Why 70% – TAFE and government funding

First things first.  I am a supporter of a properly funded, efficient and effective public provider system (TAFE) in Vocational Education and Training.  I have always said, as those of you who read my blog regularly will know that TAFE can and does do fantastic things and should be supported to do those things. So that being said let me move on to what I want to talk about today.

For about a week a now I have been trying to get an answer to what I thought would be a fairly simple question.  In fact when I first asked it on social media early last week, I expected to be inundated with responses telling me what the answer was and where to find the information that I sought.  Instead no one said anything, there was no response at all, which I found to be a little surprising.  So I took my question and I asked around a little more privately in case there was something I was missing, what I got was some vague references to the education unions and the AEU. So I thought I will ask the AEU then and I got no response.  So then yesterday, I thought surely someone on LinkedIn will know the answer so again I asked and again the best answer I got seemed to references to the AEU and there stop TAFE cuts campaign, but no actual answer to my question.

So what you may well ask was my question?  Is was simply;


Where did this figure of 70% of Government funding come from?  


To explain what I mean.  There has been quite a lot of publicity lately from the Education unions, some politicians and from people with the TAFE system about TAFE getting 70% of all government funding.  Now depending on the post or the article or speech you listen to the words around the 70% change, need, require, should get, even deserves have been words I have seen associated with it.  The guts of the argument appears to be that TAFE should get 70% of all government funding because it needs to have that much in order to provide the service it needs to provide.  Now if TAFE needs that sum of money, whatever that actual figure is (and I might touch on that later), to operate effectively and efficiently and provide Australians with a good return on money we put into it, then I am not averse to that.  So what may you ask is my problem?

My problem is I want to see the figures.  I simply want to know who came up with it and using what data.  Where are the figures, or the report or the research that sits behind this idea that TAFE should get 70% of government funding.  Now remember I am not saying it shouldn’t.  I am simply saying show me the figures.  I want to see the research.  Why do I want to know this?  Well a couple of reasons really, firstly I (as some of you might have noticed) like to troll through data and see what pops up.  Secondly given the amount of money (across all states and commonwealth) that we are talking about here, I want to know its right.  I want to know if someone figured out how much it cost to run all of the TAFEs in all of the states (I would love to know what that figure was too) and found out it was around 70% of the total VET budget for that year and went well that’s how much they need, or if they looked at unit costs and enrollments and additional services and infrastructure and maintenance costs and ran it through a formula and came up with a figure which turns out to be about 70% of government funding.

The other problem is this.  Surely any kind of formula or calculation would have come up with a dollar figure rather than a percentage figure.  So if it turns out that TAFE requires 70% of the current budget of government funding and a government then decides that it is going to add say $100 million to the amount of funding what should happen to that additional money.  Food for thought I think.

Here is the thing I want to know where this figure came from, so I am formally issuing a challenge to anyone one in any of the Unions, or Sharon Bird MP or Bill Shorten himself, The Greens, or who ever,  to tell me where this figure comes from.  Here is the deal as well, if this is just an ideological position, or a ‘well we can actually say we think we should have all of it because no one will wear that position,’ I don’t actually care.  I really just want someone to tell me what this figure is and what it actually means and I will take an answer from anyone about where this figure comes from.  However,  I am pretty sure that if none responds, and no one can show me where this 70% came from then that is an answer in and of itself.

Anyway that’s just my opinion.

State of VET survey results – Some interesting perspectives!

As some of you know a few weeks ago I asked people who were interested to fill out a quick survey I had created about their perception of the how the VET sector was travelling at the moment and their confidence in the sector moving forward.  Now it has taken me a little while to get back to the survey because, frankly, I was overwhelmed by the number of responses that I got and it has taken some time to troll through the data and to think about what that data says.  Firstly then a very, very big thank you to everyone who filled in the survey and now on to the results.

