Lets stop talking about VET and Higher ED and start talking tertiary education

For those of you that aren’t aware I have spent the last few days in Sydney at Akolade’s 2nd Annual Innovative Business Models for VET Forum.  It was a really interesting couple of days with a large number of highly experienced VET people in the room and presenting and it was chaired of course by yours truly.  One of the themes if you will that wound its way through the forum was the idea that VET is, well, often considered to be the poor cousin to going to university or what is traditionally spoke if as Higher Education.

There were a range of stories and anecdotes from many of the speakers and attendees relating to the idea that often in this country, and in other countries (Thanks Prof Mohan) that children and young adults who choose to undertake Vocational education are viewed in some respects as having failed or not achieved as much as they could have done.  Now interestingly while this view of children having failed if they undertake a VET course may not be the standard viewpoint in Australia, it is certainly the case, that the view that VET is the not quite so good second cousin to going to university is still very strong, in fact my very first post on this blog was a short piece which pointed out the academic snobbery that existed between Universities and RTOs.  There was also a lot of discussion at the forum about the fact that it is often better for a student to undertake a VET program and be successful than it is to try and struggle through university and either fail or get lower grades, as employment opportunities for someone with a VET qualification may be better, in a number of areas at least, than for someone with a a mediocre university transcript.

I think it was Norman Gray from the Box Hill institute (sorry if it was someone else) who made a point that really captured the essence of the sectors for me, he said (and I am paraphrasing a bit) VET is simply applied tertiary education and what is delivered in Universities is simply theoretic or research driven tertiary education, they are still both part of the tertiary sector.  It dawned on me at this point that this was one of the first times I had heard the post secondary education sector cashed out in a way that was simple and made solid sense.  Let’s think about it for a minute, when you leave secondary school and move into post secondary or tertiary education you are simply making a choice about whether you want to take a study path where the focus is on the application or a study path where the focus is on theory, it is all still tertiary education.   In fact when we look at definitions of tertiary education we see that in general all of the definitions agree that Tertiary education, also referred to as third stage, third level, and post-secondary education, is the educational level following the completion of a school providing a secondary education, for example universities as well as institutions that teach specific capacities of higher learning such as colleges, technical training institutes, community colleges, nursing schools, research laboratories, centers of excellence, and distance learning centers.

Now this should not be taken to mean that I think that RTOs (public or private) and Universities (public or private) should all just be lumped together, particularly in terms of how they are regulated and how they develop and provision the courses which they provide to the consumer nor that the distinction which Norman pointed out around applied vs theoretical knowledge is not an important one.  However if we talked about the post secondary sector as a single entity with simply two paths which could be chosen depending on the what learning experience and journey was important to the student, we may find some interesting things happening.  If viewed as a single sector, we might see a reduction in the number of Higher Ed students who drop out in the first year because it is simply not for them,  because rather than heading down the University track because it was expected, they chose a Vocational (applied) pathway from the start.  We might also see a raising of the profile of Vocational education as a legitimate choice for students and not just a poor cousin where people who couldn’t cut it for university go.

Anyway thats just my opinion

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NCVER VET provider market structures – Dam what a boring title

First off NCVER could you come up with some sexier titles for your work please.  I mean VET provider market structures: history, growth and change is a very interesting read but the title doesn’t excite me to even open it, which is of course a shame given the volumes of interesting things contained inside it.

Enough of that though.  A little over a 18 month ago I wrote a  piece entitled “Who are these private RTOs anyway?” and the response to it enormous, in fact it became one of my most popular posts of 2015.  It simply sought to provide some perspective on the breadth of providers within the VET sector in this country and how it seemed a little unfair to simply lump all providers together into one basket, particularly when the vast majority of providers are small to medium size businesses and not nation spanning conglomerates.  Now NCVER has released a report on providers within the VET market and what these providers look like, and well isn’t it an interesting read.

