Competing Agendas and the VET sector

One of the significant problems for the VET sector is that there seems to be conflicting agendas or at the very least differing agendas which create tension within the system, between a range of its stakeholders.  If we consider the major stakeholder groups within the sector and what it is they want from the sector we should be able to see where these various tensions lay.

I would argue that the following four groups encompass the major stakeholder groups within the VET sector within Australia.

  1. Students
  2. Employers and Industry
  3. Government (State and Federal)
  4. Education providers (Public and Non-public)

Now simply by glancing at this list it may be possible to glean particular areas where tensions might arise between the needs, wants and agendas of these various groups.  Let’s have a look the various groups then in detail and see what their agendas for being involved in the VET sector might be.

Students, it might be suggested have the simplest of  agendas in relation to the sector, however as we have already touched on this may not be as clear as we first thought or how we have conceptualised the student agenda in relation to VET may simply not be correct.  It is my contention that the primary reason, the main agenda which students have, for accessing VET is to obtain a qualification.  This is of course where the first tension begins to rise.  Students want a qualification, because they can convert that qualification into workforce participation of some kind.  However, it is important to note here that if the purpose of significant numbers of students accessing the system is to gain a qualification, this in and of itself says nothing about their motivation towards learning or becoming competent.  It seems anecdotally at least that one of the primary concerns of a significant number of students accessing the system, particularly at higher levels and where they have at least some work experience in their field is ‘How long will it take me to finish this qualification?’

Why is this the case? Why are students or potential students concerned with how long it will take them to undertake the program and obtain their certificate?  The answer is simple and it is that they intend either immediately or at some time in the near future convert their qualification into improved workforce outcomes for themselves.

Some people may be cynical of this line of thought and suggest that surely students want to learn, to be engaged in the learning process and to gain the skills and knowledge they need to improve their workforce outcomes.  I am not suggesting that this is not the case, I am simply suggesting that students want to achieve this in as short a time as possible and as we shall see it is this motivation or agenda which creates tension, particularly with the agenda of the government and to a lesser extent, employers, industry and providers.

Employers and industry might be expected to have somewhat similar motivations in relation to students particularly in relation to the time taken to achieve a qualification.  There is a very real tension which exists between, business and training, which I have discussed in a various articles, where the drive from business is for the delivery of training to be conducted in as short a time frame as possible in order to ensure minimal disruption to day to day business requirements. It is the case however that there is for employers, businesses and industry and inherent tension in this position as employers in a range of circumstances need to ensure that their employees not only have the appropriate qualifications, but also have the skills and knowledge which should underlie that qualification and failure to do so may in some circumstances have catastrophic repercussions for the business in question.  It is of interest to note that this internal tension not only exists between business and VET but also between business and general learning and development programs.  The issue is more apparent in relation to VET however as the training and assessment requirements for a qualification are in general more rigorous than those required for general learning and development programs.

Again when we look at the agenda of the government in relation to VET it may be easy to assume that from their perspective their primary agenda is workforce participation, however as with other groups we need to be careful and think about the situation further.  It is both unfortunate and true that most elected officials in charge of the VET sector have very little knowledge of how the sector works, its outcomes and the motivations of other players in the sector.  This could be said of a wide variety of ministerial portfolios though.  More so than any other sector of the educational landscape VET is seen solution to a range of differing problems.  Primarily most governments tend to see VET as a solution to, or at the very least a significant force in relation to, the problem of unemployment, however not necessarily in the way in which most people might expect.  While it is certainly the case that providing unemployed people with training in particular vocational areas, should have the effect of making them more likely to be able to participate in the workforce.  There is of course an additional advantage to having unemployed in training and that is that given the way in which statistics can be calculated it can be said that those who are undertaking study are not unemployed, therefore reducing the number of people who appear to be unemployed.

So while it may be important to a government to want people to undertake training to improve their skills and knowledge for better workforce participation, or to provide better quality of services, increase innovation and improve the general education base of the nation, it seems that it may also be true, particularly at certain times, that it may also be advantageous to governments to simply have significant numbers of people involved in education programs, particularly where those people would otherwise be listed as simply unemployed.

It is also important to remember that wrapped around this agenda and any other agenda the government may have about vocational training and education is the fact the, at least in Australia, governments both state and federal are substantial financial contributors, either directly or indirectly to the costs associated with students obtaining vocational qualifications.

Various levels of government provide direct and indirect financial support to students, employers and industry, and public providers (TAFE), through a variety of channels and programs, however as myself and others have discussed at length, this creates an additional agenda for governments around value for money and return on investment.  This is simply because there are not inexhaustible public funds available to be funnelled towards vocational education.  It is this environment in particular where there is a mixture of public and private sources of financial inputs into the system, a limited resource environment, and a desire to create best possible returns on those investments, which reinforces the education as a business mindset, which is to my mind, and I have discussed this elsewhere, the mindset that should be adopted by all providers within the sector.