Most of the responses were from those in non-public providers, about 70%, 15% were from TAFEs and the final 15% made up of independent trainers and assessors, consultants and others, with respondents from across a wide range of roles within the sector. Which given the make up of the sector itself is not too bad a mix.  What I found interesting given the respondents was when I looked at the data there was so much cohesion around the answers to the various questions I posed.

The first two pieces of data are about respondents satisfaction with the sector and how they think the sector will travel of the next 12 months.

Sector Satisfaction


12 month satisfaction outlook

A huge 80% of respondents were either very dissatisfied or dissatisfied with the current state of the sector and 79% of the sector thinks that the situation is either going to stay the same or get worse over the next 12 months.  Interestingly while as a sector we seem to a little disillusioned shall we say and think things are likely to remain how they are for a while, it seems that we don’t really think it is going to have too much effect on your student numbers.  Sure no one it seems expects that there is going to huge growth in the number of students they enroll over the next 12 months but only a small number feel that there will be a significant decrease in student numbers as well.

Enrollment forcast


The other piece of data that I found worrying was perceptions around financial security and profitability.  The majority of respondents felt, not unsurprisingly I think, that their profitability was either going to remain the same of decrease.  With smaller number predicting increases or substantial decreases


This of course translates into the fact that only 18% of respondents felt that their ongoing financial security was either sound or very sound.

Financial security


Which then underlies the fact that in general providers feel the revenue they generate from traditional sources is going to decrease over the next 12 months, but there also seems to be a level of confidence that revenue from other sources will rise.

funding sources

These factors of course will then have an effect on the make up of the VET sector workforce as can be seen below.


So what does all of this mean?  Well not unexpectedly I think it points strongly to the fact that we are currently part of a sector which is in a state of flux and which is to some extent attempting to find its feet again and that this general uncertainty will be something we are going to have to live with at least until the end of 2016 and may a little longer after that as well.  There will be and in a lot of cases should be a tightening of belts and more fiscal responsibility from providers.  We will see less sponsorship of football teams and more money being concentrated where it should be, on student outcomes and completions.  We are also going to see the the dollar value per student reduce across the board, be it VFH, State funding or Fee for Service.  Providers will get less overall money per student which will result in lower profitability in most cases.  Are we going to see more providers abandon the market either voluntarily or through administration?  Clearly I think the answer there is a definitive yes.  There are still a couple of the larger (primarily VFH fueled providers) who are close to the bone at the moment, but not being publicly traded makes it difficult to know just how close they are.  I also think that a number of smaller providers will simply walk away, some for profitability reasons, other just because it is becoming to hard to be a small player unless you other systems supporting you.  I know of a number of providers who have walked away from State government contracts to deliver training, because for the small number of students they put through the additional compliance and paperwork made it not cost-effective.  These providers haven’t walked away entirely though, but have simply gone back to doing fee for service business.

So what do other people think of the data, what it means and how you think things are going to pan out over the next 12 months or so.


So why is TAFE so stressful for trainers?

So I have read a couple of articles recently about how being a teacher at TAFE is so stressful, particularly at the moment and over the weekend I was having a discussion with a friend of mine (who doesn’t work in the sector) who only half-joking suggested that VET people had the life because they got all this extra time off that people in other job didn’t on top of their actual working hours being really flexible and things like that.  I corrected him and said that conditions like that really only existed in the public system and that most people working in VET in the non-public arena didn’t have those kinds of arrangements and really just worked the same kind of hours and had the same conditions as pretty much everyone else.  I found his response to this quite interesting he said,

Why? It’s no wonder that TAFE is stuffed then.

It actually got me thinking a little bit about this whole situation and in particular the rhetoric from the education unions about how working conditions for TAFE people have been so badly eroded, are under attack and how TAFE teachers are so stressed because of it.  Now this is not a swipe at TAFE teachers in general as I know that the vast majority of people who work in the TAFE system, like those in the non-public system are hard-working, committed people, who just want to achieve the best outcomes they can for their students.  However I am legitimately wondering what is so stressful;

  • Being asked to be at work every day of the working week?
  • Not getting 10 weeks leave a year?
  • The possibility that you might be made redundant?
  • Having to teach more than 3 days a week?
  • Being asked to do some more work?

