Changes to VET policies don’t just effect students

This month we have seen two massive announcements that have the potential to wide ranging effects on the landscape of Vocation Education in this country.  Both of these announcements, one in the Victorian budget and the other in the federal oppositions budget reply, were about cordoning off large sums of funding for the VET sector and making it exclusively available to TAFE.  There have been a number of pieces already written about the effects of these policy positions in terms of student choice, the capability of the public provider to be able to deliver these programs and a range of other issues.  Today however I want to look at an issue which has received scant if any real discussion.

Education in this country is big business and employs a enormous amount of people to service the needs of students and industry.  Approximately 225000 people are employed in various roles in the Vocational Education and training industry in Australia. What is truly interesting about this number is that only about one third of this workforce is employed by the public providers.  The other 150000 or so people who make up the VET workforce work for providers other than TAFE.  It would be convenient, if as some commentators would like to have the public believe, if all of these other providers were large, faceless, profit driven corporations, however that is simply not the truth of the matter.  The vast majority of these providers are small to medium business, owned and run by people passionate about delivering high quality educational outcomes, who have invested their own livelihoods into these endeavours,  and who employ equally passionate, trainers, assessors, compliance, admin and other staff.    In addition to this non-public providers deliver around 60% of all VET programs nationally and about 90% of all international VET enrollments (which alone is currently around a $20 billion market for Australia).  It also needs to be remembered that currently across the board the vast majority of government funding for vocational education (in excess of 70%) already goes into TAFE nationally.

While I have always held that Australia needs to have an effective and efficient public VET provider, what are, by their own admission, agenda driven policy positions such as those take by the Victorian government and proposed by the federal opposition, have the potential to do large scale harm to the non-public VET sector and its substantial workforce.   If non-public provider numbers were to shrink by just 10% there is the possibility of an additional 15,000 people becoming unemployed.  Now that is a huge number and a huge knock on effect on our economy, simply because politicians are concerned about their scared cows.

Some people have suggested that any employment losses in the non-public sector would be evened out by employment gains in the public sector as TAFE would need to take on more staff to cope with more enrollments.  This is simply not the case.  We have already seen quite widespread rationalisation of TAFE administrative workforces, in an attempt to reduce duplication of roles and services and to direct more of the government spend to education programs rather than administration.  When we also the effectiveness of elearning in delivering high quality outcomes with much higher trainer/student ratios that face to face deliver, it becomes an even stronger proposition that very few of those people currently employed in the non-public sector would be able to migrate to employment in the public sector.  It is not however just simply a matter of employment either, there are large numbers of what could be called mom&pop providers, small and micro providers who work in niche markets, who have invested their personal holdings in their business and for whom these business’s are their sole sources of incomes.  The destruction of these providers would have far reaching effects economically and socially.

So when we think about the policy decisions that are being made about the VET sector in this country, let’s, occasionally at least, spare a thought for the 150000 committed and passionate people who work in this sector but don’t work for TAFE.

 

Advertisements

Free Training and the Value of Education

As everyone is no doubt aware by now in their latest budget the Victoria Labor Government has decided to spend $172 Million primarily to make 30 priority courses and 18 pre-apprenticeship programs free, if and only if you do them at a TAFE.  I have elsewhere expressed my view on this particular policy decision and won’t expand on that here, however the fact that we are already see articles on how to take advantage of this new initiative are concerning enough .  What I do want to discuss is the concept of value in educational programs and how that intersects with ideas such as completion rates, student contributions, choice, quality and monopoly behaviours.

Let’s take a look for a moment at the world of MOOCs (Massive online open courses), free courses, which anyone, anywhere can enrol in.  The completion rate is between 5 and 15% depending on whether you count simply finishing or completing assessments and receiving a certificate.  That’s a rate that makes even the approximately 40% completion rate for apprenticeships, we have in this country look good. One of the reasons for this that we can refer to these courses as ‘easy in, easy out’ as my good friend Ryan Tracey suggested. There is not real cost, or condition on entry and enrollment, and no cost or consequence for exiting or no completion.  Now of course there have been a plethora of other arguments made for why this is the case and MOOCs may not be a perfect mirror for vocational education.

What of university education then, where it could be argued there is still a fairly easy in, easy out scenario, depending on the course of study chosen and bearing in mind that there may be some debt consequences.  Again however there is not cost on actual admission to a course, tick a box on your admissions form and the ‘cost’ of our degree disappears into the nether world of FEE-Help. Yes you have to pay it back at some point, probably, however for the vast majority of students their accumulated HELP debt doesn’t even enter their minds until the tax department goes, hello were going to be taking your income tax return to pay for your loan.  On average,  approximately 30% of students fail to complete their university studies within six years of enrollment.

If we also bring into the frame the VET FEE-Help saga where we saw in some cases completion rates as low as 2%, the only reason brokers and the like were able to sign up such massive numbers of people and generate such huge sums of money was because there was no barrier to entry and in particular no cost component.  I am aware that this is a simplification, however imagine how different the VFH landscape would have been if there was a mandatory $100 sign up fee, paid by the student prior to their enrollment.

Now before anyone says it, I know that there are a lot of people out there who could afford to pay $100 on the spot to access an enrollment, that’s the point.  It is not to suggest that there should not be equality of access to education, an even playing field so to speak, something which I have argued for and supported in various roles and across a wide range of forums.  It is simply to suggest if there was a gateway condition which needed to be fulfilled prior to entry into a program, then some of the things which occurred may not have.  Enough of that though.

Successive Queensland governments have held the position that in all but specifically funded programs designed to engage with people with various disadvantages (Skilling Queenslanders for example) that all providers must charge a student contribution fee on all state government-funded training, whether it is User choice, Certificate III guarantee or something else.  Providers can choose what the level of contribution can be and it ranges from $50 to $1000+ depending on the course, the provider and the level of funding provided, but they must in all cases charge a fee and there must be evidence that, that fee was paid prior to commencement of the course.  This of course doesn’t suggest there are not a range of programs and other initiatives which are designed to assist people who are unable to afford even a smaller contribution fee, there are, however in all cases what this does, by either the person having to contribute themselves or meet secondary criteria is provide even a small gauge that the person has some level of commitment to the course of study they wish to undertake.

The other issue which comes up here is that of choice.  Should not students be able to choose whom they wish to study, to choose the provider who best suits their needs in terms of curriculum, modes of learning, content, units offered and quality of teacher staff and outcomes.   Surely that is not a lot to ask.  I can almost guarantee that the standard mode of delivery of the courses offered for free, will be the bog standard one of semester based, face to face classes, mostly daytime classes.  Which is of course the model which best suits, teachers and administrators rather than students, particularly those who are trying to support themselves as well as study.  But most of all why should students be starved of choice and forced to undertake their studies with particular providers, who may or may not be able, or willing to customise the qualification to suit the needs of the student and whose learning outcomes may not be as good as offerings from other providers who are not similarly funded.

We can have equitable access, an even playing field for people wishing to undertake high priority, skills shortage programs, without resorting to massively devaluing the outcomes of students and the hard work of stakeholders in the sector, it just requires we actually build a systematic non-agenda driven approach to how we fund these training programs.

%d bloggers like this: