Is it time for capstone or endpoint independent assessment in VET?

With a number of countries including the UK moving towards using some sort of capstone or endpoint assessment to act as a final gateway for apprentices, to confirm their competence, prior to being awarded their qualification,  it seems like it may not be a bad time for the Australian VET sector to look at the concept as well.

What is an endpoint or capstone assessment then?  It is an independent assessment  of the knowledge, skills and behaviours that have been learnt throughout the apprenticeship. The purpose of which is to make sure the apprentice meets the standard set by employers and are fully competent in the occupation.  If we take the UK for example End-point assessment must be administered by an assessor from an approved, independent End-point Assessment Organisation, and not by the training provider.  It is the simple idea that at the conclusion of the apprenticeship and prior to the awarding of the qualification an independent body, not connected to the training provider or the employer, makes a final assessment of the skills and knowledge of the apprentice to ensure that they have successfully learnt the skills required for the qualification and are therefore competent to be awarded the qualification.

The first question most people as when this suggestion is bought up is Why?  Why is there the need to have a separate independent organisation certifying the competence of the student, isn’t that what the RTO (public or not) is supposed to do.  Of course the simple answer here is that under our VET system that is correct, it is the RTO who is responsible for certifying the competence of the student and awarding the qualification.  However I think given the recent issues with both public and private providers and the fact that ASQA has had to either rescind or have reassessed a substantial number of qualifications across a range of industries, it seems at least to me, that confidence in the fact that providers are actually doing enough to ensure competence may actually be a significant issue.  That those students who receive qualifications, regardless of what industry it relates to, are actually competent and have the requisite skills and knowledge they require in order to do the work which the qualification says they are able to do, is really the bedrock of our system isn’t it.  If more than 80% of people undertaking VET are doing it to improve their workforce participation, then their ability to convert that qualification into some kind of workforce outcome, along with the need for employers who employ these students on the basis of having a qualification, which indicates they possess a certain level of skills and knowledge are paramount.  In fact we have seen a number of employers now feeling that they need undertake their own testing of ‘qualified’ potential staff to ensure their competence prior to employment.  The idea of end point assessments is I think one that is certainly applicable to apprenticeships, however I also think there is certainly a useful application for them across a range of disciplines.  There would also be an interesting side benefit of a system of independent assessment and that is that it would provide substantive information to the VET regulator around the quality of graduates from different providers.  A high level of failure of students from a particular provider would be a risk indicator for the regulator to cast a closer eye over that provider.  We would I think also see that those providers who were less that scrupulous in their training and assessment practices would begin to exit the market as it would become more difficult for them to sustain their business models.

There are a range of conditions however which these kind of assessments require to meet, in order I think to be both successful and valuable.  The first is true independence, these gatekeeper organisations cannot be connected to training providers in any way.  They cannot be part of the TAFE system or linked to private providers at all, they must be truly independent organisations.  I would also suggest that along with this goes the fact that they cannot be government agencies, because, unfortunately as we know, there are often competing pressures placed upon government agencies which may make them less effective in carrying out their duties.   A couple of suggestions then spring to mind, the first of which would be to utilise the various peak bodies for different industries as a conduit to enabling this sort of assessment.  To me there may be issues here as peak bodies are often tightly linked to, and in a substantial number of instances paid for by the employers they represent.  This may produce the perception of bias or making things easier, particularly when there are shortages in the labour markets they represent.  Another possibility would be to utilise the already existing SSO’s and simply add to their duties, the development and administration of independent end point assessments.  This suggestion makes a fair bit of sense to me as there are already existing organisations in place who are tightly linked to the development of the training packages themselves and who are already funded to provide a range of VET services.  The third option would be to not utilise any existing structures and build the system from the ground up with organisations applying for and being granted a license shall we say to deliver these assessment services.  Of course stringent requirements would need to be developed to ensure that the veracity of these organisations were not subject to even the perception of bias or unethical behaviour.

I know that there will be those of you out there who will say that all this is doing is creating another layer of bureaucracy, and that what is in fact needed more high quality providers who can be trusted in their practices, and less lets get this qualification done as quickly as possible providers in the system, and to be fair you are probably right.  The problem is, that what we are doing is not working, and if we are  honest has not been working for a while now, and suggestions like removing the contestable market place or only providing government funding to public providers or more regulation and harsher penalties will not, to my mind at least, make any substantial difference.  The concept of independent final assessments may however actually revitalise the levels of confidence that everyone has in the system.  It is I think at least something we should be talking about.





Vocational Education, Career Development and Employment

I went to a really interesting discussion hosted by ACPET last week centered on the theme, careers not courses.  As some of you may be aware this concept of career development, employment opportunity and workforce participation is a subject that I have viewed as quite important for a while now.  Too often we see post secondary graduates, whether from the VET sector or the University sector coming into the workforce either clearly not properly trained and assessed,  having not been taught particular units or subjects, or that the material they have been taught is out of date.  This therefore makes the student who was hoping that their qualification would net them a job when they were finished not actually capable of doing the role they are supposed to be trained for, yet not knowing that this is the case.  So they submit resumes and go to interviews (when they get past the resume stage) and almost never understand why they don’t get the role.  There are also a not insignificant number of people who get to the end of their study, get into the role they are trained for and find out rapidly that it is just not what they expected or what they want to do.

