In recent times, the front pages of our newspapers have provided an almost daily reminder that some vocational education and training (VET) providers are to be avoided.
The stories of unscrupulous provider behaviour have emerged against a backdrop of increasing VET FEE-HELP loans going to for-profit VET providers. In 2014 for-profit providers received A$592.6 million in VET FEE-HELP loans compared with A$177.5 million for the TAFE sector. There are also concerns that up to 40% of VET FEE-HELP loans may not be repaid as VET graduates fail to translate their VET certificate into sustainable employment.
For those learners and their families, trying to navigate an already complex series of decisions about post-school study or up-skilling, what information is out there to help them make good training choices? What should learners look for in choosing not only their preferred course but a training provider that is right for them?
The regulator perspective
The advice from ASQA can be grouped into three key areas.
Firstly, it’s important to check that a provider is registered and that any resulting qualifications are recognised under the Australian Qualifications Framework.
Secondly, ASQA suggest a range of checks around cost. These include warning against paying up-front fees and checking for additional resource and material costs.
Finally, ASQA provide checklists for aspects of the program and outcomes. Learners should clarify program duration, job prospects, additional skills required for gaining work and the specific modules and competencies included.
A recent review of international developments in quality assurance from NCVER reveals that Australia is not alone in the growing focus on quality of VET programs. The report highlights trends towards greater transparency in the publication of performance data to inform learner choice and government funding.
The industry perspective
Several key industries produce and distribute their own “buyer beware” fact sheets. These are designed to help learners and businesses identify and select employer-approved and industry-supported providers.
For learners who know the industry they want to work in, checking with the relevant industry body can be a useful first step. Industry associations promote and identify the providers with a good reputation and strong employer relationships.
Master Builders Australia advises prospective building and construction apprentices to consider the reputation of a training organisation within their preferred industry and the provider’s capacity to enable access to up-to-date facilities and relevant training.
Service Skills Australia, through its workforce strategy for the tourism and hospitality industries, encourages looking at provider attributes. These include industry knowledge, flexibility in delivery and value for money.
Government focus on quality and learner choice
A current Senate inquiry is examining private VET in Australia. Its interim reports have raised concerns about funding and marketing of VET providers. This includes reports of aggressive marketing techniques, incentives for enrolments and a failure to provide a clear disclosure of costs to prospective learners.
Earlier this year the federal government moved to ban the use of incentives and inducements to attract learners to enrol in VET programs. Several state governments, including Victoria’s, are funding greater scrutiny of system rorting.
In launching the training directory for 2016, Victoria’s minister for training and skills, Steve Herbert, emphasised the desire to:
make it easy for all Victorians to find the right course for them.
This comes after the Review of Quality Assurance in Victoria’s VET System recommended strengthening consumer choice through greater availability of learner experience and outcomes data.
Supporting good learner choices
In the age of NAPLAN and publicly available data on education, where can prospective VET learners or employers go to find out more about their chosen training provider? The MySkills website, maintained by the federal Department of Education and Training, provides access to background information and a statistical profile of each registered training organisation.
How useful is this type of data? Does it provide learners with an accurate picture of an RTO? MySkills provides a search function, where prospective learners can search by location or by qualification type. However, the statistical information (e.g. how many students, age profile, qualifications delivered) is perhaps most useful as a final check for learners who are comparing one or two providers they have already explored.
In an education market where learners are also consumers, there are inevitable implications for provider behaviour and quality. Access to work is difficult without a high-quality qualification from a well-regarded provider. Choosing a provider is an important decision that needs to be backed up by access to reliable information.