Outside of the TAFE system this is simply called having a job.  Now I know that I am being a little naughty here and little tongue in cheek, but I really do want to know what is so stressful.

One of the other stressors that has been raised is the concept of increased casualisation of the TAFE workforce.  Sensible business practice suggests that you only employ enough staff permanent staff to cover the standard ongoing workloads, if there is more work, or specific skills or knowledge that is required that is not currently in the organisations, you hire it in, usually on casual, or contract basis, this is what happens everywhere.  It is a waste of organisational resources to have people sitting around with nothing to do, while you are still paying them, just on the off-chance that you might need them 3 months down the track.  As a lot of you know I ave been around the L&D, VET and organisation learning scene for quite a while now in a variety of roles and often these roles were contract roles (3-24 months) to do specific jobs, using my specific skill set.  This is also the case for a substantial amount of the people I know who work in the sector, with the exception of a few who have had long-term enterprise level positions, I think for most of us our careers have been a mix of permanent, part-time, casual and contract work, it is the way the industry works except it seems in the TAFE sector.   It seems to me that the only part of the VET sector where there appears to be this concept that a role would be a job for life, is the TAFE sector.

So here is my question;

Why are TAFE teachers so stressed?

Is it just that they are used to a certain level of conditions and expectations, or is it that really they aren’t and it is just a beat up by the unions or are there some actual stressors outside what would be expected if you worked outside the TAFE system?  I don’t know, but I would love to know what everyone else thinks.


Anyway that’s just my opinion

Innovation, technology, automation and RTOs

Some of you may have notice that I have been talking a lot recently about financial viability and the RTO/VET sector and that the delivery of programs of learning are a business and the more we adopt business ideas and models around what we do the more sustainable we can make our organisations whether they be small or large.  So I wanted to continue in that same vein today but from a slightly different tack by looking at the idea of how innovation both in how the business of learning is run and innovation in how we deliver learning to students can have a marked and in some cases quite quick effect on overall viability.

Firstly lets look at the business side of the business, administration, management, compliance, finances all of the things that make it possible for an organisation to deliver its product or service in this case learning.  There are of course the simple things like how easy is your website for people to navigate and find the information that they need to make a decision.  Is it just as easy for a corporate L&D person or a manager who want to access training for their staff to find out what you do as it is for an individual?  Does your publicly available information even say that you work with organisations or is it all aimed at individuals? Does your website have the ability to capture information on visitors or the ability for them to sign up for a newsletter or the like so that they can be marketed to later? Can a student apply to enroll from your website?  These are simple things but they are also very important things that often are missed out by a business.

More and more these days we hear about automation of routine tasks and activities, but think about how many of the processes in your RTO are automated.  One of my friends who recently completed a course with a relatively well-known, but smaller provider, received their Learner Questionnaire in the mail, was somewhat confused that they couldn’t just do it online and wondered whether or not this was standard practice.  The moment a student completes their last unit of study a letter containing a link to the survey site we use (we don’t use surveymonkey we use a wonderful site called TrainingCheck) which holds an electronic copy of the questionable is automatically emailed out to them.  The same goes with welcome letters and requests for USI numbers automatic emails are generated by the RTO management system we use (Jobready) based on differing sets of criteria.  Now the vast majority of good quality RTO management systems have these functionalities in them but still there are organisations that don’t use or in some cases don’t even know they can do things like this.  But why is this sort of automation important?  Well because it frees up everyone involved in the process to do the tasks that actually generate the income which the organisation needs to remain viable.  The great thing about automation is that once you start to look at what you can do and how it might work you start to see a whole range of other things that can be partially or completely automated.   We have over time automated a large range of processes within the RTO both for students and for staff and trainers and in long run it makes everything much easier for everyone involved.