Of course when you start to think about this issue it becomes really obvious that there is no quick fix here.  It is caused by a number of different failures throughout the system.  The first failure point if that of the mismatch between qualifications, and the requirements of industry and employers, and this is certainly not an issue which can or will be fixed overnight.  It is also one which has a more significant effect in some industries, particularly within fast-moving industries, than in others, but given that training packages define the parameters of the training to be delivered and changing them has traditionally be a long slow process and one in which industry and employers have not stepped up as much as they could have it would seem that this issue may be difficult to address in the short-term.

There are a couple of things which I think can be done, at least more easily than reconnecting training packages and industry, and that is this idea of career development or advice and using that advice and its outcomes to inform training programs, units of competency and placements, so that it maximizes the opportunity for the student to both understand the role they are being trained for, and their ability to actually be hired and function in that role.  The question then becomes how do we achieve, how do we map qualifications, training, and student outcomes, with industry or employment need.

The first step is that people who are giving advice to potential students, particularly where those students are younger, actually need to understand both the training industry and landscape, and they need to understand the requirements of industry or the roles that they are advising people about.  The sad state of affairs is that for the most part this is not the case, at best they have one but not the other.  There are a few notable exceptions of course, but still at the moment they are exceptions nothing more.  Why? Well that is a relatively easy answer, the vast majority of people who are advising potential students are employed by job agencies, apprenticeship and traineeship providers, or educational providers (RTOs for example).  They are not in a real sense career advisers, their real role is something different, either placing people into training programs, or placing them in employment.  Their function and agendas may not be as student centric as we might like to think.  Of course as with everything I am generalising here and there are certainly, for want of a better word, advisers, who are student centric and seek to develop a relationship with the potential student which will provide that person with as good an outcomes as possible.

The other part of the equation here is the training providers.  Training providers need to understand the employment market into which their graduates will be entering.  They need to understand the skills and knowledge and the units of competency which best fit the industry or part of the industry into which the student wants to work in, and more importantly that knowledge needs to be current and accurate.  They need to understand the set of units, and the knowledge and skills which come out of those units, which will maximise the students potential to work in the area they want to.  The problem is of course that there are a lot of courses out there, particularly in the business and community services area, but in other areas as well, where the units taught and the content of those units is so generic that it virtually prepares the student for nothing at all except for a long list of rejected resumes.  One of the reasons why, in a previous role, the organisation i was with had its own RTO was to ensure that the units covered in the course, their content, how they were delivered, and what was expected during placements etc was controlled and produced graduates with the right set of skills to move directly into employment in the organisation.  We also did extensive pre-enrollment testing and discussions to ensure that the people entering the course were a good fit and were likely to complete.  Now I know that some of the apprenticeship agencies and job agencies (some of the better ones) are doing this.  Testing candidates to see how they cope with change and to look for what careers might suit them the most.  And this sort of activity is vitally important because, just because a year 12 student says he likes to play video games and wants to be a game designer, does not mean that it is the best choice for him, (the game design industry in Australia directly employs only about 900 people btw) and may actually harm his chances of getting meaningful employment or doing further training to change careers later, due to impacts upon funding.  It is really important to note here that I am not suggesting that we need to stream and railroad people out of careers that they actually wish to undertake, I am just suggesting that there a lot of people who are being trained who really don’t understand the nature of the industries or work that they are being trained for, and if they had been provided with a fuller explanation of the various careers which were available to them may have chosen a very different path.

The other thing which is important here and is which often overlooked is the fact that industry needs to come to the party as well, they need to be clear about what skills and knowledge they require of potential employees and work with providers to deliver on those skills and knowledge.

Unless we have these links between industry, providers and advisors, greater knowledge of options and the effects of various options on future choices, and truly independent advisors, it seems difficult things will improve.  What we need is an ecosystem, where the potential students are getting, timely, independent, accurate and individualised advice, which leads them to providers who create individualised learning plans for these students, based on what the student wants and what industry needs, with placements, internships and other pre-employment opportunities offers by employers to provide student with well-rounded experiences and the best possible opportunity to convert their qualification into a workforce outcome.



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.

What is the purpose of a VET qualification?

Over the last few weeks, the concept of mission statements for, and the purpose of, Vocational Education (VET) has been rolling around in my head, so this week I thought I might throw an idea or two about the purpose of VET in particular out to the world and see what happens.  Firstly then here is what I think is a relatively simple statement about what VET is designed to do;

Vocational Education and Training (VET) is designed to deliver workplace specific skills and knowledge, across a wide range of careers and industries which prepare participants for work, advancement or further study.

but let’s just leave that there sitting in your brains while I go on a little bit of wander through some of my thoughts on this idea of purpose in VET.

The first question which comes into my mind when I think about any kind of education, but particularly education over and above compulsory, Primary and Secondary education is why? Why would someone make the decision that they wished to undertake some program of study in some chosen field?  While we talk about lifelong learning, and learning for the sake of enjoyment and personal interest and I am sure that for a significant number of people the continuing learning process is something which motivates them and to at least some extent underpins some of their decisions in relation to learning, I don’t think it is for most people the central thing which drives them to undertake formal courses, particularly formal courses in the VET sector.

Most people, according to the NCVER just over 80%, undertake VET for employment related reasons.  This would seem to suggest that for the most part people who undertake a VET course are looking to convert the outcomes of that course (skills and a certificate) into either employment or advancement in their role or field.  This idea of converting a VET qualification into employment is an important one because I think it is one that in general all stakeholders can agree upon in terms of a purpose.

For employers and industry the idea of being able to convert a person to a worker or a more highly skilled worker through a qualification is central to why employers would utilise the VET system. Employers need workers with the right skills and qualifications to undertake the roles they have within their organisations.  From a Government perspective, if we focus on workforce participation, converting people into workers through a qualification reduces unemployment numbers, (even when they are undertaking training) and creates a pool of skilled workers for employers and industry to call upon when needed.  For providers having a good qualification to employment conversion rate helps to make the business more profitable and sustainable through growth in their reputation as a quality provider.

