Careers Australia in Voluntary Administration – Some comments

So just in case you haven’t heard the news today, Careers Australia was put into voluntary administration yesterday with PPB Advisory moving in as the administrators.  So as of yesterday there are 1000 staff who have been stood down and around 15,000 students who will have to organised into new courses through TDA who were Assurance Scheme for Careers.  I am going to be really blunt here.  I for one am not surprised that this has happened.  I said in a post earlier in the year when there was a range of closures of colleges which had grown large on a diet of VET Fee HELP, that as we approached the end of this financial year that we would see either the substantial contraction or closure of some of the big players.

Why has this happened?  The answer is actually very simple, as I talked about in the post mentioned above, heavy reliance on a single source of funding which can at any point be changed or removed is a recipe for disaster.  Careers Australia appear to have blamed the Federal Government and its policies around the sector, in particular the new VET student loans scheme and the governments decision not to allow Careers access to this scheme for their move into liquidation.

I have to say that I think if this is a true reflection of the rhetoric coming from Careers, then I think it is definitely stretching things a little.  Certainly it is the case that the cause of this collapse can probably be  linked to the decision by the government to change the way income contingent loans work and to deny Careers access to the new system.  However can we say that the Federal government is to blame, I think not.  In fact I actually struggling to find a scenario, except for the old, we are too big to fail, the government will have to bail us out mentality, that could have provided Careers and its management with the idea that they were ever going to be given full access to the new scheme.   I cannot see how someone within their management didn’t suggest that given the issues with the ACCC, a range of other issues, media coverage and general public sentiment, that there might be pretty good chance that the government, with its very strong position to clean up the sector, might, whether any of the issues raised about Careers were true or not, be reticent to give them access to the new scheme.  To be honest and to put in the word of Sir Humphrey Appleby, it would have been a brave and courageous decision by the minister and the department to allow them access to the scheme.

This should not be taken to suggest that I know anything about the inner workings of Careers or as to whether or not any of the allegations against them were true, or whether issues, if there were any, had not all been rectified.  It is just to say that simply from a point of view of being seen to be taking action and moving forward with the new scheme that, giving access to a provider which had been the subject of so much negative media scrutiny over the last 2 years would have undermined public perception of the scheme.  And the management of CA should have not only know that but have been prepared for it as well.  Even if they had been granted access to the new scheme this would have still seen their overall income drop by as much as two thirds, which would have had I suspect an equally devastating effect on them.  I am amazed that the management of CA appears not to have been working towards a solution or a way forward that didn’t include the VSL scheme, or maybe they did and we are seeing that in action now.  But again this is all simple speculation on my part and should not be taken to suggest anything about the mindset or plans and ideas of CA management.

It is yet another example of what happens when providers are far to heavily invested in one source of income, particularly where that source of funding is something that is controlled by the government.  Where your ability to be able to deliver the services you provide is entirely contingent on a single source of income and there are no plans or contingencies in place to react to changes in that income source there is always going to be a significant risk to continued financial sustainability.

I feel for the students and staff who have had their lives interrupted by this, however for a lot of us something like this happening has never been to far over the horizon.

Anyway that’s just my opinion.

 

VET provides great outcomes. It just has to be done right.

We have seen recently with reports from NCVER and Skilling Australia that Vocational Education in this country is not actually, as some would like everyone to believe, a poor cousin to a university degree.  In fact it turns out that in a range of areas Australians, may actually be better focusing on obtaining a vocational qualification than a 3-4 year university degree.  While this may come as a surprise to many people outside the sector, I would hazard a guess that most of us within the sector are certainly aware that often a VET qualification provides much better outcomes in terms of workforce participation than a university degree.

Take for example the community sector, while it is certain that there are employment opportunities for university graduates in the sector and that the sector is growing substantially and will continue to grow over the next few years at least, the vast majority of roles which exist and will be created over the next few years are roles where qualifications at a certificate III or IV level are far more appropriate than higher level and degree qualifications.  Why?  That is a really easy question to answer, level III and IV qualifications provide students with the hands on skills they need to have to be able take on the range of support roles, which make up the vast majority of roles available.  They provide potential employees with actual skills and knowledge which enables them to take on the day to day activities which are required in these roles.  As someone who has recruited large numbers of staff for these sorts of roles, someone with a Certificate III or IV, is in most cases a much better choice than someone with social welfare style of degree.  This is also not just something which is just part of the community sector, there are many sectors where this is the case.  Outside of this, many apprenticeships, provide higher levels of income at completion, than are available to recent university graduates.