What about the money side of the business then, how is invoicing of students and the general finances of the RTO handled and who can and should have access to various bits of this information and when.  Not so long ago a worked for a large organisation whose entire financial management system (except for corporate credit cards to some extent) outside of the financial department itself was ‘paper based’.  There were forms for everything for generating an invoice to getting something paid for all of which had to be printed out (only a small number of the forms were actually editable) filled out, scanned and then emailed or posted to Finance and then they would use their system to deal with it.  Getting financial information just as difficult (in reality it was actually far more difficult) as only Finance had access to the Finance and if you wanted information you had to fill out a request and they would get it to you in a few days, as long is it wasn’t the last or first week of the month.  To be fair they did produce a report for all of the executive managers and directors for all of their various business units, but managers (those that didn’t report directly to a Director) had no visibility over how they were going on a day-to-day basis unless their managers and directors passed the information on.  Now I understand that the larger an organisation gets the more complex things like finance become, and the more difficult it sometimes becomes to interpret the information in financial reports and when this is coupled with issues of confidentiality, and delegations of authority that it can become a real problem waiting to happen.  However, the people who are actually responsible for whether or not your business is viable, should be able to have access, relatively easy access to the financial information they need to be able to make informed decisions about their business area.

So let’s then move away from the business side of things and have a look at the other side, the actual process and delivery of training and assessment.  It is important I think at this stage to point out that when I am talking about innovation and automation etc in this regard I am not talking about making a course shorter and calling it intensive or innovative, just to provide the organisation with the opportunity to get paid quicker.  What I am talking about here is actual real innovation which improves both the outcomes for all stakeholders.  I am still amazed by the number of providers who run term based or course based programs which have set enrollment and start dates and if you miss the start date you have to wait until the next course starts.  Why not instead structure the course around subject areas or units of competency and run a rolling set of workshops which people can just enroll into and commence whenever they want.  Yes it is a little more difficult to manage (particularly if you aren’t automating things) but you don’t lose students because they have to wait until they can start.  All of your material should be available in a range of formats as different people will prefer different formats for their learning and your systems should be able to cope with assessments in different formats as well.  Do you record your face to face sessions so that they can be viewed later or allow people to join in remotely using video conferencing software and programs?  Do you chat rooms and forums where students can get together without having to be in the same room and talk about the course and ask questions both of other students and the trainers?

Everyone talks about things like clustering and holistic assessment, but often what ends up happening is that students end up answering the same sorts of questions over and over again through a course and the assessor keeps marking them, because no one took the time to identify all of the similar questions and map properly across the whole qualification rather than just the unit.  Also as I have said before integrating assessment and training into what organisations are already delivering  and working closely with students work supervisors and making the forms they need to fill out as easy and straightforward as possible increases the amount of information you will receive and their willingness to assist you and the student.

Now I know some of you are going to look at this piece and say ‘yeah I know all of that’, but that isn’t the challenge here, we all know what we should be doing to make things work better and more smoothly, but let’s have a good look at what we are actually doing in practice, see what else we do and build on the good things we already have.


Anyway that’s just my opinion.


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.

Sustaining the unsustainable Part 2 – What the hell is happening in South Australia

So as most of you are aware a little while ago I posted about the Victorian Governments $320 million TAFE rescue package and asked why they were going down this path, how it could be justified and what was it that they were actually supporting with this ‘rescue package’.  Now yet again we see a similar, thought to be fair not exactly the same, thing occur in South Australia.  We are seeing the government not only cut subsidies to more than 200 vocational training courses, but handing 90% of the available funded places, some 46,000 out of 51,000 to TAFESA.  It is a decision which seems to have come with very little warning or consultation and has been roundly criticised by employers, business groups and the training sector.  It appears to neither take into account the capacity of TAFESA to deliver these programs nor the vast amount of training, particularly in the trades sector that in SA is done by high quality non-public providers such as PEER VEET.  It also seems to ignore the hidden ramifications like students having to travel over 300km to undertake training at a TAFESA campus, rather than with a high quality local provider or the job loses that this will cause in the non-public training market, primarily in the small and medium provider end of the market.  It situation is so dire that the Federal assistance minister for education and training, who is responsible for vocational education is consider investigating whether the SA government has breached their agreement in terms skills training.