The other factor which arises in relation to the government financial commitments to the sector, relate directly to the impacts of policy settings and decisions on the overall health of the sector, and the perceived impact this has on both the sector and those in government.  One of the shining examples of this was the issues surrounding the VET FEE-Help program.  VFH was an in income contingent loan scheme, similar to the system used to fund students participation in the Higher education sector  The policy and contractual settings for which created a situation which had a devastating effect on the sector as a whole, on the perception of governments ability to manage the sector and on students ability to be able to convert their qualifications into usable workforce participation outcomes.  This statement should however not be taken to suggest that the entry of unscrupulous providers into the system for the sole purpose of utilising the VFH system to amass profit was not the actual cause of the issues.  It is simply to suggest that a funding system, the settings of which allow such behaviour to occur in the first place, show the deleterious effect to government decisions and policies can have upon the overall system.

All of this also sits atop specific agendas in relation to vocational education, which form part of the various party platforms.  At the far left of the spectrum we have the greens with an ideological position that non-public providers should receive no funding at all and that the government should support TAFE (public providers) to the exclusion of any other providers who might wish to be part of the system.  One the right, the Liberal party has an ideological position which favours competition in the market place, a more open view of access to funding, and a position which looks at the public providers, at least to some extent, as simply another provider within the system.  Somewhere in the middle we have most Labor, which while tending to fall more towards the public provider position held by the far left, sees a not insignificant place for private providers within the overall system.

When we then add the agenda perspective of VET providers (RTOs) both public and private we can start to see why we need to develop a way of thinking about the system which is able to address these tensions.  What then is the motivation of RTOs?  I think that this is both an interesting and troubling question for a lot of people and the initial off the cuff responses of a significant number of people will at least to some extent depend on their view of education, its status as a public good, where they sit upon the political spectrum.  It is not uncommon to hear criticism of private, though I prefer the term non-public providers, as being less concerned with educational outcomes and more concerned with profitability.  It is also not uncommon to hear criticism of TAFE (public providers) as being more concerned with administration, staff entitlements and titles, and maintaining the status quo, over education outcomes.  Both views are wrong and are based on long term misunderstandings in relation to the vocational education market and the goals and agendas of its various stakeholders.

It is very easy to make generalisations about the various types of providers in the sector, however it is important to realise that for the most part these generalisations are simply incorrect.  It seems that for the vast majority of providers both public and non -public that the motivation behind them is to produce quality student outcomes.  There is an issue with this motivation; while it would be wonderful it all students could always be provided with all the support they required to be able to undertake their chosen program of study and have the best materials, teaching, and administrative experiences, this cannot always be the case.  All of that costs money and someone, somewhere, sometime has to pay for it all and realistically payment can only come from one of three places, employers and industry, government or the students themselves.

The hard truth of vocational education, and in fact of any facet of formalised education, is that it is a business.  Whether you are a non-public, for profit provider, or a public TAFE, there is no difference.  There is not an inexhaustible amount of money, nor will students, employers or government simply pay any price for training and qualifications.  All providers need at the very least to be self-sustaining in terms of their income and revenue regardless where that revenue comes from and more and more we are seeing pressure on all providers to do more for students for less. This is particularly evident in terms of direct, entitlement style funding from government, where the expectations on providers are being raised while the amount of funding is decreasing or remaining the same.

So while the motivation of providers may well be to deliver high quality student outcomes, and I have no doubt that for the vast majority of providers this is the case, there are very simple economic factors which place pressure on the delivery of these services.  It is not economically viable for any provider, public or private to run a program at any level for only a handful of students.  TAFEs are often criticised for cancelling programs due to lack of number, however the very fact they have to cancel programs shows that there is fundamental economic factors at work and is a perfectly acceptable reaction to these factors.  If the cost of the delivery of a course is $20,000 and there are only three students enrolled for which the total income that the provider will receive is $9,000 then clearly the additional $11,000 must come from somewhere.  Either the government, an employer, or the student themselves must pay more for the course or revenues generated from other parts of the business will need to be redirected to subsidise the course in question.  Now some may feel that utilising revenue generated from other courses or activities to subsidise courses which have low student numbers is an acceptable use of those monies, particularly if it does not affect the overall financial viability of the provider, however supporting programs in one area with funds from other areas is fraught with issues and can create extreme difficulties where the initially more financially viable course becomes less viable.  The other significant issue which exists for those who would  suggest that subsidy from revenue of otherwise non-viable programs is appropriate, is an argument around fairness and equity both for students and in the market in general.

As we can see there are a significant number of tensions which exist in the VET sector both internally to the various stakeholder groups as well as between them.  There are a range of motivations and agendas attached to the various stakeholder within the sector, which unfortunately do not always sit comfortably with each other and as a result this increases the complexity of the industry, the development of sound policies and the development of ethical and sustainable business models  which can in fact cope with and respond to these various agendas.

 

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