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.

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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.

One Response to Free Training and the Value of Education

  1. Karen says:

    In the 70s-90’s I remember all education being free as to not disadvantage anyone but now with globalisation and ‘markets’ education has become a commodity and people going on to further education have a massive debt which only increases over time, needing to be paid off….what advantage or incentive is that? The only organisation benefiting us government as those tax dollars increase. Our politicians squander billions each year due to incompetence….a shadow government of contractors many made up of ex-politicians spend more of the public purse and the Australians have the 2nd highest personal income tax in the world with none of the advantages if compared with most of middle Europe; the average Australian has a failing health system with overseas doctors ‘googling’ medical conditions in front of clients being passed by examination boards, failing infrastructure, shameful aged care system where people who have worked their whole lives and paid their share of taxes have no life at all with the few dollars they receive as a pension…..worse still when they have no family to help or advocate for them. Education is just another component of free-market thinking….it should be free with governments investing in their citizens……why is it that millions can always be found to build a stadium or sporting venue eg Commonwealth games which really only economically benefited a few and cost us millions? There is always enough there for politicians to raise their wages and generally that’s not by $5 a fortnight! I could go on but Australia which was once a ‘lucky’ country really isn’t any longer …… we get taxed higher and higher with little benefit and much of our middle class is waning so soon if we aren’t careful there’ll only be the rich and poor. Our essential services are deregulated and have been allowed to go out of control with fees and charges…..it shouldn’t be happening when services and land, housing etc are sold off to overseas buyers to boost the market but Australians can’t afford to enter that same market. Australians in general need to stop being so apathetic and inform themselvese. Have a market out of overseas students wanting to study in Australia because we do have quality programs but use that money to support free education for Australians….we did before when our nation wasn’t as wealthy!

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