A lot of the perception has to do with how the University sector has been promoted and funded over the last 20 years and the general lack of promotion and appropriate funding programs of the VET sector. It also starts at high school, where VET has often been considered to be the solution for those students whose grades were not good enough to gain them an entry into a university degree, rather than a viable alternative to university for a wide range of students.  This of course stems from a general lack of understanding of the sector both from people outside the sector and unfortunately in too many cases from people within the sector as well.  I have often spoken at length of the generally woeful job that is done of promotion of this sector as a viable alternative to university and given this, it is little wonder that the idea that a university degree produces a better outcome seems to be the predominate viewpoint.

There is a side issue which goes along with this as well, which is that these workforce outcomes are of course contingent on the fact that VET providers are actually ensuring that the students who come out of there courses are competent and have been properly trained and assessed.  It is also important that students are enrolled in courses which are going to deliver workforce outcomes for them rather than those where the outcomes are far more tenuous.  Again if we look at the community sector we see significant numbers of students who were enrolled in Diploma’s of community services and counselling on the back of government funding models who are struggling to find employment because they would have been better off and had better workforce participation options available had they undertaken a certificate III or IV program.

To keep VET providing significant outcomes to students and other stakeholder we need to ensure that we are vigilant about not only competence, but the appropriateness of qualifications for the outcomes that the student and employers want.

Costs, Benefits and the value of a VET qualification

What is the value of a VET qualification?  I have recently found myself rolling this question around in my head quite a lot in an attempt to come up with some way of looking at qualifications within the sector to determine whether, particularly for individuals, they are worth undertaking.  What I mean by this is simply if I spend $5000 on  a course of study am I likely to as a result of that qualification get a return on my investment of at least equal to or hopefully more than the amount I spent.  Given that most people undertaking VET courses do so to improve their workforce position (about 80% of all students according to NCVER figures) what we are in reality saying here is if I spend $5000 and I going to get that back in the form of wages or earnings as a direct result of having that qualification.

Now I know that it is the case that not everyone does a course of study in order to directly influence the amount of money they are paid for their labor or services and that people undertake courses for a variety of reasons, I guess I am simply trying to see whether their might be a way of evaluating the ‘value’ of a course in such a way as to be able to give us meaningful information about the likelihood of the course having an impact on a students employment or workforce opportunities.

Here is an example of what I am talking about, which course offers better value to a student

Course A:  Course cost $15,000.  Average wage of person with Qualification $100,000.  Percentage of graduates who gain employment within 12 months 10%, or

Course B:   Course cost $5,000.  Average wage of person with qualification $50,000.  Percentage of graduates who gain employment within 12 months 80%.

Given these two options, which one would you choose.  If we don’t consider anything else apart from the information provided, which course offers the better outcome and more importantly can we even actually make such a determination.

Is it the case that even though it seems that most students undertaking courses are doing so for improved workforce outcomes, that the actual value of the qualification itself is not derived from actual improvements in workforce outcomes, but is in fact determined by other more intangible factors.

So I have a question for all of you out there and it is just this – What is the value of VET qualification and can we encapsulate that value in monetary terms?

Some VET Fact and Myths

Rod Camm wrote a really interesting piece for his ACPET National Monday Update this week, which really struck a chord with me, primarily because it is looking at the VET sector and trying to inject some facts into a discussion often held ransom to media outbursts and ideological positioning.  I thought therefore today I might look at the facts that Rod outlined and perhaps some others to see if we can’t get a little less biased view of our sector.

The first, and I think one of the most important facts pointed out, is that there is only about 2500 providers in the VET sector, actively delivering training, not the 4-5000 which is an often quoted number and the enrolments with these providers range from 1 student to over 100,000 students.  A lot has been made of high-flying corporate whiz kids, cashing in on the VET sector and making massive profits at the expense of everyone else The media, the various education unions and some politicians have had a field day promoting this view, often for their own ends.  The truth is however that private providers have average student enrolments of 819 with the median number being much lower at 204.  This is tiny in comparison to the 19,000 and 16,000 figures for TAFE.  The overwhelming majority of private providers are not huge corporate monsters, whose only goal is to make as much profit as they possible can; with just under 1000 private providers have less that 100 students, the vast majority are simply small providers, providing awesome outcomes to their students and the industries they serve.  I bet we will never see that little nugget from the news media or the deep left, who much prefer the sensationalism of corporate failures.  As I said in my piece early last year non-public providers are an incredibly diverse lot.

