Free Training and the Value of Education

As everyone is no doubt aware by now in their latest budget the Victoria Labor Government has decided to spend $172 Million primarily to make 30 priority courses and 18 pre-apprenticeship programs free, if and only if you do them at a TAFE.  I have elsewhere expressed my view on this particular policy decision and won’t expand on that here, however the fact that we are already see articles on how to take advantage of this new initiative are concerning enough .  What I do want to discuss is the concept of value in educational programs and how that intersects with ideas such as completion rates, student contributions, choice, quality and monopoly behaviours.

Let’s take a look for a moment at the world of MOOCs (Massive online open courses), free courses, which anyone, anywhere can enrol in.  The completion rate is between 5 and 15% depending on whether you count simply finishing or completing assessments and receiving a certificate.  That’s a rate that makes even the approximately 40% completion rate for apprenticeships, we have in this country look good. One of the reasons for this that we can refer to these courses as ‘easy in, easy out’ as my good friend Ryan Tracey suggested. There is not real cost, or condition on entry and enrollment, and no cost or consequence for exiting or no completion.  Now of course there have been a plethora of other arguments made for why this is the case and MOOCs may not be a perfect mirror for vocational education.

What of university education then, where it could be argued there is still a fairly easy in, easy out scenario, depending on the course of study chosen and bearing in mind that there may be some debt consequences.  Again however there is not cost on actual admission to a course, tick a box on your admissions form and the ‘cost’ of our degree disappears into the nether world of FEE-Help. Yes you have to pay it back at some point, probably, however for the vast majority of students their accumulated HELP debt doesn’t even enter their minds until the tax department goes, hello were going to be taking your income tax return to pay for your loan.  On average,  approximately 30% of students fail to complete their university studies within six years of enrollment.

If we also bring into the frame the VET FEE-Help saga where we saw in some cases completion rates as low as 2%, the only reason brokers and the like were able to sign up such massive numbers of people and generate such huge sums of money was because there was no barrier to entry and in particular no cost component.  I am aware that this is a simplification, however imagine how different the VFH landscape would have been if there was a mandatory $100 sign up fee, paid by the student prior to their enrollment.

Now before anyone says it, I know that there are a lot of people out there who could afford to pay $100 on the spot to access an enrollment, that’s the point.  It is not to suggest that there should not be equality of access to education, an even playing field so to speak, something which I have argued for and supported in various roles and across a wide range of forums.  It is simply to suggest if there was a gateway condition which needed to be fulfilled prior to entry into a program, then some of the things which occurred may not have.  Enough of that though.

Successive Queensland governments have held the position that in all but specifically funded programs designed to engage with people with various disadvantages (Skilling Queenslanders for example) that all providers must charge a student contribution fee on all state government-funded training, whether it is User choice, Certificate III guarantee or something else.  Providers can choose what the level of contribution can be and it ranges from $50 to $1000+ depending on the course, the provider and the level of funding provided, but they must in all cases charge a fee and there must be evidence that, that fee was paid prior to commencement of the course.  This of course doesn’t suggest there are not a range of programs and other initiatives which are designed to assist people who are unable to afford even a smaller contribution fee, there are, however in all cases what this does, by either the person having to contribute themselves or meet secondary criteria is provide even a small gauge that the person has some level of commitment to the course of study they wish to undertake.

The other issue which comes up here is that of choice.  Should not students be able to choose whom they wish to study, to choose the provider who best suits their needs in terms of curriculum, modes of learning, content, units offered and quality of teacher staff and outcomes.   Surely that is not a lot to ask.  I can almost guarantee that the standard mode of delivery of the courses offered for free, will be the bog standard one of semester based, face to face classes, mostly daytime classes.  Which is of course the model which best suits, teachers and administrators rather than students, particularly those who are trying to support themselves as well as study.  But most of all why should students be starved of choice and forced to undertake their studies with particular providers, who may or may not be able, or willing to customise the qualification to suit the needs of the student and whose learning outcomes may not be as good as offerings from other providers who are not similarly funded.

We can have equitable access, an even playing field for people wishing to undertake high priority, skills shortage programs, without resorting to massively devaluing the outcomes of students and the hard work of stakeholders in the sector, it just requires we actually build a systematic non-agenda driven approach to how we fund these training programs.

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Apprenticeships – Time for a Change

This has been something which has been on my mind for a few months now and I have had a number of conversations with people inside and outside the Apprenticeship system or more precisely the apprenticeship management system.  The main arm of the management of apprenticeships and traineeships at the moment is the Australian Apprenticeship Support network or the ASSNs which is an evolution of the previous systems that were in place to help everyone involved, employer, student, provider and the government to get the best outcomes out of the system.  Before I go on, it is important to note that I am not talking about apprenticeships and traineeships themselves or how they are structured, delivered or anything like that. What I want to talk about today is the future of the ASSN and whether or not it is a model which is viable to take us forward into the 2020’s or if it really is something which has had its day. This should also not be taken as an attack on the organisations which form the ASSN or the work that they do.  It is certain that they, for the most part do a fantastic job.  The issue is whether or not the approximately $190 million which the government providers these organisations to provide this service is the simplest, most effective and most efficient method and whether not there may be better ways of delivering this service.

Why I say this is because in this digital world, it seems a little difficult for me to understand the need to have people driving around, talking to employers and providers, recruiting, mentoring and all of the other things they seem to do, when the underlying process should be very simple.  Now there has been a move to streamline the system with the AASN now utilising a lot of electronic forms and data, rather than the clearly time consuming and costly paper system which used to exist and this in itself points to the crux of the idea and the problem.

It seems to me that we may have an over complicated system providing a solution to a problem which is quite straightforward.  There are in essence only three parties which are involved in the apprentice or traineeship, that is the student, the employer and the provider (RTO).  Surely in this age of digital disruption some sort of self service model for employers, where they simply registered to become a employer for an apprentice or trainee and picked the RTO they wanted to use from a drop down box of government contracted providers, with a portal for students to then apply for the available roles is something which is not beyond the realm of imagining let alone creating.  There seems to be little or no reason why contracts and agreements, payments etc could not be handled through the same system.  All that would then be required would be a group of people to ensure, that the various requirements of the whole process were being met and that it was producing the outcomes which were required.

Now I understand that I may have grossly oversimplified the entire apprenticeship process, however that was to some extent my purpose here.  Why would I do that?  To point out that I think the days of the AASN are numbered.  I think that within the next 2-5 years we will see a significant shift in the way in which these services are delivered to stakeholders on behalf of the government. We will see more self service style options and more centralised management of the the system, why?  Because it is cheaper and has the potential to be more efficient.

If I was an AASN organisation I would be thinking about where my next income stream was coming from.

Anyway that’s just my opinion.

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