all providers, ASQA in fact only audited 21 providers approved for VFH. In order to understand this investigation fully we need also to consider ASQA’s methodology around this project.  There methodology was ‘analysing the 110 complaints and identifying 16 RTOs approved for VET FEE-HELP that were of concern to ASQA; ASQA had received complaints from two or more students about each of these RTOs. An additional control group of five RTOs for which there had not been any recent complaints were included—these RTOs were selected because each was a large provider with a significant number of students enrolled under VET FEE-HELP arrangements’.   Interestingly of the 110 complaints investigated by ASQA 21 were found to have insufficient evidence in relation to them, 20 related to matters outside of ASQAs remit and a number were about brokerages rather than RTOs.  After deciding on the 21 RTOs to include in the project ASQA audited them and interviewed 417 students across these RTOs.

Before we move on then lets just have a quick look at what this says.  Of all of the complaints received by ASQA there were only 16 RTOs out of more than the 270 VFH providers that had two or more complaints lodged against them, in fact 70% of all of the complaints ASQA investigated related to only 16 providers.  Slightly under 6% of VFH providers accounted for almost three-quarters of all of the complaints.  I don’t know about you but that seems like a small amount of providers rather than epidemic, widespread or rife to me, but hey that is just my opinion.  Before I jump to any other conclusions however we should look a little further.

Of the 21 providers investigated, seven were found to be compliant at the conclusion of the audit and a further 8 were found to be compliant, but ASQA determined that certain conditions may have been warranted to address potential issues.  71% of the providers investigated were found to be compliant at the end of the audit cycle.  Of the remaining six,  five are subject to some form of continuing scrutiny and one has had its registration revoked.  Hmmm I am still not seeing an epidemic, and it also seems to directly contradict what the ABC reported.

If we look then at the limited information supplied in the report on the figures for 2015.  ASQA has received an additional 162 complaints, which is more than in 2014, but, lets consider the context of these complaints.  Half of these complaints related to RTOs that were already part of the investigation project and 25 of them related to 4 providers who were already subject to regulatory activity and 1 for which ASQA has already issued an intention to cancel registration to.  So it still seems that looking at the continuing figures the vast majority of complaints relate to a very small percentage of all VFH providers (under 10%).  The real problem of course, or at least the reason that there is so media attention is the figures that are involved.  Problematically rather than the amount of money flowing from VFH to providers being spread fairly evenly across all providers, the vast majority of the money is going to a relatively small number of providers, in particular the very largest private RTOs in the country, of which at least a couple were included in the ASQA investigation.

The other thing that I find interesting about all of these media reports is that if you analyse them, they, almost without exception related to no more than 5 providers, in fact in most of the recent stories across the various media outlets there has been a focus on 2-3 providers, again some of the biggest providers.  Why?  Well that’s easy, that is where the sensationalist headline grabbing dollar figures are aren’t they.

I have said it before and I have no doubt that I will say it again,  there are issues with small percentage of providers, either in relation to VFH or in general, but that is all it is.  The vast majority (and this clearly born out in all of the figures) of providers are simply out there day in and day out providing great outcomes for their students.  But does the ABC or any of the other media outlets report that, of course not, because that isn’t news.


Anyway that is just my opinion.



Senate Report into Private VET Providers

So as most of you are aware the Senate Committee has recently release its Report into the operation, regulation and funding of private vocational education and training (VET) providers in Australia.  So I thought I would take at look at the report and some of the recommendations and put some thoughts and comments on it out there.

My first comment is on the membership of the committee which with 2 ALP, 2 Greens, 2 Liberals and one National Party member, does seem to be, just on initial observations slightly weighted to the left of the Australian political spectrum.  Not that this should in essence make a real difference one would hope, however as regular readers of this bog would note I have been quite critical of the very one-sided view of the VET sector which seems to be held by the Greens and in particular Senator Lee Rhiannon.  One would hope however that party political concerns could be put aside in these cases and that sensible and well-considered analysis of the facts and information be the central theme of the report.  Of course those of you who make it through to the end of the report will of course see that the Greens could not help themselves and had to make their own set of recommendations which only serve to show their lack of understanding of the sector and unwillingness to move from there uninformed (or shall I say informed by the AEU and others of that ilk) view that the only problem with the sector is that there are private providers and that TAFE can solve everything.

The actual report itself makes 16 recommendations, most of which at least on the surface seem fairly reasonable.  Now it is not my intention to look at each of the recommendations in detail, but rather just to comment on some of the major ones and some of the ones which might be viewed as little more controversial.