There is another myth that has been perpetrated upon this sector or more specifically upon the non-public side of the sector and that is that business and industry trusts and is more satisfied with the public provision of training than with the private sector.  You could wonder I  think, when you read the news media and the various commentaries and interviews around it as to why there was even a a need for a non-public VET sector given the love which is espoused for the public providers.  When we look at the data from NCVER however, we see a different picture; employers indicate 80.0% satisfaction with private providers, 83.6% with industry and professional associations and 66.1% with TAFE. 80% of employers are very satisfied with the training delivered by non-public providers.

Now please don’t think I am trying to badmouth or undermine TAFE here, I have always been, and will continue to be a strong supporter of a well-funded and healthy public provider system.  The public providers have a  tough job, constrained in ways the non-public side isn’t, funding, bureaucracy, student cohorts, and the needs and wants of governments, it is no wonder their satisfaction figures are lower. This doesn’t mean that they do not do as good a job as or produce outcomes equal to that of the non-public providers, it is just that when you are trying to keep so many, often competing stakeholders happy, you are never going to succeed in doing that.

On to some other stuff now, well some facts and figures, which Rod doesn’t mention, but which I think are worth commenting on, primarily costs, funding and VFH.  Now I have covered all of these points in other articles before, however I think that they are all worth mentioning again in this context.  The first is of course the issue of funding for TAFE, much has been made of the fact that TAFE needs to be better funded and interestingly in 2016 we saw a lot of people talking about the need for TAFE to receive at least 70% of the funding available for VET  This of course stopped quite quickly when it was pointed out that the public providers received around 80% of the public funding available in the sector already.  Now before you ask where this figure comes from, it comes from the actual budget papers of all of the state governments, who are the ones responsible for the funding of the TAFE sector.  The bigger question, which I asked last year and never got an answer for is where did that figure come from in the first place?

The other point is this idea that training delivered through a private providers is far more expensive that training delivered through the public provider, in one case it was claimed by The Greens, that private provision cost as much as 7 times the cost of public provision.  These claims are demonstrably incorrect as I explained in detail here.  These sorts of claims are based in general of really poor interpretation of information by people who have little or no knowledge of the sector itself.  They ignore facts such as, that under most of the entitlement funding models the subsidy if the same for all providers, so the amount of money being paid is the same no matter who delivers the training.  Even when we roll VET fee Help figures into the whole mixture of other funding and models that are out there, we see that at the very outside non-public provision across all courses at all levels the cost of delivery of a qualification through a non-public providers is about the same as it is through a public provider with both, when it all comes out in the wash costing around $45,000 per enrollment.  It is important to remember however that is figure is going to dropped substantially with the introduction of the VSL scheme in its entirety from June this year.  It will be interesting to see what happens to these figures and comparisons, when we get to look at them again at the end of the next financial year.

So why bring all of this up and talk through it?  As Rod suggested it is important that we know the industry that we are working in.  It is important that we know not just how to do the jobs that we do but the facts and figures which underpin that.  Why? Because if we don’t then we might be tempted to believe some of the  ill-informed, ideology fueled nonsense that comes to us through and is promoted by the media and other sources.  Whether it is delivered by a TAFE, and industry association, a not for profit, an enterprise RTO or a private company, Vocational education is important to this countries future and decisions about it and how we can make it better need to be based on fact not opinion.

Anyway that’s just my opinion.

 

Does Public VET mean Quality VET?

Before I start I need to make something clear, I think that a well supported public VET provider is, for the most part, a vital part of the VET landscape in this country.  There is work and projects which are done by the public provider which are either not done by non-public providers or only done by a small number of non-public providers, usually from the not for profit sector.  This piece should also not be taken to be criticism or bagging of the public provider sector, but rather a look at what seems to be a view being pushed by a range of particularly media commentators that the Public provision of VET through TAFE automatically means quality.

Firstly then a couple of facts.  The vast majority of private, again I prefer the term non-public providers, deliver high quality outcomes for their students and employers.  We can see this from NCVER data, and a range of reports from the various state and federal governments.  We can also see this from the small number of non-public providers who have closed or been closed as a result of the fall out from the VET FEE Help issues.  As I have always maintained there were about ten or so providers who were not playing the game as it should have been played so to speak.  10 out of around 4000 or about 0.25% of all providers.  Enough defending the value of non-public providers however’ what is a far more interesting phenomenon I think is the calls from various commentators, that governments should be cordoning off more funding for public providers, because, and this seems to be a common theme, public providers provider quality training.