So why would the South Australian government go down this path which has everyone, except for perhaps for TAFE, although if I was involved in the management of a TAFE in SA at the moment I would be really worried about our capacity to actually deliver the outcomes that the government wants, shaking their heads.  It can’t be because they want to save money because a subsidised place at TAFESA costs about 2.5 times more than the same place at a non-public provider.

It seems that the real reason may have far more to do with South Australia trying to balance its overall budget and to find some ways of utilising the white elephant of Tonsely campus or their $38 million mining, engineering and transport  hub, set up to service an industry (mining) which is rapidly contracting and not taking on trainees.  It is an awesome idea to allow unlimited numbers of people to be trained in trades for which there is little or no demand at the moment, while limiting training in disability support (one of the biggest growth areas in the country) to 200 places.

This decision is at its heart one based on political ideology and protectionism, at the cost of student and employer choices and outcomes.  It is a truly backwards thinking decision which is even more disturbing than the Victorian rescue package and even less based in any kind of rational thought processes.

Anyway that’s just my opinion.

Could Private RTOs replace TAFE

So for a while now I have been tossing this idea around in my head as, in the great tradition of philosopher’s everywhere, a thought experiment and I just wanted to put some of that thinking down on paper to hopefully garner the opinions of others.  Firstly it needs to be said that I am a believer in equality of educational opportunity, everyone should have the same opportunity to receive the best education and that, within some boundaries, that education should be available at little or no cost to them.  I will talk about boundaries and co-contributions in a later piece, but any structure or framework for the delivery of educational outcomes need to meet the equality of educational opportunity position.  Now it has often been suggested that it is the equality of educational opportunity proviso which creates the need for public educational institutions to deliver such outcomes.  I would posit, that this is not necessarily the case, that at least theoretically one could construct a system where public education was replaced by private providers, particularly if we are able to let go of ideological positions.  Now before we go on, while I think I could probably make a case across the entire realm of education I am going to in this instance restrict myself to considering the delivery of Vocational Education and training.

So the question then for me becomes could non-public RTOs replace public providers (TAFE)?  Now there are in my opinion some areas where we have and also probably should have seen the vast majority of vocational education being delivered by non-public RTOs.  Take for example the community services sector, an enormous amount of training in the community services sector is already outside of the public provider system and of that training, a significant proportion is done by organisations (mostly not for profits) who are already service providers themselves and who hold RTO status to either simply train their own staff or their own staff and other people who want to enter the sector.  We see disability support providers delivering disability training, aged care providers delivering aged care, and despite some arguments to the contrary doing it quite well and meeting the needs of their own sectors.

So could this concept be translated to other areas?  One of the arguments raised by the public sector against the proliferation of non-public providers is that non-public providers play in the low delivery cost, high student number areas (often referred to as low hanging fruit), which leaves the public providers with having to deliver high cost, both in terms of delivery and infrastructure, programs and programs which may have very small intake numbers, which makes them less financially viable therefore requiring more support.  However, and here for me is the nub of the question, are for example trades, such as plumbing and electrical, delivered by organisations other than public providers?  The answer is, of course they are, they are delivered by industry associations, employers, and other non-public providers.  So if and again I would posit that this is the case, non-public RTOs are just as capable of delivery training and assessment programs across the range of qualifications within the VET system, given that they have or have access to the appropriate resources and infrastructure, the argument, if we ignore ideological commitments, is simply one about funding and structure.  If we ignore ideological positions, there seems to be no fundamental reason why public institutions need to be involved in the delivery of vocational education.  It appears that we could develop a framework where all of vocational education and training was delivered by non-public providers and that we could still meet the proviso for equality of educational opportunity.

