The problem of opinion and misinformation in VET

Australian VET is a regulated industry, in fact if you spend more than five minutes talking to almost anyone in the sector, you will understand just how abundant these regulations and other associated controls are.  Given that this is the case, and given that because this information is written into legislation, and other associated documents linked to and referenced in the legislation, I am sometimes dumbfounded how it is possible not to know the answer to a lot of the questions I hear being asked in the sector, and worse still giving an opinion, which is wrong, on something that is clearly articulated in black and white in the various documentation for the sector.

Now I am the first to admit two things, one, there is a lot of documentation to look through (the Standards, Data Definitions, funding agreements, AQF, to just name a couple) and second, I am the kind of person who loves, reading and assimilating information and data.  That being said however, how is it possible for someone to be in a position of relative power, (CEO, Consultant, Compliance Manager, whatever) and not have read and more importantly understood at least the very basic documents which regulate the sector, and given the amount of misinformation, and glaringly wrong opinions which are offered by people who should really no better, it can only be assumed that they either haven’t read or haven’t understood the documents, or have simply shifted all of the responsibility for knowing what the right answer is to someone else.  Now to some extend I don’t, by necessity, mind if people, say a CEO of an RTO doesn’t have all the answers and relies on his compliance person to understand everything and to get it right, however if this is you, then don’t give an answer when someone asks a question.  If you don’t know the answer, all you are going to do is muddy the water and make it more difficult for the person asking the question to get the right answer, which then probably need.

What is far more concerning to me is when people, who are supposed to be senior leaders in the sector or who are consultants who work with large numbers of providers, voice opinions which are clearly incorrect on subjects where your opinion doesn’t matter because the answer or the definition is written clearly into some form of regulatory document.  Not only does this provide whoever is asking the question, or who they are working with, with the wrong answer, which could have catastrophic consequences for that person or organisation, but if they say it enough and it gains momentum and gets passed around enough, this clearly wrong piece of misinformation, becomes gospel.

One of these, as an example, came up a number of years ago, at an ASQA briefing and was categorically answered, but the myth, wrong, opinion, or misinformation still exists today and is still quoted by people.  At this briefing a gentleman stood up during the time allocated for questions and asked, why it was the case that highly experience industry people had to hold all of the units of competency that they were teaching.  He said that it was making it difficult for him to find trainers because a lot of people in his industry didn’t have the newest UOC’s and therefore couldn’t teach and assess those units.  The person from ASQA (who is a person who is highly regarded, highly skilled and help draft the standards) looked dumbfounded for a moment and then replied that the standards didn’t say that and asking him where he had learned this from.  This of course bought a hue and cry from the audience many of whom insisted that that was exactly what the standards said.  The ASQA representative carefully explained that all the standards said was that trainers had to have, small c vocational competencies.  They didn’t have to hold the exact unit they just had to be able to prove that they were competent in the skill that they were teaching if and when they were audited.  Another round of discontent emerged with a lot of people say that TAFE had always required them to RPL the most recent units at the very least.  Again, the ASQA person reiterated that while that may be the practice of TAFE, that was simply a management decision, was not required by the standards and should not actually be considered to be best practice. Now not only was this information shared at the briefing, it was also shared through FAQ’s on the ASQA website and through recordings of the briefing.  Yet, much to my disbelief, I heard this very question being asked in another forum late last year, a a great many of the people who answered spouted the very same information which has been debunked numerous times since that first briefing.

The real problem is that this is only one example of this kind of opinion masquerading as fact which is doing a substantial amount of damage to the sector.  It is no wonder that RTO’s are failing audit if they are relying on opinions from so called experts rather than actually going and reading the cold hard, black and white information contained in the various acts and other documents.  The vast majority of the questions I see posed on online forums, at conferences and in general discussion, aren’t the subject of opinion, and do in fact have definitive answers if you can just be bothered to go and read the documents that govern what we do.

So how about before we ask or answer a question, we all go and read, not just The Standards, but all of the ancillary documentation associated with the sector, or if you don’t have the time or the inclination to do that, (I personally think our sector would be better off if more people did though) just google the question, ignore the opinion and go to the actual source documents.  We all talk about wanting the VET sector to be more professional, and I have to say, actually reading and understand the legislation etc which underpins might be a good start.


A war on TAFE? Some VET facts and myths.