So it seems to me that this idea of conversion, converting a qualification into employment or advancement is an important one across the board and one which we could perhaps use to underpin our various models and thinking.  If the central goal of the delivery of a VET qualification is employment or increased chances of employment and advancement, this creates an environment where the outcomes for the student are central and quite clear.  This should then provide us with a critical lens through which to assess compliance and quality in terms of providers, connection with industry, funding levels and appropriate courses and range of other parts of the puzzle.  It also would provide students with a lens through which to evaluate both the courses they are interested in undertaking and the providers through which they wish to undertake them.


Anyway that’s just what I think.

Paying for VET – The funding equation

So I have been thinking a fair bit recently about funding in the VET sector and different models and approaches.  A lot of this has been prompted by the release of the new QLD VET investment program and the issues with what has happened with funding in South Australia and the discussions about that, as well as the recent comments by Senator Birmingham and some of the insights which came out of the panel I chaired at EduTech.

As we are all aware there are a range of ways in which VET is paid for in Australia from income contingent loans (yes I know they are not technically funding as such but let’s go with it anyway), to skills shortage lists and priority areas, individual based funding and programs aimed at producing specific outcomes for specific groups.  When we add to this direct funding for public providers in what ever form that takes and apprenticeship and traineeship schemes it is no wonder the average person has difficulty in figuring out who is paying for what.

Firstly lets consider income contingent loans (VET-FEE HELP). I am actually a proponent of this style of ‘funding’ particularly for higher level programs and to be honest if it wasn’t for this kind of system I would never have got the education that I currently have (admittedly my education is from the Higher Education sector rather than VET but the same principle applies).  The advantage to these programs is that it allows people to undertake the study that they wish to, without relying on whether or not that funding is considered to be a priority by the government.  It allows a strong freedom of choice around both what is studied and where and how that study is undertaken.   There are of course problems with this style of system (outside of issues around the cost of a program) the biggest of which is that employment outcomes from these programs may not be as high as they are in other more directed programs.  Why?  Well because people get to choose what it is that they want to study regardless of whether or not there will be an employment outcome at the end of the program.  Is this really a problem though?  I am not so sure that it is, providing people entering into these courses of study understand that there may not be a significant employment outcome for them as a result of undertaking the course, or that they may need to take employment in a different area first, before they are able to utilise their chosen program of study.

What about so-called entitlement style funding, where individuals who meet certain criteria are able to have their training subsidised  by the government.  This funding is almost always tied to those skills shortage and priority occupations lists, which means that while an individual may be able to obtain their training for a very small out-of-pocket expense, they are limited in the areas in which they can study, if they meet the eligibility criteria.  This kind of funding is interesting because it accounts for a fair proportion of the funding provided to the sector by the State governments and different people in different states may therefore have not only different eligibility criteria, but also a different choice of programs which they can undertake, as well as differing choices around providers and co-contribution rates.  The upside of these programs, if well-managed and run would seem to be a much stronger connection to employment outcomes and workforce participation particularly at more entry-level positions, the problems of course are that not everyone will meet the eligibility criteria and even for those people who do, the courses which are available to them, may not the courses which they wish to undertake.

Specific purpose programs (like Queensland’s Skilling Queenslanders for work program) are similar to entitlement style programs, with one key difference, they are designed with usually quite specific outcomes in mind.  If we take the Queensland program as an example, it is heavily focused on youth, particularly those youth are disadvantaged in some way and entry-level qualifications.  It is designed to increase the level of workforce participation in group which currently has a high level of unemployment.  Of course youth (people under 25) are not the only targets of these programs, they are also targeted at anyone who is disadvantaged and who has had difficulty in obtaining work (medium to long-term unemployed).  There are a couple of advantages to these sorts of programs, firstly they are designed and funded with a specific outcome, which usually means more funding for supporting services which may assist students to actually achieve the result that the program is designed around.  Being specifically designed also means that providers and other who are involved also have a very clear idea of what the goals of the program are and what they need to achieve.  The disadvantages are the same of those for entitlement style funding in that there are very specific criteria for participation and in terms of what programs are offered.

Traineeships and Apprenticeships are a slightly different fish from the other styles of funding, primarily because before being able to access these types of funding one must be employed or employed as part of the program.  They also in most cases carry an incentive component for the employer in order for make it more attractive for them to take on a trainee (and the additional costs which may be associated with them) than may have normally been the case.  The advantages to these programs are obvious, people are employed as a result of them and they are specifically aimed at the student completing the qualification in question and continuing to be part of the workforce.  The problem with these programs tends to be the amount of paperwork and regulation involved for all parties concerned.

Then finally we have direct funding to public providers.  I am going to be really open here and say that I think that the vast majority of funding for VET should be contestable.  It should go to the provider who is chosen by individuals and employers, sectioning off parts of funding programs specifically for the public providers simply limit choice and creates state-run monopolies.  That being said however I sincerely believe that there should be funding provided to TAFE, it should however be transparent, not hidden under quotas and things like that.  It should also be for specific purposes, where there is market failure, or where there is a lack of providers, or specific skills or facilities are required.  There should also be funding for the up keep of government-owned assets (where those assets are being utilised or are needed for the future.  However like with non-public providers operational expenses should be met through the utilisation of  contestable funding and fee for service delivery.

