A view from the outside – sort of.

Now that, as many of you know, I am out of the day to day business of vocational education and in a more organisational learning and development (among other things) space, I have been looking at the VET sector through a somewhat newish lens, though a lens I have admittedly looked through before and I am troubled by what I see.  Someone asked my the other day what I thought the biggest issues facing the sector were.  I started to suggest that the kinds of things people have heard me talk about at length and then it struck me that I needed to push all of that thinking away and have a fresh look at the sector as someone sitting outside of it, or at least only on the very edge and so I did and I realised something.

No one outside of the sector actually cares about what is happening in the sector.  No one really cares about the problems with the TAE, whether ASQA is doing the right thing the right way, compliance issues, what the issues with amount of training are, no one actually cares.  They only care when they go to a provider, ask for what they want, and get told they can’t have it or they can’t have it in the manner in which they want it, and even then they don’t really care as they will either except it or simply go to another provider.  And I am not just talking about business’s here, I am talking about individuals as well, and that is a very very big problem for the sector.

Yes lots of people are involved in the sector, lots of people, millions in fact gain education, training and qualifications through the VET sector in this country, and even if we discount international students and training there are massive sums of money involved and VET is a critical part of our economy, not just in terms of that money, but in terms of the generation of skills and knowledge within this country, in terms of making us as a whole, smarter, better, more skilled, and more knowledgeable.   But again, very few people outside the sector actually care.

Now to be fair this is not an active dislike of the sector, the rampant hatred of all things VET that we saw in the thick of the VET fee Help debacle has dissipated, it is simply that VET  is not on the radar of most people as something which is important, that they need to understand, or that they need to care about.  It is at best a piece towards the back of the paper to which people either respond with ‘bloody dodgy private providers’ or ‘bloody TAFE.”  The sector has unfortunately become something that people only take an interest in, when they intersect with it and then their interest is purely, for the most part, about how they get what they want from the system and once they have it the sector floats away from their lives.

We even see this when if we listen to the way the which the sector is thought about by not only those outside of it but those inside of it as well.  Principles, guidance counselors, and parents who view the sector as somewhere for those kids who aren’t going to get into university to go.  Providers, consultants and all of the other ancillary business’s around the sector itself, who see the sector as a way to make money.  Bureaucrats,  unions, governments and those in positions of power who see the sector as a means to an end, stepping stones in a career, or organisations who see the industry as nothing more than a way to train their staff for as little actual cost as possible.   Please don’t get me wrong here I am not suggesting this is the way everyone thinks, but I can tell you it is far more prevalent than you might want to think.

So why is this the case, the answer is both simple and complex.  It is simple in that there is no single connected vision for vocational education in this country, there is clear no statement about the value of vocational education.  Governments talk about how important it is, but generally only to those from the sector, and in the background keep reducing in real terms the amount of funding the sector has. It is never the center piece of discussion, jammed in between K-12 and University and seen by many nothing more than a way to appear to reduce unemployment.

There is no single driving vision, that can be clearly articulated and disseminated, talked about, and used to educate the public on the enormous value that this sector brings to this country and that is real shame.

Anyway that’s just my opinion.  Hope all of you that went had a great #2017NVC and learnt something that you can take back and make the VET sector stronger.

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Total VET students and courses 2016 – First look

Woohooo, it’s that time of the year again.  NCVER has just released the Total Vet students and courses Data for 2016.  Yes I know lot of you are now going ‘you’re weird’ and to be fair you are probably right, however, there is more often than not some lovely little gems of information tucked away in this report.  So lets have a look at what it says and see where that takes us.

First the highlights; 4279 providers delivered TVA training to about 4.2 million students in 2016, which represents an almost 5% rise in the number of enrolled students over the 2015 figures. There was also an around 1% rise in the overall participation rates in VET in the population aged 15-64, with  participation highest among 15 to 19 year olds at 46.2%.  This is on the back of an almost 3% decrease in the amount of commonwealth or state government funded training and while management and commerce remains the most popular field of education despite a 5.8% decline in program enrollments, the heath sector saw the largest one rise increasing by 30% in 2016.  The other interesting fact is that about 10% of all of the RTOs listed on Training.gov.au had no enrollment activity during 2016.