Recently again, my news feeds, social media and other outlets have been jammed with the AEU, Greens and Labor people talking about the war on TAFE and that non-public providers are causing the death of TAFEs in Australia.  To be fair I understand what is going on here;

  1. A not insubstantial number of AEU members in various states are TAFE workers.  In fact the overwhelming majority of AEU members from the VET sector come from TAFE.  It therefore makes sense that the AEU vigorously pushes the TAFE bandwagon.  Less TAFE staff means (probably) less AEU members, making them a less relevant voice in the VET sector.
  2. The Greens with their deep ideological commitments to public provision of a wide range of things including education and a VET policy that says no funding should go to non-public providers at all, coupled with a solid understanding of their voting base, means that there is a war on TAFE, resonates with their political agenda and makes them more palatable to their voters.
  3. Labour.  Well with deep connections to the Union movement, a lean towards the left, and again a good understanding of their ‘true believers’ talking up the death of TAFE makes sense.  It also helps that they can use it to kick the government as well.

The fact that these are the main groups behind the various save our TAFEs movements makes it pretty clear that a lot of the rhetoric around this and a lot of the negative press leveled at the non-public side of VET is, well, driven by political and ideological agendas.

Now two things before I go on.  Firstly let me make it abundantly clear that the position taken by the government and its advisory groups are, just as much as with the groups above, driven by ideological and political agendas.  Secondly, as I have said so many times before, we need to have a strong efficient and effective public VET education system in this country, losing it would be a loss for Australia.  However, we also need a vibrant and well supported non-public system as well.

Let us then jump away from the rhetoric and agendas and just look at some facts however, and then perhaps we can make some considered conclusions about some of the recent rhetoric.  Now bear in mind these facts have come from data publicly released by NCVER.

Myth Number One: Private RTOs have grown out of control.

Fact Number One:  A small number of private providers (and some TAFEs) substantially increased their enrolments mostly on the back of the flawed VET fee help scheme.  However 47% of all non-public VET providers have less than 1,000 Students.

Myth Number Two: TAFE provides a far better quality of training than non-public providers.

Fact Number Two:  If we look at the Employers’ use and views of the VET system 2017 report from NCVER we can see that Employers report a 91.5% satisfaction with private providers against 85.6% with TAFE as well as an 82.9% satisfaction rate for the delivery to apprentices and trainees as opposed to 81.8% for TAFE.

Myth Number Three: Private providers cherry pick students and courses and leave TAFE to do the heavy lifting with remote, disadvantaged, disabled and indigenous students.

Fact Number Three:  Private providers actually deliver to 50% of all indigenous students, 43% of all students with a disability, 54% of the most disadvantaged students, and more than half of all remote and very remote students.

Myth Number Four: TAFE does the vast majority of the training of trainees and apprentices.

Fact Number Four: Non-public providers delivered 45% of apprentice and trainee enrollments.

So I am just going to leave those here for you to think about for a little while and remember the old saying ‘Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

Have a great weekend everyone.

Higher level teaching degrees and VET

So as many of you are aware there has been some new research which has come out about degree qualifications and teaching in VET.  Now it is important to note that I have not at this point had an opportunity to look over the entire study and the conclusions that it draws, however given the information which is available there are at least some questions I think are worth airing.

Firstly however a comment, I always find it interesting when academics suggest that VET needs better teaching qualifications when most academics don’t have any formal teach qualifications at all, they are simply experts (they have a PhD or similar) in their field. So I always tend to think that if University ‘teachers’ are considered to be capable because they have experience in their field, why is their this suggestion that it should be different in VET. Some if not most of the VET people who get the best outcomes for their student are those with the deepest industry experience and currency.  So with that little comment out of the way.

My first worry here is study size and knowing who it was that the survey was sent to.  570 and 360 respondents out of a supposedly 80,000 strong workforce seems a little low to me to be jumping to conclusions from.  I mean that is after all less than 1% of the total workforce.  My other initial concern is who it was sent to.  I don’t think I ever remember seeing anything about this survey anywhere or anyone at all mentioning that it was underway.  I could be wrong or my memory could be going, but if anyone out there got an invitation to respond to the survey let me know I would be really interested.  I am interested because, often these studies do not cover what could be called a definitive cross-section of the industry.  I am reminded of some research done around supporting students with disabilities which was presented a NCVER No Frills a number of years back, where it turned out that the researcher had only spoken to TAFE providers about how they dealt with disabled student and when asked why she had not contacted any non-public providers her utterly ill-informed answer was ‘private providers don’t deal with students with disabilities so there was no point in asking them’.  Now I am not saying something like that has occurred in this survey, but it would be really interesting to see if all of the parts of the sector had been able to give input and if it had covered all of the states.