So the question which comes from all of this for me is what works best and is there any realistic way in which we could simplify things to make things easier for everyone.  Problematically I don’t think there is, each of the styles of funding have a specific purpose behind them, which also means that it is difficult to determine whether one type of funding is better than another.  I do however think that often entitlement style programs are the most problematic, primarily because of the occupation and course lists which support them.  For these style of funding programs to be effective there needs to be a tight link between the courses on offer and the needs of the workforce, because if there is not they are doomed to not meet the needs of anyone.  The other issue with these style of programs is getting the eligibility criteria right, one of the criticisms of the higher skills part of the QLD VET investment plan is that holding a Certificate IV  in anything disqualifies you from gaining funding for a diploma or above level qualification, regardless of whether or not it is a qualification in the same sector.   Now I am not suggesting that these types of funding aren’t useful and don’t have a place, they do, governments just need to be very careful about the programs they subsidise and the criteria for students.

Anyway that’s just my opinion.

Intersecting VET and L&D

In response to some discussions around models for the delivery of non-accredited training along side nationally accredited training and why L&D departments choose non-accredited training over accredited I thought that I might pull some of the threads of posts and bits and pieces together so that they were all in one place.

The Learning and Development and Vocational Education Disconnect

Australia has one of the best Vocational education systems in the world.  It is well generally well respected and provides both individuals and organisation with nationally accredited outcomes and qualifications, which are transportable across industry and provide a mark of competence against a defined set of criteria.

So why then do organisations make choices like these?

  1. $3000 for a Prince2 Course over $3000 for a Certificate IV in Project Management
  2. $250,000 for the C.A.R.E program as opposed to a Certificate IV in Child, Youth and Family Intervention.

This paper will look at the reasons behind the choices that are made by Learning and Development professionals working in organisation, the drivers and considerations and how that effects the usage of the Australian Vocational education system.  It will also consider the drivers from the VET sector, both at strategic and coal face levels that tend to perpetuate and reinforce the decisions made by organisations.  The disconnection between these two sides of the equation will be evaluated and model developed which can assist both organisations and training providers to be better able to communicate and meet learning needs, both at an organisational and individual level.

In order to do this it will be first necessary to look at what motivate the purchasing decisions of organisations with respect to training.  What causes an organisation to choose one learning program over another, this is of particular interest when the price points of the various learning programs in question are often very similar.  In addition to the choice of program there will also be a discussion around the choosing of providers for the delivery of learning programs and how the choice of provider can affect the purchasing decision.  The purpose of training from both the organisation and the individual will also need to be considered.

Once the organisational side of the equation has been considered we will move to the provider or VET side and consider both the strategic and coal face positioning which tend to put the VET sector at odds with the need of industry and organisations.  In order to do this there will need to be a consideration of what is the purpose of training from the point of view of the VET sector and the business and funding models which have been adopted in the sector as this it will be seen, is one of the key issues in translating VET training into organisational learning. In addition issues around the pricing of programs, delivery methods, facilitator qualifications and experience, reputation and brand will also be considered as again all of these have the effect of creating a disconnection between needs of the organisation and VET sector.

With the disconnection considered and understood and the issues which cause it out in the open, the discussion can move to looking at a range of strategies, particularly from the Training organisation side of the equation which can assist to overcome this disconnection.  There will also be a limited discussion as to what could be done on the L&D side to assist in overcoming this disconnection, but as we will see this is a problem which is best address at the VET sector side of the equation as they possess a level of flexibility (even if they don’t know it) which can easily navigate creating a better connection.

Once all of this has been discussed a model will be presented which can assist all of the stakeholders involved in the process to better understand the part they play and to provide a framework upon which to build their own unique structures.

Issues for Learning and Development Staff


Organisational learning is an unwieldy beast at the best of times and the Learning and Development professionals who attempt to herd this group of cats are always looking for ways to meet the needs of the both the organisation and its staff.

So let us go back to the initial question that I posed right at the start.  Given that Australia has a robust and well respected vocational education system, why then do organisations make choices like these?

  1. $3000 for a Prince2 Course over $3000 for a Certificate IV in Project Management
  2. $250,000 for the C.A.R.E program as opposed to a Certificate IV in Child, Youth and Family Intervention.

If we consider the first example, why would an individual or an organisation choose to spend the same amount of money on a program that in its own words, simply provides a methodology for project management over a course which would provide them with the actual skills and knowledge needed to run a project?  In example two, why would an organisation spend a large sum of money of training that has been developed in another country, does not have rigorous assessment and competency standards attached to it and while used widely, is not considered to be the industry standard, rather it is just one model amongst a number of models and offers staff little transference of skills should they move to another organisation which does not utilise that model?

There is as would be expected not a single answer or factor that is behind choices like these however there are a number of commonalities which we can consider and address in order to ensure the best possible chance of connection between the two sectors.

The first and probably the most obvious reason or factor present in decisions like these, relates to timeframes.  Most L&D departments are under pressure to deliver programs in quite short timeframes, (Can I have that as a half day?) which I have explored in other works.  There is almost always a pressure from the business to ensure that staff are not taken ‘off the job’ for more time than is actually necessary.  In this way a program that runs for five consecutive days and then is finished may be preferable to a program that runs for 6-12 months even if it only runs one day a month.  The logistics around making staff available are easier for one off programs.  In a lot of cases particularly where the person is in direct client facing roles, other staff have to be moved around or rostered in order to allow for a staff member to go on a training course.  It is also often the case with VET training that there will be work that the staff member is required after the delivery of the program itself to meet the assessment criteria of the program.  This then in a significant number of cases leads to the staff member applying to have some of their work time allocated to completing their study which in turn puts addition time and resource pressure on the business manager.