So what do all of these highlights mean, before we dig a little bit deeper into the data.  I have to say that realistically it seems to paint a fairly good picture for the VET sector in Australia.  We are seeing solid levels of participation across the Australian population and far more importantly I think we are seeing almost 50% of the 15 to 19 age group involved in some kind of VET activity in 2016.  The decline in funded programs is however a concern, and a concern that must be addressed by both state and federal governments.  For too long now the VET sector has been under funded with the amount of public money coming into the sector reducing in real terms and falling further and further behind K-12 and university funding.

So what other pieces of information can we glean from the report.  Well Queensland had the highest overall number of providers at 1270, with VIC close behind with 1100 and NSW third with just over 1000 providers.  As you would expect the three eastern states dwarf the other states, with each of them having more providers than all of the other states combined.  This trend is also echoed in the total student numbers a well.  NSW leading here with 1.1 million students with both VIC and QLD coming in not far behind, each with over 900,000 students.  When we look at the student numbers a couple of really interesting points pop out.  Firstly female students increased by 10.5% to 2.0 million, with the proportion of female students increasing from 44.1% to 46.5%.  In addition indigenous students increased by 20.1%, accounting for 4.0% of the total estimated VET student population and students with a disability increased by 1.8% or 4.3% of total estimated students.  All other things being equal, this has to be a great result for the sector, with those populations which have traditionally struggled comparatively in terms of workforce participation and education, becoming more engage with vocational education.

When we consider the data around program enrollments, that is what people studied and how, we see a trend or a movement which I think is going to continue into the future.  Across the board in 2016, compared with 2015 national training package program enrollments decreased by 4.1%, while skill sets increased by 111.6%.  This is something that a significant number of commentators including myself have been suggesting, has been occurring and will to continue to occur over time.  I would suggest that in our fast changing workplaces, both workers and employers are looking build and improve specific skills to meet market demands quickly and effectively, thus preferring skill sets and single unit training over full qualifications.

The largest percentage of enrollments was, as we would expect at the Certificate III level with 26% of all enrollments, with diploma level and certificate II qualifications coming in next, both with in excess of 16% of enrollments.  These are the core business areas for the VET sector so the fact that they account for in excess of 60% of enrollments is no surprise.  We saw the health sector record the largest growth of all fields of education increasing by 30.3%, however troublingly we saw by contrast, Natural and physical sciences experienced the largest decline in program enrollments, decreasing by 15.0%.  While our ageing population and the ever growing need for health and allied health professional is clearly driving the growth in that sector, I suspect that a severe misalignment between the training packages and the needs of the science sectors may be the underlying reason behind the decrease in enrollments there.

So that’s it for a first look, I think there are real positives that the VET sector can take from the data in this report, but there are also some things to consider quite seriously, such as the continued decrease in funding and the lack of student enrolling in science related courses.  It will be interesting to see if anything else pops up out of the data as it it looked at more closely and read in conjunction with other data.

Anyway, that’s just my opinion.

 

VSL – The first six months, well sort of.

As many of you are aware the report on the first 6 months of the Vet Student Loans (VSL) Scheme, which replaced VFH at the beginning of the year has been released.  Now while it is not too long (a mere 31 pages, plus a spreadsheet of data), it does make for some interesting reading.  It is important to note that this report is on the six month transition period between VFH and VSL and some of the data is for providers, who while part of the transitional program did not have their approval to deliver VSL courses renewed under the full scheme.  There were 167 under the provisional arrangements but only approximately 125 have continued into the full scheme.  The other significant thing to remember about some of the details in this report is that there are caps of 5,10 or $15,000 associated with the vast majority of courses listed, with Aviation courses having a much higher cap than others.

Through transition there were 167 providers, 35 were TAFEs and other public institutions and 132 were private providers, and interestingly of that 167 only 138 enrolled students who accessed VSL funding.  A total of 24,492 students had VSL approved for a total of $78,131,044.  This represents an average across all enrolments of just over $3000 per student.  One might say on these figures alone, if this program has achieved nothing else it looks as if it has achieved the government’s goal of reducing the student debt.  It seems clear that the days of unbridled greed both in terms of enrolments and the fees being charged are well and truly over.

