White Paper Misses Complexity of VET

WHO funds, regulates and delivers vocational education and training are some of the significant and important questions facing us as a nation.

It’s a perennial debate — how do service delivery sectors that are required to respond to two government levels of funders, regulators and policy-setters — operate efficiently and effectively. The vocational education and training system is no stranger to this debate.

The sector is large, diverse and complex, particularly in comparison to its cousins — the school and university sectors. It is often poorly understood and too often neglected because of this complexity.

The Reform of the Federation White Paper on the Roles and Responsibilities in education was released just before Christmas by the Prime Minister’s Department. It raises a concern that most jurisdictions reduced, or at best, maintained their level of VET expenditure in real terms between 2004-13. However, the Commonwealth had increased its contribution in real terms by an average 1.6 per cent a year during that time.

The focus for Labor during this time was two-fold. Firstly to create a national entitlement to a qualification up to a certificate III level through the national partnerships with states and, secondly, to increase skills development of the existing workforce in partnership with employers through the co-investment based National Workforce Development Program and the Workplace English Language and Literacy Program — both of which were abolished by the Abbott Government.

We also understood the importance of using expert research to ensure the best advice was provided on the national skills task and to then provide better information to students and industry. The Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency (AWPA) was formed to bring key players across industry, unions and community together to provide this expert advice on existing skills needs and emerging skills opportunities and challenges. It produced many important publications that are quoted constantly in discussion papers, including in the White Paper. Despite its expertise and contribution it was abolished by the Abbott Government.

The work required in scanning the needs of individual industry sectors and developing training packages was given to industry skills councils which formed representative boards of employers and unions. Even within industries there is significant diversity of views between stakeholders — between small and large employers, between city and rural-based companies, between production and service delivery divisions, as just a sample. The ISCs worked to ensure, as much as possible, that their responses provided a balanced approach between these various demands. They have now been defunded by the Abbott Government as well. This government is significantly narrowing its sources of advice and losing decades of experience in the process.

The White Paper does outline a series of important questions that deserve well-researched and well-considered responses. I have already argued that we should reject the Commission of Audit’s recommendation that the federal government abandon vocational education. The White Paper has taken a step back from that position. It doesn’t make any specific recommendation but it does ask whether the States and Territories could better coordinate national consistency as required and without the Commonwealth’s involvement. This would only deliver a failure to address, not only current skills challenges for the nation, but also to provide effective analysis and response to future and emerging pressures and opportunities.

The White Paper also opens discussions about the funding model, its comparison with the university sector and the issue of student cost burdens. These are important areas for serious consideration. Getting the balance right, however, is not only about the funding mix between different levels of government and between government and students and employers. It must also address the interaction between funding sources and the impact on the quality and relevance of the training provided. This is why Senator Kim Carr and I requested the Auditor-General to investigate the use of VET FEE-HELP to date and we welcome his advice that it will be considered in the work schedule for the second half of this year. No proposals to extend the program should even be considered before serious review occurs. There is ample reported evidence of students being enrolled in inappropriate courses and being given misleading information on their debt already available as unscrupulous provides seek to profit from the funding system.

The work of the national regulator, ASQA, has been critically important in exposing many of these practices across the sector and it was a good decision by the previous Minister, Ian Macfarlane, to retain and increase support to it. The national standards have also been strengthened and extended to capture more of the sub-contracted activity.

But it would be a serious mistake for the government to ignore the clear need to understand and respond to the link to funding availability. As students in VET shoulder more of the cost for their education and training by utilising VET FEE-HELP it is a serious concern to protect them from shonky and misleading activity.

Many other serious questions are facing us, not all are canvassed in the White Paper: issues regarding quantity as opposed to quality in measuring program success, completion rates and workplace relevance, pathways and lifelong skills development are just some of the more pressing debates occurring in the sector.

The White Paper makes the point that our system, overall, is strong and well-regarded internationally. It should be acknowledged that much of that quality and reputation has flowed from the strength and stability of our public provider — the TAFE system. It provides the benchmark and ballast for the sector but has been under too much attack and we risk the loss of this important public asset if all governments don’t act to stem the decline and to rebuild the public provider.

Our private sector, both for profit and not-for profit, needs to be comprised of providers dedicated to quality delivery, student-focused and employer relevant training. The shonky providers feed off and diminish all quality providers and exploit the hopes and aspirations of the students. We must not only weed them out, we also need to understand the systemic interaction between policy, funding and regulation and how they can give rise to perverse outcomes that carry a heavy cost for individuals, employers and the nation.

The White Paper poses some of the questions facing the sector but it still doesn’t come to grips with the complexity of the inter-relationships between all these factors.

Sharon Bird is the Shadow Federal Minister for Vocational Education.

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian online on Thursday the 29th of January 2015.