Now I did have the pleasure of seeing some of this data earlier in the year during a presentation around it by NCVER, but I wanted to wait until the full paper was released before I made any commentary about the results.  So now it is all out and available lets have a look at what it says.

The first thing that is really striking in the research is that the VET provider market place has been fairly stable in terms of the number of providers over the last 15 years. While there was, as to be expected, back in around 1998 (when we first got our RTO status) an enormous amount of applications, much higher than at any point since, since that point applications and overall numbers have remained relatively constant.  What can we take from this?  I think we can pretty safely say that the number of providers we currently have in the market is probably the number of providers that the market can support.  While providers may come and go for various reasons having such a constant number over such a long period of time seems to suggest that the overall number of providers is appropriate.  What makes this really interesting is that over the 15 years the data covers there has been a myriad of changes to policy, funding arrangements, training packages, and well pretty much everything to do with the sector, however the number of providers within the sector has not changed substantially.  Providers have obviously come and gone and new providers have replaced old, but the overall number has really not altered at all.

A lot of the other information that is interesting is the research which pertains to the breadth and diversity of providers within the market place.  Firstly it needs to be said that this research makes no claims nor does it seek to make any about the levels of quality or outcomes across the various provider types, it simply looks at the number of providers and the students they service.

The really interesting thing for me was to see that around 2000 providers or 40% had less than 100 students and some had far far fewer students than this number, and on the flip side 50% of all students were enrolled with the largest 100 providers.  What we see from this is something that I have been suggesting for some time now, while there are a small number of very large providers, with large numbers of students (and can we please stop using the terms TOP which suggest they are the best and use the term LARGEST), that is not the norm, in fact about 50% of all students don’t do their study with a large institution be it public or private, they in fact choose one of the multitude of small to medium sized providers who operate in the market.  In fact when we look more closely at the data we find that 30 providers account for more than 1 million students (about 25% of the total number), however the next million students (25%) are services by more than double that number (70 providers).  The other 50% of students is looked after by around 4500 providers all of whom have less than 6000 students and in fact 4000 providers have less than 1000 students.

So what does all of this tell us.  Well while the research data released by NCVER doesn’t make any claims about what the data might be saying, I am going to.  To me what the data is telling us is that around half of all of the students involved in Vocational Education and Training are choosing to undertake their training with small to medium providers, most of whom are not public providers (TAFE) and the interesting question which comes out of that should be why.  In a lot of cases small to medium providers tend to play in niche markets or are strongly connected to organisations either as enterprise RTOs or in some other way, or have only a small number of qualifications on scope which represents the skill sets of the people involved in the business.  They also in a lot of cases provide a very different learner experience,  more personalised or tailored to the particular needs of the student and tend to provide a variety of ways in which students can study and interact with them outside of standardised classroom or online learning environments.  As with most parts of the Australian economy small to medium enterprises seem to be the foundation of the VET sector and the place that significant number of Australians want to get their education.

I think that when we look at the overall data in this report it becomes clear that those pundits who have suggested that there needs to be a rationalisation of the VET provider market place are simply wrong, well at least in my opinion.  The number of providers that we currently have seems, as I have said previously, to be the number of providers that the market wants and the diversity within those providers seems appropriate as well.  It is to me at least a recognition that not everyone learns in the same way or in the same environment or at the same pace and a lot of students realise that and look for providers that allow them  to engage in study in way they want to and in the programs that they want to enroll in.

Anyway that’s just my opinion.

New Governments and Vocational Education

Finally we have a result, well a result of sorts at least.  It is the case the the LNP has won the election and will probably be able to form government in their own right.  What then does this mean for the Vocational Education sector (VET) in this country, what can we hope for and more importantly what needs to happen.

Two things right of the bat here;  the coalition winning provides at least more certainty than there would have been should Labor won in its own right or in a worse case scenario had been forced to use The Greens or others to form government. To a large extent the sector knows the general thinking of the ‘new’ government in terms of the sector and this along with the relatively good relations that most of the players in the field have had with the government provides a level of certainty that simply would not have existed if there had been a change.  This should not be seen as a debate about the relative merits of various views, however, just that knowing a view is better than not knowing it.