The other time related factor which often comes into play here as well is that of the time commitment necessary from any managers, supervisors or team leaders involved with the staff who are undergoing training. With most professional development programs as opposed to national accredited programs there is little or no involvement needed from the supervisory staff of those undertaking training.  However this is in most cases not the same situation when we look at VET training.  There is almost always in the case of VET training a requirement of ‘on the job’ observation or training which needs to be undertaken with the staff members in question.  This is often further exacerbated where the manager or supervisors are not in the same workplace as the staff requiring supervision and observation and by the by the fact that often these activities have to happen on more than one occasion for each participant.

There is also the issue of the time involved for the individual L&D staff members, with professional development style programs there is often not a lot of additional work which they are required to undertake.  Again this is often not the case with VET training, in particular where the training program being delivered is not simply a generic program.  There is time spent consulting with the RTO around the content of the program, looking at what needs to contextualised to the particular business unit or units who are being trained, signing off on paperwork, which it of particular relevance where VET training is being delivered through a funding or subsidy program such as an apprenticeship or traineeship scheme.

Even if we just consider the issue of time it can be seen why a lot of organisations and L&D units would opt for short course professional development style programs, where the time and resource costs are quite low over nationally accredited training.

Learning and Development staff are often asked by the business what the Return on Investment (ROI) was for training that was delivered, either in terms of particular programs or as whole.  Unfortunately one of the things that RTO’s in general do not do particularly well, and we even see this at a national level is terms of the kinds of data that is collected, is evaluate their training well.  In fact it seems that the data that is often collected is often not the data that organisations are even interested in.  We find that completion rates data is collected almost all of the time, yet only 33% of organisations view it as being valuable data.  Yet we see that data around job and business impact is rarely collected but is rated as extremely valuable by organisations.

Often training providers in the professional development market have developed systems to make it as easy as possible for them to collect the kinds of data that organisations view as valuable and have large stores of this data which they can utilise to be able to show that there are (or appear to be) very solid business reasons in terms of ROI and other measures for an organisation to invest in their training programs.  When the collected by most RTO’s or even by the government through agencies such as NCVER is put against this data it is lacking and does not offer a compelling case for and organisation to choose VET training over professional development training.

The issue of data is one that also ties into another big issue which is that of brand and reputation.  If we consider Prince2 training, why would an organisation or an individual choose to spend $3000 on a Prince2 course when they could spend the same amount and get a certificate IV or even a diploma of project management through the Australian VET system?  One of the most powerful and significant reasons behind this choice is BRAND.  Prince2 is a powerful brand, it is an internationally recognised and accepted certification of knowledge of the Prince2 project management methodology.  It is a ‘requirement’ for employment in an ever-increasing range of government and public service positions, as well as in the private sector, so strong in fact is the brand that often experienced project managers with degree level study in the field, find it difficult to obtain roles without it. When we consider the Brand strength of VET against this background again it can be seen why organisation and individuals would choose Prince2 over VET.  Now while it may be true that the brand strength of individual providers or particular programs could be quite high, when faced with an initial choice about which program to choose the overall strength of the Prince2 brand overshadows the strength of the overall VET brand.  Add to this the issue that a lot of people in organisations and even in L&D departments do not understand the VET sector and how it works and are often confused by the rules and regulation, the choice seems even easier to make.

Given that L&D departments, even very large ones, are often both resource and finance poor in relative terms, one might think that offering a government subsidised training program or a program that came with financial incentives for the organisation itself, may well swing the pendulum back to the RTO side of the equation.  Unfortunately there are a number of reasons why this is not the case.  One of these is of course perception of value.  If something if free, incentivized or subsidised then there is always the possibility of it being seen as being less valuable, though of course this is not always the case.  This however is not the main reason here, the main problem is that of business or organizational fit and need.  When I was running an L&D department responsible for the delivery of training to more than 35,000 staff, it was not uncommon for me to receive between 3 and 10 phone calls a week from training providers, both RTO’s and not.  The difference between the two groups approach was very stark, in most cases the RTO lead with words around free training, government subsidies, and incentives for the organisation, essentially they were selling the money.  They were wanting me to buy the programs that they were funded to deliver now there is nothing wrong with that at all, except I was necessarily interested in putting staff through a whole Diploma of Management when all they really needed was a course on communications skills.  Now the approach from the other training organisations was more often than not the exact opposite.  They asked me what it was that our staff needed, what was the biggest issue we had and questions like that.  Also where they couldn’t meet the need that we had, they would point us in the direction of someone else who could rather than attempting to fix us into the box that they had already drawn.  The point is that for organisations in particular and even for a significant number of individuals it is about business need, it is about the skills and knowledge they require, it is not about the qualification.  Also and this is very much and organizational mindset but it also applies to individuals as well, they would rather spend the money to get exactly what they want, rather than get something that is not  exactly what they want but is free.

When we take all of these issues, in conjunction with the perception that VET programs are difficult at access administer and manage (whether it is true or not)  it is easy to see why both organisations and individuals might choose non-accredited professional development programs.

So why choose VET

So given all of the issues above why would an organisation choose to send its staff to a nationally accredited VET programs, what would prompt someone to choose a certificate IV in project management over a Prince2 Foundation program.  The answers are as you would expect fairly straightforward.