It is important to note here that I do believe that for the most part public providers (TAFE) do provide quality training outcomes to their students and employers, however as with non-public providers I simply do not think that we can automatically assume that public means quality in all cases and in all courses.  We certainly cannot assume that public means better than non-public in all cases and in all courses.  There are numerous examples across widely varying industries of non-public providers delivering training of at least the same, if not better quality than that which is delivered by TAFE.  Just as there are examples in the opposite direction as well.  TAFE does some things very well. Non-public providers do somethings very well, and across the board there are things are probably not done as well as they could be.

Of course the point of this view is to push the agenda that because TAFE equals  quality that TAFE should get the lions share of government funding.  The interesting thing is that it already does.  The vast majority of government funding and training monies go directly to TAFE, in fact in most states the split between public and non-public when it comes to funding is about 80/20.  So somewhere in the vicinity of 20-25% of government funding goes to non-public providers, while 75-80% goes to TAFE.

So if TAFE already gets the vast majority of government funds allocated to training already,  and if across the board it really doesn’t seem to matter where a person goes to get your training done, as they are probably going to get a quality experience, which meets their needs and provides them with the outcome that they desire regardless of the choice them make, where, oh where is this view coming from.  Part of it is certainly ideological and interestingly I have no real problem with groups, particularly political parties, taking their ideological stances, I just want them to be honest about it.  I don’t care whether you are a politician, part of the education unions, an academic or a researcher, or anyone else for that matter, if you are making a stance on ideological grounds then at least be willing to tell us that.

What this sector needs going forward is not infighting between the various parties, interest groups, providers, media and others, who are whether consciously or not, promoting a particular ideology or agenda.  We need facts and informed discussions.  We need everyone to sit down, put their baggage, their ideologies, to one side, and listen to what other people are saying.  Listen, then openly talk and enter into meaningful discussions about what is best for this sector and the vital part that it plays in the future of this country.

Voluntary Administration, closures and VSL – A New Year in VET

As many of you may be aware a number of RTOs have over the last few weeks have shut their doors either voluntarily or not so voluntarily.  A significant proportion of these providers were ones which had large exposures to the VET fee Help market and have been financially impacted quite severely by the move to the new VET student loans scheme.  Have we seen the last of these closures?  I certainly don’t think we have. Over the rest of this financial year we will see the closure or downsizing of a significant number of VFH providers who, for what ever reason have been unable to adapt to the new market place.

Why is this happening?  There are a number of quite obvious reasons why this is occurring, although it is important to note that I have know direct knowledge of the the reasons behind any or all of the recent spate of closures.  The first reason I would point to however,  is a simple one, either the provider has not been granted access to the new VSL system for whatever reason, or the courses which they relied on have been removed from the list.  In both these cases the revenue which was being generated through VFH will have effectively stopped.  Take for example a provider with $11 million turnover, $10 million of which came from VFH.  Not being given access to VSL or having their courses removed from the list effectively reduces them to a $1 million turnover business and destroys the cash flow created through the VFH system.  Finding a way to plug this revenue hole will be almost impossible given the changes under VSL, because even if the provider were to be granted VSL access in the next round or commence delivery of courses which are now on the approved list there are other issues which I will outline below.

The second reason why a number of VFH providers are struggling is the loan cap.  As we know the government has capped loan amounts depending on the course you are undertaking, at $5,000, $10,000 and $15,000.  Let’s take our $11 million provider again.  Say they were delivering the Diploma of Leadership and Management under VFH for $15,000 and this accounted for all of their $10 million VFH income (I know this is unlikely but it is just an example).  The price of the the Diploma is now capped by the government at $5000, so even if the provider is granted early access to VSL and can still generate the same number of enrollments, without the use of third party brokers (which now can’t be used under the legislation) their income from ‘Loans’ under VSL will be at most 1/3 of what it was under VFH, reducing their income to $3 million making it exceedingly difficult to continue operating the same manner they had been.  The other thing to consider here is that even if the provider can generate the same number of enrollments, payments under VSL are now made on a completion rather than commencement basis.  This means that providers now have to have enough additional cash flow generated from other sources to sustain delivery and assessment to these students for perhaps as long as six months before they complete and payments flow through.  Even if therefore a provider was granted access to VSL and could generate the same level of enrollments, they will not, in most circumstances be able to maintain their cash flow at the same level which will of course mean they will either need to severely downsize or close.