The other thing, and this is something that I think is really important  Mr Turnbull;   could we please have a Minister for skills and training that hangs around for a while.  What we need in this sector is stability in terms of who is setting the rules and guiding the ship so to speak.  Both Senator Birmingham and Senator Ryan were both great advocates for and of the sector, (as was Minister Hartsuyker, who really was not in the ministry long enough for his impact to be judged) and I think the sector would be please to have either of them back.  However, whoever in the long run ends up with the portfolio please let them stay for a while, preferably for until the next election.

What then can we expect for the sector going forward.  I would be relatively confident that we would see things shaping up pretty much as we had before the election.  There has been a lot of work already done around the changes which need to be made to VET-FEE Help, how those changes might be implemented and what we can expect to see as a result. There is however,  another item which needs to be dealt with, has rarely been mentioned by anyone other that a couple of state training ministers, and needs to be dealt with both effectively and efficiently. That is the National Partnership Agreement.

Why is the National Partnership agreement on skills reform important, well it makes up a large part of where the funding comes from for the states to be able to pay for the funded training that they want/need to deliver  and also sets the scene for the delivery of that training.  Now there have been criticisms of the current agreement and how effective it was and what resulted from it, however these are discussions for another time and place.  What matters at this point is the federal government in conjunction with the states needs to reach a new agreement before the old one runs out, if for no other reason then to ensure that the various state governments are able to effectively fund their training sector for at the very minimum the 2017-18 financial year.  Now apart from the money of course, I think that there are five things I would like to see in any new agreement;

  1. A continuing and stronger commitment to both apprenticeships and traineeships
  2. A continuing commitment to income contingent loans, in what ever form they may take in the future
  3. A continuing commitment to a competitive market place, and
  4. An emphasis on quality of students outcomes
  5. Funding guarantee or entitlement arrangements particularly for those with no of limited qualifications

In the long run though the NPA is something for more important heads than mine to decide on so we shall just have to wait and see.

What about the elephant in the room; what can we expect to see around VFH.  I would expect that after all of the new government official thingys are all taken care of and all of the new ministers are in place we will quickly see some movement on this front.  One thing I expect to see happen is that all of the current contracts will be closed off, with perhaps a 12 month ‘teach out’ period attached to the contract to deal with students who have only recently enrolled.  The big question is will current VFH providers have to reapply for new contracts whatever those new contracts look like.  My personal opinion here is yes.  I think there will be a line drawn in the sand which will mark the movement from the old system to the a new system, if for no other reason then the political expedience of being able to say, ‘well that happened under the old system which wasn’t designed by us, look at our new system.”

With respect to any new system I think there are two things that probably shouldn’t to happen.  Firstly I don’t think it should be possible for any RTO to become registered and then simply apply for VFH.  Actually I think this applies to all government funding regardless of source, but that also is another discussion.  Secondly this concept of having delivered a diploma for a period of 5 years needs to go.  My general thinking around this is that an RTO needs to have been reregistered at least once or show quality in some other observable way.  The provider also needs to have a suitable risk rating from ASQA, solid financials and a history of acceptable student outcomes.  If these things don’t exist then they should simply not be given access.  The same should go with removal of access, there needs to be a simple but robust process through which the government can suspend payments or cancel the contract where they consider the provider to have breached the rules.  The department also needs robust reporting and contract management protocols in place so that things such as the rapid growth driven almost entirely by brokerages cannot happen again.

So there are a few things that any new minister into this portfolio will need to look at, and look at fairly quickly, but as I said at the start as we are not seeing a change in government, a lot of the hard work that has been done can be used as a basis for moving forward, so rather than there being a an issue of babies and bathwater which often happens in this sector when there is a change of government we will hopefully see some stability and focus around the sector.

Anyway, that’s just my opinion.