One of the most significant reasons for organisations choosing to have their staff undertake VET programs is the robustness of the system, particularly in terms of assessment of competence.  Unlike the vast majority of professional development programs which staff attend, accredited training has actual assessment which the student is required to undertake, which are then marked against standardised criteria to determine that persons competence.  This is particularly attractive to organisations who work in areas which could be considered to be high risk or where parts of the business deal in high risk areas.  Should something tragic occur within an organisation which results in the serious injury or death and the organisation needs to testify about the competence of its staff, being able to say that staff had undertaken nationally accredited and been deemed competent, is far more potent than saying that they attended a 2 day course with no assessment of competence.

Probably the next most significant reason for choosing a VET program is reputation, not the reputation of the VET brand in general, although the stronger the general VET brand is the better, but the reputation of the individual RTO and its relationship with the organisation.  Most managers and organisations and even L&D specialists have very little idea of who provides good training by just looking at a website, talking to a sales person, looking at government statistics or reading a brochure.  It is all really the same at that level there is no difference and everyone can claim to be the best at what they do.  If I had a dollar for every time someone had sent me an email or pick up the phone and asked me “So is this training course any good?” I would be a far richer man than I am.

Now if the program costs $50-$100, it’s a half a day and only one person is going the risk is not too great.  You could even use them as a test case, to evaluate the program and report back.  However, what it the training is $3000 per person or 250 staff want to do it.  That changes the ball game very rapidly, and as the spend goes from thousands to tens of thousands and sometimes even beyond the need for there to be something, other than just a certificate (even a nationally accredited one) becomes more and more important.

This is why reputation in the marketplace, connection and networks are so vitally important.  If you are just one of five people who rang the L&D person this week offering them free management training, there has got to be something that is going to separate you from the rest.  If there isn’t you are not going to get past the first phone call.

Part of building that reputation or making yourself stand out and be different is to do the other things that L&D people, managers and organisations want you to be able to do.

  1. Customisation, and
  2. Integration

Let’s look at customisation first.  A lot of the training providers talk endlessly about their ability to customise a program to meet the needs of an organisation.  How many of them actually do, I think unfortunately, or fortunately for those who do, not many.  Often customisation means nothing more than choosing different electives, although not too different or there might not be someone able to train them. Just changing electives however is not customisation, customisation is building the training program in such a way that it achieves the goals that the organisation wants.  It is about using their documents, their policies, their procedures.  It is about building a program that produces a participant who has the skill set that the organisation requires and is able to utilise them.  The complaint about this kind of customisation is that you still have to do what the training package says, they have to be assessed on the performance criteria.  That is true, but I don’t think that anyone ever said that that was all a program had to contain.  It doesn’t say anywhere in the packages that you cannot add additional information or assessment or training.  What it say is that this set of skills and knowledge, assessed against this set of performance criteria is the evidence that is required to deem this person competent in this Unit of Competency.  The other issue that is often bought up is where there is something in the performance criteria that for whatever reason the organisation doesn’t do or do completely differently.  An example of this is a unit of competency around strength based practice in support work and counselling.  There is a process mentioned in the performance criteria which while correct and used by a lot of practitioners, is probably not used, described differently, used differently, by equally many practitioners.  So (leaving aside questions whether or not the criteria should actually even be in the unit) what does customisation look like here for an organisation that doesn’t use it as to meet the performance criteria you can’t leave it out.  You simply do both and assess both, and tell the students that one is preferred method where they work now, but there are other organisations which prefer to use the other method.  Is it a little more work?  Yes, but it will also make the organisation much happier than saying well we have to teach them this method because that is what the training package says and then let them come up with a solution around how to train their staff in their preferred method.

Customisation is actually an enormous strength within the VET system as opposed to many of the other proprietary training programs that are out there, most of which can’t be changed and customised to suit particular circumstance, because the material is copyrighted and licensed and often the people delivering the training have no say in the content because of this and in order to meet the criteria of the provider that owns the program they have to do things in a particular way, over a particular number of hours or days.  Everything is tightly controlled.  This should not be taken to mean that we can and should ignore the rules of the VET sector, things like Volume of Learning, rules relating to assessment and evidence, however the space circumscribed by those rules allows us much more latitude to be able to develop and deliver a program that meets the needs of our clients than most licensed training would ever be able to do.

The other enormous strength of the VET system in Australia is its ability to integrate with what is already being delivered and done within an organisation as well as with training which comes from other sectors of the market, outside of VET.  This is because for the most part the Australian VET system is content free, it does not worry where your knowledge comes from or how you acquire it, it is simply concerned with a student’s ability to meet the demands of the performance criteria.  This makes it extremely flexible and able to integrate into a wide variety organisational training plans and structures.

The concept of how integration works is quite simple.  It relies however on combining what I said above, that it doesn’t matter to the VET system where you learnt something, just that you can show that you’re competent and the fact that L&D departments are going to run non-VET training for their staff.  In fact in most organisations the amount of non-VET training which is run far outweighs the amount of accredited training that is delivered.

So if we look again at the example of the community services organisation which is utilising an overseas training product to ensure their staff have the skills and knowledge that they feel they need to have.  Now at a very basic level we can take the training product in question and whatever assessments form part of it (if any) and map this information across to for example a Diploma of Child, Youth and Family Intervention.  Now certainly we may need to add additional assessment pieces, including things such as workplace observations in order to ensure that we have enough evidence of competence to meet the requirements of the training package.  From there staff can go through the non-VET training just as they would have previously, undertake the additional assessment tasks which are necessary and any other work and assessment which may be necessary and then at the end of the process not only have they successfully completed the training the organisation requires, they have obtained a nationally accredited outcome from that training as well. This is of course a win from everyone who is involved in the process.  The staff get a transportable, recognisable qualification, the organisation gets it staff trained in the program that they require and the RTO gets business that it would not have otherwise got.