The changes from VFH to VSL give us substantial evidence as to why providers should ensure that their revenue streams are as diversified as possible if they want to be able to sustain changes in government policy, funding and the market in general.  Heavy reliance on one source of funding, as myself and others have said for a long time now, is a recipe for disaster.  So will we see more of these closures?  I certainly expect that we will, in particular I think we will as the end of this financial approaches and the legacy arrangements around VFH (and the payments associated with those arrangements) cease and revenue streams become tighter.  I suspect that June/July will be the prime time this year for the closure of a number of RTOs

Anyway that’s just my opinion.

Happy New Year.

 

Oh What a Year its been!

When I think back over the last year, it really has been quite a big one for the sector.  So as the holiday season approaches and as I probably will not be updating my blog as regularly again until January, I thought I might consider the year past and the year ahead.

As just about everyone knows, in fact I think it would be difficult to find anyone in this country who didn’t have an opinion on VET at the moment it has been in the news so much, the sector has been in turmoil for a pretty lenghty period of time.  I remember Rod Camm talking at the Queensland ACPET Christmas party last year and saying he both thought and hoped that the worst was behind us.  However with ACN going into administration, Aspire college and the rest of the Global Intellectual holdings disappearing overnight, Careers Australia and the ACCC decisions and agreements, and Ashley Services looking very shaky at the moment it has not been a great year, particularly at the top end of town.  Not that small to medium sized providers were immune either with quite a few either leaving the sector voluntarily or because they could simply not sustain their businesses anymore.  Add to this massive uncertainty about the future of the sector during a very very long general election race, what would happen to VET FEE Help and the debacle of the new Certificate IV in Training and Assessment qualification and this year has been a cracker.

Enough bad news for the time being though.  What have been the positives for the year? Well, whether we like it or not there is now a replacement to the troubled VFH system, VET Student Loans, so at least there now exists a level of certainty around the that portion of the market. A large proportion of those providers who were doing the wrong thing have now either left, been forced out, or either been fined or in the process of being chased by the ACCC and others.  Simply removing these providers from the pool can only help to improve the quality and perception of the sector.  In terms of large scale good news that is about it, however I have seen so many providers this year, working so hard to create outstanding outcomes for their students and clients and when we look at the research and figures from NCVER we can see that overwhelmingly, this sector does a fantastic job and contributes so much towards the Australian economy and workforce.

So what about next year? Let’s just say that I think the roll out of VSL will be an interesting (the Chinese curse kind of interesting) space to watch.  With stricter entry requirements, loan limits for students, variable caps for providers depending on completion rates and a raft of other things, a lot of providers who were VFH providers or who might have been considering moving in that direction are viewing it as simply falling in the too hard basket and won’t be seeking approval to deliver.  The National Partnership agreement on skills reform, up for renegotiation as the current on expires in June 2017 seems currently if not dead in the water, leaking severely, with the states calling for a one year extension to the current agreement and the Federal government pretty much saying no.  No NPA would basically leave most of the state budgets for training with holes of around $100 Million  plus.

In terms of providers and the market itself, I also dont think we are out of the woods yet in terms of closures, restructures and downsizings.  It seems to me, as an outsider, that Ashley Services may have a very hard time trading out of the position it is currently in, at least in its current form.  There are also a number of other providers who had grown substantially on VFH incomes who will see those incomes slashed by in some cases 50-75% even if they are given approval to deliver under the new VSL system.  This will mean in most cases that there will be little chance of them continuing in their current forms and closures or restructures in terms of both staff and delivery will need to occur.  Is this a bad thing?  Yes and No.  Clearly there are probably some providers who expanded rapidly, did not deliver and did not properly invest in their continuing existence and the market may well be better off without them.  The down side of course is much wider than that, fewer available places and less choice for students, quality VET staff finding themselves unemployed or moved to contract and part time, casual work. There may also in some areas be knock on effects in terms of skilled workers in certain areas over the coming years.  So while there is a need to make sure that providers are meeting their requirements and delivery quality outcomes to their students and stakeholders, there is also a need to ensure that happens while we keep an eye on the wider picture and the impacts the VET has more generally.

Next year will be a year for consolidation and restructuring throughout the sector at all levels, a year of readjustment and reevaluation.  A year where we will see the number of providers, particularly at the bigger end of town shrink considerably both in number and size, but also hopefully a year in which the sector can reestablish itself and begin to move forward.

Anyway that’s just my opinion.

Thank you all for reading and interacting with this little slice of me for the year and thank you to all the friends both near and far I have made or held onto over the past year.  May you all enjoy whatever it is that you do over this time of year and all return happy and safe in the new year.

Paul

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