What is Queensland VET doing right with its funded training?

So on Sunday I was pondering what it was I was going to write about this week.  I had planned to look at who won the election and work through what that might mean in terms of the sector, but that had sort of gone out the window by about 9.00 pm, on Saturday night.  I even contemplated not writing something this week (I know, the horror), but then yesterday NCVER saved the day for me, with their statistical report on Government Funded Students and courses 2015.  I had heard a lot of people talking yesterday about how the numbers looked and the fact that there were declines in the number of government funded students, and further claims from some circles that it was all the fault of private providers in the market.  However, when I got to sit down and read it I was pleasantly surprised.  Pleasantly surprised because I am a Queenslander and what seems to me to ring quite loudly when you look at the report is one sentence in particular “Queensland was the only jurisdiction to experience an increase in student numbers in 2015 — up from 264 100 students in 2014 to 283 300 students in 2015 (7.3%). In addition, subject enrollments increased by 278 000 subjects (10.6%), hours by 8.8 million (10.7%) and FYTEs by 12 300 (10.7%).” 

Now lets just think about that for a moment, out of all of the states in Australia in 2015, Queensland was the only one where student numbers, subject enrollments, hours and FYTE went up, by between 7 and 10%.  This then lead me on to a very simple question.  What is Queensland doing right with its government funded training?  I can see the assumption that some pundits in the sector might leap to, Queensland has a Labor state government and a strong, supported TAFE sector so naturally they are going to have a good result.  Now as I have said on a number of occasions I think TAFE QLD is a bit of an exemplar about how TAFE should be run, and the kinds of outcomes for both students and the state we should be expecting from our public provider, however as we go on let’s just keep in mind that South Australia last year basically gave all of its public funding to the public sector provider.

There is another interesting piece of information which sits in this report though, Queensland has the highest number of private providers involved in government funded training of any of the states and the second highest overall number of providers involved in funded training (It is worth noting that the reason Victoria has higher overall numbers is the enormous number of Community Education providers involved in their system).  Its interesting isn’t it, the state with the highest number of non-public providers has the only increase in student numbers.

The other thing which makes this interesting to me is that it is quite difficult to become and continue to be a Pre-Qualified Supplier (PQS) in Queensland.  In fact with the new contract arrangements we have seen a number of providers not invited to have their contracts continue and others only invited to continue with conditions imposed upon them,  to ensure that those providers who are delivering qualifications under the Queensland funding programs are of the highest quality.

In addition we then have the fact the Queensland government has reintroduced its Skilling Queenslanders for work program which strongly links community organisations, RTOs and employers in order to attract, train and find employment for those people who might ordinarily fall through the cracks in the system for whatever reason.  Its policy settings for its VET investment plan, also seek at least in my opinion, to make it possible for those people who are most likely to need to access government subsidised training places to be able to do the training they need.

When we add all of this together, what is it that Queensland is doing right when it comes to VET?   I think first and foremost they are approaching the concept of government funded training from reasoned, sensible and not ideologically driven viewpoint.  A viewpoint that recognises that we need to have a strong public provider in TAFE, but that we also need to have strong non-public provision, to provide student choice, niche markets, alternative delivery strategies and really just options for both students and employers.  It is a viewpoint that recognises that there needs to be support given to particular cohorts of students, over and above the support given by the training providers, in order to assist them not only to successfully complete their training but also to find employment pathways as a result of it.

When we look at the differences between Victoria and Queensland in their approach in terms of what qualifications were funded, who was allowed to deliver them, and how that delivery was managed from a government perspective, I think we can see why there have been problems in the Victorian market that haven’t been present in Queensland.

When we look at South Australia where we see a nearly 17% drop (the highest of all states) in student numbers on the back of a decision of the state government there to all but exclude non-public providers from the market.  Now, I think it says something powerful.  It says something powerful to those people who insist that the reason that numbers are declining is because of the effect of non-public providers in the market.

But anyway that’s just my opinion.

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