Bear in mind here I am looking solely at the delivery and assessment of vocational education, I am not considering the other social contributions it is often suggested public providers make to communities, however as I have suggested in other places at least a significant proportion of these social contributions may be able to be achieved through other means.  Also it is important to note that I am not suggesting that this is what we need to do, as I said at the beginning I am simply tossing an idea around in my head to see where it leads me, and it seems, that it is possible to hold a position that says there should be equality of educational opportunity and at the same time hold the position that there is no requirement for the public provision of Vocational Education.  It appears that the basis for the public provision of vocational education is at its heart an ideological one and that equality of educational opportunity could be met through non-public provision given the right regulation, structures and funding.  There seems in my view no fundamental reason why public provision is required.

Anyway, as I said I am just playing with some ideas here and my thinking is still very early on a lot of this, but I would appreciate any input that others might have about this.  I would ask though that as I am particularly  focusing here on structural and theoretical ideas and not on an ideology that prefaces on viewpoint or another, that if we could keep ideological positions out of the mix that would be useful.  At least in the first instance I am simply interested in whether or not it is possible to create a structure of non-public provision which could meet an equality of  educational opportunity proviso and achieve outcomes similar to what are currently being achieved.

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.

Does our VET system work? I actually think it does.

So as most of you know I was out at the VET Reform consultations in Brisbane today.  (Thank you to Assistant Minister Birmingham, Peta, and the whole Vet Reform Taskforce crew, job well done.)  It was an interesting morning with a lot of conversation and discussion and a couple of comments and ideas actually stuck in my mind and I while I was digesting them on the way back to the office I asked myself a question.  “If I was building a national vocational education system what would it look like?”  The answer I came up with was something pretty much like what we have.  A system where the training is developed and maintained by industry bodies to meet the needs of the industries they represent.  A mix of public and non-public providers to deliver the training to meet the needs of organisations and individuals.  Government funding to assist with the priority areas for the ongoing workforce needs of the nation and a single national set of standards which governed the delivery of these qualifications by all providers.  So pretty much what we already have.

Now I am not saying that how the system operates is perfect for everyone and that there are not issues at some of the points along the way, but overall I think we have the structure right.  Not everyone agrees that the ISC’s are the right way to develop and maintain packages, a more ad hoc committee structure might work better, but I don’t think anyone is arguing that we don’t need to have the industry connection.  We are not debating the overall structure at a high level we are just debating exactly what the best way to achieve it is.  Sure there are providers and individuals (both public and non-public) out there who may not be doing the right thing, but that is an issue of governance not the structure.  Funding for programs may not always be what everyone thinks they should be, but again, that is about funding and Government priorities not structure.

We have a good, if not great system here, let’s make sure we don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.  Sure we can do things better, but is the system ever going to be perfect, no, no system ever is.  What we need to ensure is that we have a robust and sustainable system that provides the necessary outcomes for all of the stakeholders, everything else is just tinkering around the edges.

So who are these Private RTO’s really

I have heard a lot of talk recently about private RTO’s, the need to restrict the number of them, the funding available, stop funding free enterprise with public money and the like, so I thought that at least for a moment I might explore who these people and organisations are who seem to be being demonised a little bit in this whole discussion of TAFE, public education and the VET sector in general.  It seems quite easy I think to lump all non-public (read TAFE) suppliers of VET education into the private provider category, however it is not as simple as that by any stretch of the imagination.  There are at least 3 major distinctions which can be made with the ‘private’ RTO sector:

  1. For Profit commercial
  2. Enterprise
  3. Not for profit

and even within these broad categories there are going to be a huge variety.