Recommendations 1-4 are just really common sense in my opinion, it is blatantly obvious that there needs to be a serious review into the VET FEE Help system, the providers utilising it and that methods of controlling the costs associated with these loans, particularly what could be termed as bad debts be considered.  I myself tend towards regulation around the actual upper limits which can be charged for various courses rather than a simply lowering of the overall threshold or some other method.  Insisting on certain prerequisites such as year 12 or equivalent may have an effect, but I fear unless rules like this are spelled out in intricate detail, all that will result if a repeat of the LLN skills requirements which was of course no barrier to unscrupulous providers.  Lowering the repayment threshold is also not a viable consideration as it does unfairly target those who are already in vulnerable financial situations and for whom a qualification may be of the most worth.

Recommendation 5 hits the nail on the head for me, as I have stated in other pieces there needs to be far better education of VET sector consumers to attempt to ensure that the ability of those unscrupulous elements to take advantage of uneducated consumers is reduced.

There are a range of similar themes running through the rest of the recommendations, most of which talk about regulation of the system and how this might be better achieved.   That there needs to be a serious and effective investigation of current providers is obvious in the extreme as is the fact that there needs to be some form of regulation of the brokerage market.  My opinion on brokerages is well know, in that I simply believe that in the vast majority of cases they serve no purpose other than to simply increase the price of a qualification and provide commissions to resellers who have little or no skills in relation to the sector.  It would be my personal position that I would rather the use of brokers for VET FEE Help programs be disallowed under legislation much as it is in relation to other government funding.  A particular example of this being the contractual arrangements around the QLD Vet investment plan subsidies where RTOs are prohibited from using brokers to recruit students.  This would in one fell swoop put an end to the brokerage industry and put the onus of ethical recruitment directly back where it should be, on the RTO and not require the need for additional regulation to be developed for brokers.  Removing brokers from the system would also I believe slow down considerably the flow the money to providers who were large users of brokers and also the more unscrupulous providers who rely on the ability of brokers to provide them with a continuing stream of new students. The concept of minimum standard hours while interesting is not one I think that would either be able to be administered in any way that made sense or have any real effect on completion rates and the ability of providers to manipulate the system.

The biggest single issue that I see within the sector at the moment is irresponsible, unethical and outright illegal marketing and student recruitment practices and most of these practices could as I have said above be resolved by the removal of brokers from the system.  On the general issue of quality of providers, I would make an open call particularly to those media outlets, like the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The ABC who have constantly bought up negative stories on the sector, which when one looks look at the content of, generally focus on a very small number of providers and then makes sweeping judgments about all providers, to actually come and look at the outstanding work being done in this sector by private providers.  I of course know that this will never happen because well that doesn’t sell does it.

I am also completely in favor of the concept of the a Training Ombudsman whose sole role is to deal with complaints and as has been suggested before close the loop, between providers, students, governments and the regulator so that everyone involved knows what is going on and is fully informed.

One final thing and this is that with any of these reports there is always a necessity to look at the background and agendas not only of those serving on the committee, but also of those who made submissions and how those submissions were interpenetrated by the committee, what information was taken out of them and in what context.  This is of particular note with respect to the information supplied by ASQA’s data and reports, where a casual viewing of the data may in fact be used to show something that a more in-depth review of it may not.  It is also of note when one considers the additional comments and recommendations provided at the end of the report by the Greens.  It is clear from these statements that the Greens came into the committee with a particular viewpoint and agenda and have in no way sought to be further informed or to change their ideologically motivated view in any way.


Anyway that’s just my opinion.


Can we improve online completion rates in VET

So as most of you are probably aware we are seeing evidence of very low completion rates for online learning programs in the VET sector in this country.  Indications early in 2015 were that those students studying in online only mode had completion rates of around 7%, as opposed to around 40% for those students which undertook classroom or workplace based training where there was shall we say face to face components of the training.  It is now being suggested that in reality online completion rates may be as low as 2% for a significantly worrying number of providers, with even strong providers having great difficulty reaching a completion rate of even 20% which is half that of general completion rates.

This situation raises a couple of questions for me;

  • Is online learning suitable for VET programs,
  • How do VET completion rates stack up against other online completion rates,
  • Why are rates so low, and
  • What can we do, if anything, to raise completion rates to a more acceptable level.