This concept of integration can be taken much further however.  Rather than simply looking at the outcomes of any particular course or program we can look at the overall picture of training within the organisation and create a model of delivery which further improves the outcomes of process.

So what is the model?  Below is an example of how the concept can work within a community services organisation.



So how does this all work?  All staff at all levels of the organisation go through a standard general induction, the standard who we are and what we do style program.  Once that is completed each business unit then has a separate induction program specific to their own needs and training requirements.  A small number of Units of competency can be built in at this level, the completion of which along with the rest of the induction program can be linked to the probation periods and extensions.  Once the induction training is completed there will be a set of training programs that everyone in the organisation will be expected to undertake, from generic programs  like Fire safety and Workplace health and safety to more organisationally focussed program such as in this case, mental health awareness and strength based practice. Alongside this training there will also be business unit specific training which is also required, a disability support worker for example would need behavioural awareness training, and where as a senior manager might be put through a more rigorous financial accountability program.  There will then be a range of programs delivered by and for the organisation which are available to all members of staff, these might be things like communication skills, crisis intervention skills, computer skills, and a range of other programs.  Once staff have completed all of the mandatory programs (both generic and unit specific) they can then undertake any of the training available within any policy constraints put in place by the organisation.

So all that has happened here is that the organisation and any associated training providers have simply delivered the training that they would have normally needed to deliver.  However if the RTO (be it internal or external) has mapped all of the training being delivered and looked at the assessments and what gaps are needed to be filled in order to meet the requirements of training package, what has actually happened is that the staff member has progressed quite a long way towards a qualification.  Now they may need to do some additional assessment work, on the job training or skills observations by their managers and supervisors, but they will, if they wish and this system seems to work best if it is voluntary for any extensions over what is mandatory, have accumulated a group of Units of competency.  From here the staff member can sit down with the RTO, their manager and anyone else who may have relevant input look at the range of qualifications that the units they currently have could lead them to and what they need to do to achieve them.  What this means for the staff member is that they may be able to achieve a number of qualifications, rather than just one, by doing a much smaller amount of additional work.  This also provides both the organisation and the staff member with a little bit more flexibility in terms of talent and career development options as well.  Someone who is moving towards a management track can be encouraged to take more management based units to fill out their qualification, rather than practice based units which might be more applicable for a frontline worker.

There are a number of very useful things which happen within this system (particularly when any additional assessment or learning is made voluntary)

  • organisational training can remain the same, additional assessment are simply plugged in for those staff who wish accredited outcomes
  • staff with existing qualifications do not need to do additional assessment over and above what is organisationally required
  • provides flexibility in the talent management pipeline
  • allows staff flexibility in terms of qualifications and training
  • Reduces the cost of delivery and the time off work costs associated with accredited training.

A more generic example of the model can be seen below.



Now admittedly in order to make this sort of model work effectively there needs to be very close collaboration between all of the stakeholders in the process, particularly the RTO and the L&D staff.  However, once implemented a system like this delivers a wide range of outcomes for everyone involved.  The adoption of a system such as this allows for all of the training both informal and formal that is undertaken by staff and delivered by the organisation to be utilised towards a qualification or set of units of competency.


Challenges for VET providers

There are a number of challenges which exist in trying to intersect the needs of L&D with the needs of VET providers and unfortunately a lot of these challenges relate to the mindset of the people involved on the VET side of the equation.  As I have suggested earlier one of the problems is that the VET sector often thinks in terms of Qualifications and what is funded and what is not and try and sell the qualification they think might be the best fit, or more often than not the qualification that they have on their scope rather than providing what it is that the business needs.  So the question that VET providers need to ask themselves is a simple one ‘Are you the same as the last guy?’

Ask yourself this, ‘Are you just another provider delivering Management, Community Services, Hospitality, construction or some other set of qualifications? Are you actually doing something different or are your programs, approach, materials and delivery just the same as the RTO or TAFE down the road?  If they are than you might have a problem.  If your selling point is price, or that the training is free or heavily subsidised then you might have a problem as well, simply because you are not, in most cases the only choice out there that organisations have.

  • What is it that you do that is actually different from the RTO down the road?
  • What is it that you do exceptionally well?
  • What are the Big, Brand Ready skills of your people?

Providers also need to look at what they are ‘selling’ and how it is packaged.  Are you the fifth person this week who is going to talk about the Diploma of Management, or the first person to talk about your customisable leadership and management development program?  Here is an example of what the right branding and wording can do for a program.

Boring – Community Sector team leadership skill set

  • Long winded and difficult to get buy in for because no one knows what it means
  • Low price point due the sector always claiming to have insufficient money
  • Low numbers of attendees

Rebranded – Health Leaders Program

  • Partnered with Gym (they provide the healthy)
  • Accredited outcomes are optional, participants choose to be assessed
  • Marketed the skill and knowledge outcomes not the unit outcomes
  • Strong Brand – ‘Strong – Skilled – Successful
  • Much higher price point (claims of having no money disappeared)
  • A tailored experience for all participants and organisations
  • Extension of market to outside of community services
  • Much higher attendee numbers

A few simple changes and a realignment of thinking took the program from one which had an intake of about 30 participants per year at about $695 per participant to one which enrolled 160 participants last year at an average price point of $3260 per participant.  All of this because it was targeted at a perceived need for organisations rather than as simply an accredited program.