If we take for example For Profit Commercial providers, the vast majority of these providers are small to medium size businesses, who are not making substantial profits, work in niche areas in one maybe two sectors at the most.  There are very few private providers who are making millions out of government funding or out of training in general.  Most of them started their businesses not because they wanted to make money or get rich, but because they saw a need, they saw sometimes personally that people were dissatisfied with the training they were getting, the quality of students, the outcomes and thought they could do better.  And a lot of them do, a lot of these smaller ‘for profit’ providers provide services which are at least as good as and a lot of time better than those offered by the large corporate or government providers.  Why? That is easy, they actually care about the work they are doing, the businesses and industries they work with and the people.

So what about enterprise RTO’s  I have talked long and often about Enterprise RTO’s , their place and purpose in the VET sector and why an organisation would choose to become an ERTO.  For most of these organisations becoming and maintaining an RTO came from two reasons, firstly, it is a relatively natural extension from the standard operations of an L&D unit to provide accredited training to the organisations staff and want to be able to provide it in-house so that the content, delivery, outcomes, and costs can be better controlled and managed.  Secondly is dissatisfaction, dissatisfaction with the quality of people being recruited who already have qualifications and dissatisfaction with the quality of outcomes for existing staff doing accredited training.  It therefore becomes a relatively easy decision to move to a position where those qualifications which are vital to the business are delivered  in-house, as part of the normal regime of Learning and Development activities.  Again however for most of these ERTO’s the number of qualifications are small and in sector that relate very strongly to the core business of the organisation.  Now some of these ERTO’s operate entirely in-house, they train only their own staff and no one else, most of them utilise government funding where it is available but also provide a wide range of training that is funded, others  choose to take their expertise to the market place and provided training services to a wider (though usually only within their sector) group of stakeholders.  Again, why?  Because they know what is needed to make a competent worker, they know what a good outcome is and how it is best delivered and they know this because they are actually embedded in the industry.

Then we have the not for profits, most of which are either enterprise rto’s of some description or deeply embedded in another not for profit organisation.  These providers don’t seek to make huge profits, they seek to ensure that both those who currently work and those who want to work in their sectors (usually community services) have the best opportunities to be able to do that.  They work with the disabled, the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged and they do it well.  They do it well because that is their core business, they know and understand the world in which they work, they are embedded in the industry, they live it day in and day out and want to pass that knowledge and experience onto other.  Now not only do a lot of these providers like all of the others provide services and outcomes that are at least equal if not better than those provided by the large and public providers, they also tend to do it cheaper, making it more affordable and accessible to those who are both most vulnerable and most in need of these programs, but in general they do it with far less fees for students.  Take for example a Certificate III in Disability which attracts funding of around $2500 in QLD.  Now a student even with a concession card wanting to do this qualification at a TAFE in Queensland would have to come up with around $1000 in student fees.  How much would they pay at a not for profit provider between $20 and $100. Why? because these providers know that most of the people who are looking to do this course can’t afford $1000 and because they are connected to their communities and understand the need for people to be able to access affordable training in order to be able to change their lives.

So for me I sometimes tend to get upset when people use the term private provider like a stick, to beat the non-public side of the industry.  They drag out the horror stories of the small number of providers who do the wrong thing and suggest that is the case for everyone.  They make the assumption that TAFE is good and non-TAFE is bad.  They make the assumption that only a public provider can provide services for people with challenges and disabilities, or at a price that people can afford.  They make the assumption that public providers know the industry better than the organisations and people who actually work in the industries.  They talk about cutting access to funding and only allowing TAFE to provide Government funded courses as if this would have no effect on the lives of the thousands of people and organisations who use these non-public providers, let alone the effect it would have on the lives and livelihoods of the people who own, manage and work in these providers.

As I have said on so many occasions we need a public provider, but we also need the non-public providers as well and to suggest that TAFE can do everything that the non-public providers do, or to lump  all non-public providers into the ‘Private’ handbasket.  Is a few that misunderstands who these providers are and the services they bring to their communities.

Anyway that’s my opinion

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