Vocational education: stemming drop-outs by changing funding models

Julia Gillard inspecting students’ wares at Central Perth TAFE in 2008. AAP/Nicolas Perpitch.

Changing the funding of vocational education and training (VET) away from head-counts of enrolments to focus instead on how many students graduate might help turn around the sector’s massive drop-out rates.

So says Dr Tom Karmel, managing director of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, speaking after yesterday’s release of Student Intentions, a NCVER survey showing that despite drop-out rates of almost three-quarters, more than 90 per cent of students enrol with the intention of graduating.

“Obviously the providers need to somehow get more engaged with their students and make it worthwhile for them to complete,” Dr Karmel said.

Yet, vocational education colleges and institutes customarily defend their hemorraghing of students by claiming many never intended to complete courses: “What the people in the sector said is that ‘well, yeah, that’s fine, but we know that people tend to leave courses after they’ve got what they wanted’, … [but] when we actually ran this survey over 90 per cent of people said they did intend to complete the whole course,” Dr Karmel said.

It was time to start “thinking about incentives. The way the system is funded typically is on student enrolments and it is the case certainly in England where funds are distributed on completion, the completion rates go up,” he said.

“The impression I get there is that they spend a lot more effort making sure students complete. If there are financial incentives in place, then if you have a drop out you get on the phone to them and try to work out why they’ve dropped out and try to entice them back into the system.”

Australian universities receive payments when postgraduate candidates complete their studies, and Dr Karmel said that it was time for governments to consider extending such a model to the vocational sector.

“If there are financial incentives in place, then if you have a drop out you get on the phone to them and try to work out why they’ve dropped out and try to entice them back into the system,” he said. “You don’t like losing students if they’ve got a chance of completing.”

The NCVER survey of the intentions of almost 11,000 students was described as “very important” by Associate Professor Leesa Wheelahan of Melbourne University’s LH Martin Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Management.

“It’s been said that the drop-out rates don’t matter,” Professor Wheelahan said.

“This completely shows that this is not the case. It overturns an orthodoxy within the VET system about students’ intentions,” she said.

For further reading, the NCVER’s 2008 study of completion rates in the VET sector, The Likelihood of Completing a VET Qualification, is available for here for those who register, while a 2010 report prepared by Monash University’s Centre for the Economics of Education and Training which shows substantial declines in TAFE funding can be viewed here.

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