Now I am not suggesting that rebranding and repackaging something is always going to have this effect or that this kind of process is appropriate for everything and every kind of program it does being to point out something important.  There is an old saying that comes from the world of sales which is

Sell the Sizzle not the Steak

Remember the steak is the qualification or accredited outcome, the sizzle however is why it is important to the organisation or individual.  The other point to be made here is that cost and subsidies are often less important that organisational need and fit.  So what is the sizzle and what isn’t

The Sizzle isn’t;

  • We put 20 staff through a Certificate IV in Frontline management;
  • All of our support staff have a Diploma of Counselling; or
  • 75% of our managers have completed a Certificate IV in Project Management.

Why aren’t these the sizzle?  Well because whoever has paid for this is likely to ask and expect answers to things like;

  • What is our percentage increase in sales as a result of that program;
  • Have we seen a decrease in client behavioural issues;
  • Good, so we have seen a reduction in cost overruns and are meeting project deadlines?

So don’t start by telling L&D people what qualifications you offer or what subsidies are available, ask them instead what their biggest issue is right now and show them how you can solve it.  However, there is an important addendum to this and that is if you can’t solve it and solve it well – tell them and walk away, unless you know someone else who you know can solve it.  Remember if you hand them off to someone who you know and trust to help them, they will remember you both.

Sustaining the unsustainable? – A rescue package for Victorian TAFE

So as many of you are aware the Victorian government has handed down its 2015-16 budget and there is a lot being said about skills and training, but also a lot not being said.  Matthew Dale has written a good article on what is not being said, particularly with respect to non-public RTOs here.  I however want to take a different tack from Matthew and focus on one particular part of the budget, namely a TAFE rescue fund worth $320 million.  Now before I go on, and these days I feel like I have to say this all of the time simply because there are so many voices out there who seem to want to jump on anyone who dares to suggest that TAFE needs to change the way it thinks and delivers its services, I am a supporter of publicly funded and supported education, and a robust public sector provider seems to be play a part in the delivery of equitable high quality outcomes which meet the needs of various stakeholders.  It is also the case that the provision of these equitable high quality outcomes can also be achieved through non-public sector means.  We need to have both sides of the equation right and we need to make sure we are maximising the benefits that can be delivered by both public and non-public providers.  That being said however I worry, particularly in the Victorian case, that what we are doing is at least in some cases supporting the unsustainable, encouraging bad management (both fiscal and human resource), and not getting the best possible returns on our investments, be those returns social or financial.

TAFE is primarily a provider of educational services, it delivers like all providers of educational services a range of products designed to meet the needs of employers, students and the other stakeholders in the VET sector.  Now surely like any other provider, responsible management would suggest that income generated from the provision of these services (be that through government-funded programs or fee for service arrangements or whatever) should be sufficient to cover the costs associated with the delivery, management and administration of such training.  But I hear you cry TAFE as public provider has an important social role to play in the community.  Well that may be fair enough, it may have this social role and I will explore this a little later, however shouldn’t then at least the amount of income generated cover at least the actual costs associated with the delivery, management and administration of those programs themselves?  But we have seen as reported last month in The Age an upwards of $50 million loss by TAFE in Victoria, with Holmesglen losing over $13 million and Bendigo and GOTAFE losing $10 million a piece, with the rhetoric being that this is a result of funding cuts and the evils of the non-public sector causing enrolments to drop substantially.  But, and this is a big but for me, we also see Chisholm with an operating profit of $30 million and a regional TAFE, Wodonga, managing a $1.3 million surplus. So my question is then if both a large TAFE and a small TAFE in Victoria can manage to balance their books in these so-called tumultuous times, then what are the others doing that is leaving them so deeply in the red?  Is it just as simple as has been suggested in some circles that both Chisholm and Wodonga were simply better managed and better able to adapt and take advantage of the changes that took place in the system, and rather than complaining about the lack of funding, simply got on with the job, adapted and managed to produce a surplus?

But I am often told that things are not that simple, that it is not an even playing field and that TAFE performs social functions over and above those functions that it has as a public provider of educational services and this may well be true in some or all TAFEs.  What troubles me I guess is that it is not easy to see what government funding is being directed toward when it is being provided to a TAFE.  Is it going to support the social functions of TAFE, its infrastructure, support for the delivery of training or costs related to management and administration.  While I have very little problem with the concept of a TAFE being supported to deliver social outcomes over and above their role as a provider of educational services, supporting poor management practices and an inability to delivery training within the confines of the income produced by that training is a much harder pill for me to swallow.

I am also sometimes worried about the suggestion of the social equity and equality role that TAFE plays. It is something that we hear quite often, TAFE needs more support because it provides things to the community that other educations providers don’t.  It provides support for people with disabilities, learning issues and other disadvantages, equitable access to programs, community and social space, and a range of other things which fall under the umbrella of social good.  Now while it may be true that is some areas TAFE is the only avenue for the provision of these services and the only educational provider that services people with disability or disadvantage, this is simply not the case in general.  Many non-public providers work extensively with people with disability and disadvantage, and either through their own programs or in conjunction with other service providers seek to provide equitable access to programs.  There are also many community service providers who provide a range of services and spaces which do similar things to social activities of TAFE.  So to claim that these kinds of activities are things that are only provided by TAFE while it might be right in some cases cannot, I don’t think, be used as a blanket statement.

So I guess my point is a simple one and one that I have made before and that is, perhaps before we throw money at TAFE, TAFE needs to have a really strong look at what it does, what its core business is and how it delivers and manages that business and if we are going to throw a massive $320 million dollar lifeline to public providers we should know what it is that that $320 million is going to actually rescue or as I said we may well be sustaining the unsustainable.


Anyway that’s just my opinion.

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