Before I go on I am going to put my heart on my sleeve and say that I am not a great believer in, in particular, online only programs in the VET sector.  Does this mean that I think that online learning has no place in VET, no.  What it means is that this is a competency based system, we all know that, and I have concerns that both for students and for assessors in online only courses proving that competency in a way that meets the required standards, while possible is I think far more difficult than in other environments.  I think that online learning in the context of VET qualifications may be useful when it comes to developing and assessing the knowledge components of a unit of competency, but where I have issues with it is in the development and assessment of the actual performance components, where more and more even in areas like community services we are seeing assessment criteria which say thing like ‘has provided information to 3 different clients accessing the service.’ How does one evidence and assess that through an online learning environment in any way which might simulate a real work environment.

Additionally (and it is important to note that this is anecdotal) it seems that at least a significant proportion of VET students who enter into online only training do not actually have a good idea of what they are signing up to do, the amount of work they will be required to undertake and the difficulty associated with working independently of other students and the other advantages of classroom based learning environments.  I have seen first hand a large number of students start as online students only to come back in a very short time frame and indicated that while they are happy to do the assessments online, they want to come to class, as they are having difficulties engaging with the materials and the assessments without that environment.

The next question is then how do the completion rates for VET courses compare with other online only programs.  If we look at MOOC’s in a higher education setting for example we see that completion rates seem to sit at around 7% which is it comparable, however we need to be careful with this figure because there is something interesting going on here.  The completion rate of 7% relates to MOOC’s where there course is provided at no charge to the participant and the participant receives only a statement of attendance.  There appears to be mounting evidence that when even a small fee is charged by the provider, ostensibly to provide the participant with a certified certificate of successful completion, that there is a significant increase in completion rates for those who choose to pay the fee.  Now given that VET students are paying quite a large fee for the privilege of completing their Nationally Accredited Training online one would think that therefore, if we look at the MOOC experience that there would be a fairly solid completion rate, but this seems not to be the case.

This then leads on to the next question, why are completion rates so low in the VET sector.  Firstly I think that if we relate this to the payment issue, unlike those paying to undertake MOOC’s, what would seem to be a significant number of VET participants have been sold the course on the ‘Study now, Pay later’ premise so that they do not feel like they have any financial commitment in the programs so if they don’t finish it, it doesn’t matter.  This is of course not the case with VET FEE HELP debts incurring on census date rather than on completion, so even if they do not complete the course  they still incur the debt.  While I think the issue of financial commitment to undertaking the course certainly has an impact on students mindsets in relation to completion, it is certainly not the only issue.  In addition there are certainly a range of other factors including;

  1. Lack of real learning support,
  2. Badly designed content (Often the content is very similar to in class content just provided in an online environment),
  3. Low digital literacy levels in students,
  4. Inappropriate courses for students (Students being enrolled in a Diploma when they would be better served by a Certificate level program),
  5. Complexity of both the learning material and the assessment tasks, and
  6. The need for significant time to be spent engaged with the online environment.

There are probably more, but these are I think some of the significant issues.

So what, if anything, can be done to improve the completion rates for online learning. One thing that may have an impact is better designed, shorter content.  It is well documented that the best results from online learning come when students engage for short periods of time with material that is interesting and engaging.  Reading pages and pages of text, watching a series of videos or listening to long audio files, in order to be able to complete assessment activities is never, (and this has been shown to be the case) going to be successful.  The best E-learning around is short, targeted and subject specific.  The problem that exists then would seem to be how to we create best practice e-learning in the VET sector, where there is often a significant amount of information a students needs to engage with and understand in order to be able to complete assessment tasks.

Low digital literacy and inappropriate course choice go somewhat hand in hand and relate to large extent to the way in which students are recruited and inducted into their course of study.  to complete a course of study completely online requires a set of skills that are lacking in a lot of students.  I am not just talking about computer skills here either, there are a range of study skills which people who have studied previously pick up and are able to utilise when faced with undertaking independent online learning.  These are skills that are often lacking in a lot of potential students and in particular those who have either never studied or not studied for a substantial period of time.

This is of course where good support comes in.  Things like synchronous facilitator led online workshops, where online work is treated as a group activity in a similar way to normal face to face learning have a clear effect on student engagement, as do things like regular contact between students and trainers, which should be more than just a weekly phone call asking them how they are going, a simple easy way for students to chat with each other, exchange ideas and begin to feel like a cohort rather than individuals studying alone.  There are lots and lots of great things that can be easily done to improve the support around online learning, but it seems that at least some providers just are not doing this, they are just signing people up, giving them their log in details and ringing them every now and again to ask them how they are going, which is in my opinion not real support anyway.

As I said earlier, while I see place for online learning in the VET sector, online only programs are at least in my opinion not the way to go for the vast majority of students, at least not unless providers are willing to put in a lot more time and effort than they currently are.


anyway that’s just my opinion.

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