What is a little bit more interesting is that public providers seem to be the clear winner in the VSL funding stakes, with TAFE QLD pulling in the most funding at a shade over $13 million, and TAFE NSW coming in second with only about $8 million.  In fact all but one of the top ten spots in the VSL league ladder are held by TAFEs or public institutions with BasAir aviation college in tenth place. The truly interesting thing for me in all of this is the change in the league tables for most popular courses, with the perennial winner, the diploma of business dropping back to sixth, and the fourth placed, under VSL, Diploma of Leadership and management sliding way down the pack to a dismal twenty-first.  The upward mover is screen and media now coming in at fourth having previously been pretty much unranked, with Nursing and Community services still holding onto their VSL popularity.  What does this mean, well, what it could mean is that without the unfettered fees of VFH, slinging brokers (which you can’t really use now anyway) in excess of $5,000 to grab students off the street so you could enroll them in an $18,000 Diploma of leadership and management is no longer a sustainable business model, and perhaps when these students aren’t being pressured into signing up over the phone, at their front door or as they exit centrelink it turns out that most people don’t actually want to do the course and perhaps only did it so they could get that Ipad that was on offer.  Oh sorry I must have slipped my cynical hat on there for a moment without noticing.

If I am being really honest this report doesn’t actually tell us very much at except that VSL has done what it had been expected to do which is to curb the out of control spending which had occurred under VFH, and reign in some of the abhorrent business practices which had grown up around the program as well.  It is far to early to tell whether the design is right, I get the feeling it is at a high level but needs some adjusting where the rubber hits the road, and whether new issues will pop up as the program marches forward.  Is it perfect, no.  Is it better than the utter disaster we had previously, at least in my opinion yes.

Anyway that’s just my opinion.

The report on unduly short course duration and what it means

Unless you have been hiding under a rock recently you will have heard, I am sure, about the ASQA report into Unduly short duration courses.  This 171 page behemoth of a report looks into and makes recommendations regarding, what has been viewed by a lot of people as a significant issue with the deliver of VET qualifications, courses of study with very short actual duration’s.   Now I am not going to dig through the entire report, if you want to know what got us to this point and the general research and thinking behind the recommendations feel free to dive into it and have fun. Today I am just going to look at the recommendations made towards the end of the report, what I think of them and what effect they might have on the sector.

So the three recommendations that come out of the report are;

  1. Strengthening the Standards for RTOs by defining the term ‘amount of training’ to include the supervised learning and assessment activities required for both training packages and VET
    accredited courses.
  2. Ensuring effective regulation of training by enabling Industry Reference Committees (IRCs) to respond to identified risk by including appropriate training delivery requirements, including the amount of training, and
  3. Enhancing transparency by requiring public disclosure of the amount of training in product disclosure statements, presented in a consistent way to enable comparisons across courses.

Of these three, it seems at least to me that it is the last one which is the least contentious, that is requiring public disclosure of course duration.  Of course for it to be able to be effective recommendation one does really need to be sorted out first.  If there is no consistent definition of what constitutes  amount of training, and no consistent way of presenting this information, then three is really pointless.  let’s however put that to one side and I will come back to it later when I talk about the first recommendation.  I see no real issue with providers being required to publicly disclose the duration of their courses, both in a product disclosure statement and on MYSKILLS, and that the PDS be provided to every student.  One of the advantages here is that having this information publicly available is that not only does it provide the consumer with additional information which can be used to realistically compare programs, but also it provides the regulator with a metric which can be audited and the provider held to account were they don’t meet their own durations.

Let’s take a step back now though and look at recommendation one.  If recommendation three is fairly uncontentious then one and two are pretty polar opposites. There have long been arguments about what constitutes the amount of training, with a range of divergent opinions such as nominal hours meaning essentially face to face delivery hours to what constitutes supervised and unsupervised learning and to try and get a definition out of anyone about how long a course should actually be and to have some consistency around the answer if you do get it is almost impossible.