Now I come to the real question I have about this paper, what is the evidence for a statement like  “Whether it was in VET pedagogy or something else, a degree or above really made a difference to things like a teacher’s professionalism, their contribution to the organisation and a deep understanding of the necessity of audit procedures.”  Is it just anecdotal or is there something more substantive.  Is it based on the response from teachers themselves saying they thought it made a difference or is there some other more shall we say robust data, or even feedback from their managers and employers about how their professionalism or contribution increased as a result of undertaking a higher degree.  I mean the cynic in me always says, if I had paid a significant sum of money for a degree and someone asked me if it was worthwhile, people are mostly going to say yes, even if it wasn’t just to appear to not appear to have made an error in judgement.

All that aside however, it is important to note that I am not against people in VET getting higher level degrees, nor am I against the concept of these degrees. I do however think that any change in policy to suggest that higher level qualifications become the standard or the entry point should be resisted wholeheartedly.  What VET needs is people who are highly experienced and appropriately qualified in their fields, who are passionate about passing that knowledge on to students and consistently ensure that they are current and well versed in industry practice.  Then we need to provide them with appropriate training qualifications to be able to effectively pass that information on and to assess the competence of students effectively.  That is what this sector needs not more people with degrees, who haven’t actually been in the industry for years because they have been to busy getting their degree.

Here’s an idea, before any more academics tell the VET sector what is good for it and that having university teaching degrees will raise the standard of teaching, how about we change university policy and force all academics who are teaching at university to have higher level teaching degrees and lets see how well that goes down.  I still remember that idiot academic last year complaining that he wasn’t being allowed to teach in the VET sector because he didn’t have a certificate IV TAE, even though he had a PhD in his field.  Just because you have  PhD in something doesn’t mean you can actually teach what you know to anyone.

Anyway that’s just my opinion.

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 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.


NCVER’s Government funded Student data; What does it tell us?

So for those of you who aren’t aware, NCVER released its government funded student data for 2016 recently and I think it has some interesting findings contained in it.  Firstly though what is the overall picture which the data presents us with. The big thing which should jump out of this data for anyone looking at this data is that 7.8% of the Australian population aged 15 to 64 years participated in the government-funded VET system in Australia in 2016.  That is about 1.3 million students, a 3.3% increase from the previous year.  This shows the enormous part that funded training plays in the VET landscape in Australia and the importance that it plays in allowing  people to undertake post secondary education.  Without this funding a significant amount of that 7.8% of the population would not have otherwise been able to access the training they needed to improve their workforce participation options.

Interestingly while there was an increase in students there was also a decrease in subject enrollments, primarily due to the fact that there was a significant (nearly 300%) increase in the number of people undertaking funded skill sets as opposed to full qualifications.  This points out a growing industry trend and one which must be acknowledge and properly dealt with by all of the various funding bodies involved in the sector, that of increasing demand for focused skill sets to meet the needs of an industry or a particular employer.  This is a trend which is on the rise rapidly not just in VET but across organisational learning and development and post secondary education in general.  Organisations and students are looking for short, focused courses containing a small number of units to fill skills and knowledge shortfalls and to be more competitive in rapidly changing markets.

Interestingly 52.2% of funded students, were enrolled in their study at TAFE or other government providers, with only 40.8% enrolled at what would generally be defined as private providers.  The balance of enrollments were through community education and other providers.  This represents an increase for TAFE in terms of students of 14.8%, with both private and community providers both dipping by around 7+%.  I find this interesting (and yes I know these are last years numbers and things can change) because there has been significant media coverage of the downturn in student numbers enrolled in TAFE’s.  What this seems to suggest, at least to me, is that if TAFE is clearly improving its position in the funded training market, then it must be losing substantially in the more competitive fee for service markets, including income contingent loans which as we all know are not Funded Training.  To be fair, the non-TAFE sector has for a long time (even before VFH) traditionally done better in the fee for service space for various reasons.  I will be interesting to see what the total VET activity data says this year, when we can get a picture of all enrollments to compare against the funded enrollment data.

Every demographic with the exclusion of 15-19 year old’s increased in terms of student numbers as did Females, indigenous people and people with disabilities, which is win as often these groups are the ones most in need of financial assistance in terms of their ability to undertake training.  The community services training package was the largest contributor to student numbers at 18.5%, which given the numbers of staff which will be needed in this sector in the coming years is probably a good thing.  The most popular fields of education though were engineering and education however information technology and natural and physical sciences had very significant drop offs at 14.6% and 16.4% respectively.

Overall the real impact of this report is that it shows that enormous value that funded training contributes to this country.

Anyway that’s just my opinion.

P.S.  As some of you know I will be moving on from my current role at the end of this week, to take on a more traditional, less VET centric organisation Learning and development role.  I will be still quite strongly connected to the sector, just in a different way than I currently am.  It is also probably the case that (and I can’t promise this) that I will take a break from posting for a couple of weeks as I get up and running in the new role.



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.

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