So let’s have a look at what the report says in recommendation one about what should or should not constitute ‘amount of training’ It is proposed that amount of training could include:

  • supervised or guided learning, such as:
    • tuition and other trainer-directed workshops or activities
    • structured self-paced study
    • structured work placement
    • projects and prescribed set tasks
  • Assessment activities.

It would not include unsupervised learning, such as:

  • private study or preparation, including prescribed reading, or
  • self-initiated learning or research.

Here is the thing, when I look at what is being recommended it seems pretty reasonable, or at worst it seems to cover all of the things I would want a definition like this to cover and excludes the things it probably should.   Anything that is instructor led is included which, well, should be an obvious inclusion, structured self-paced covers elearning, distance and those other forms of non instructed led delivery, this is certainly in my opinion another obvious one, but one which has been challenged (wrongly I would suggest) by some.  Structured work placement and a catch all for projects and other set tasks rounds out the list and a pretty fair list at that.  With a definition out of the way we can now move onto the Recommendation Two, the one that has been worrying people the most.

It is recommendation two where the rubber meets the road so to speak with the report suggesting that where the IRCs feel that there might be an unacceptable risk—including a risk to the learner, the workplace, the community or the environment—or where there are already systemic issues with the quality of training that the IRCs recommend a strategy to effectively mitigate the risk which may include:

  • specifying mandatory training delivery or assessment requirements (including the amount of
    training where this is warranted), and/or
  • providing enhanced guidance to RTOs through the inclusion of recommended training delivery or
    assessment requirements, including the amount of training.

We have already seen a movement towards this in a number of training packages, with mandatory work placement hours and specific assessment criteria (Student must have provided information to at least 3 clients) forming part of the newest iteration of the CHC package for high number of units and qualifications.  These kinds of criteria and placement hours have long been part of other packages and were sorely need in the CHC package and are probably something with most of the training packages should, if they already don’t include.  What the report doesn’t say is that mandatory ‘amount of training’ should be included in all packages and qualifications.  It does suggest that in;

  • aged and community care
  • early childhood education and care
  • security operations
  • equine programs
  • construction safety induction (‘White Card’), and
  • training and education,

that consideration be given, due to the fact that considerable risks have already been noted in these areas, to including a mandatory ‘amount of training’ for new learners as a matter of priority. Given the quality of some of the training which has been delivered in these areas I can’t say that I am adverse to this idea, importantly I am not adverse to this idea for new learners.  For people with experience in the sector undertaking training, placing the same mandatory ‘amount of training’  is unwarranted and would create undue difficulties for experienced people needing to obtain qualifications.  That being said, having a mandatory ‘amount of training’ for new learners would provide a guide or a benchmark from which training provided to more experienced learners could be judged.

While I understand that part of the argument against minimum durations is the how long does it take a person to be competent argument, to which the answer is of course well as long as it takes, which could of course vary widely between learners.  I might be a much faster learner than others and get competence in  half or a third of the time the average person takes, but also it may be the case that I may be slower and may take twice as long as average.  This doesn’t I think negate the fact that for new learners, we can probably come up with a fairly reasonable minimum mandatory ‘amount of training’ in those areas where this kind of intervention is required.

The other argument raised is that employers are ones who are pushing for quicker and quicker delivery times, they want new staff to be trained as quickly as possible. But here’s the thing, employers can’t have it both ways, they can’t have staff trained as quickly as possible and then complain about the quality in the next breath.  I have had this argument so many times with managers over the years in a variety of roles both in and out of RTOs, you can either have it fast, cheap or good, pick two because you can’t have all three and anyone who tells you you can is either lying or trying to sell you something.  Having  mandatory minimum ‘amount of training’ however cuts the legs of this argument straight away, the answer to the can we have that quicker question is simply no and we have official documentation to back it up.

All in all I can’t say that I have any real problems with the recommendations, yes, having a minimum mandatory ‘amount of training’ worries some people, however I would suggest that for a lot of the high quality providers in the market, they would be meeting or exceeding any minimum requirements that were ever made mandatory.

Anyway that just my opinion.

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?

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