After announcing a slew of changes to vocational education and training (VET) earlier in the week, Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane made further changes yesterday to the regulation of the sector. While this is a positive step in the direction of reforming what some see as an ailing VET sector, the real problem is chronic underfunding.
The second tranche of reforms announced yesterday are part of the government’s attempt to fix what the minister describes as a fractured, unwieldy and overly bureaucratic system. Well, that message is nothing new, but an important question is will the reform process this time be comprehensive enough, and will there be the drive to see it though?
The good news, bad news and some ‘please explains’
The good news first. Giving high-quality apprenticeships and other vocational qualifications the esteem they deserve is a very worthy initiative. Seeing them as equivalent but different to a university degree is an important move towards creating a greater parity of esteem.
But this means we have to ensure that the VET brand is sound and highly regarded. Cracking down on unscrupulous brokers who are slipping through the regulatory net is a very positive step. Stopping rogue provision is another and that is the job of the national regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA).
This should not come at the cost of overburdening those providers that are doing the right thing by providing a quality learning experience relevant to the needs of their students and local employers. The move to allow the best providers to have delegated regulatory responsibility is another of the real positives the minister announced. This will enable these providers to concentrate on quality provision rather than compliance.
Where might the jury still be out? I would suggest in at least four areas: first, the move to open up the development of Training Packages - the national standards for skills in a specific industry - to greater contestability. The quality and flexibility of Training Packages has been always been a contentious issue as Industry Skills Councils, who decide what the requisite skills in a given industry are, have sought, with varying success, to balance competing interests. At the coalface, providers find themselves criticised for not delivering what local employers want, yet they can risk being non-compliant if they are not seen to be faithfully following the Training Package.
The second uncertainty is the replacement for the National Skills Standards Council, which has been foreshadowed by the minister but whose membership is yet to be announced. This will need to provide a strong quality assurance function if we move to what might well be a more devolved and varied set of standards bodies like that in the early ‘90s. If this is to be the case, we will need to avoid the turf wars and competition that characterised this period.
Such a body will be vital to oversee and ensure the integrity of all VET sector qualifications. In the past, models based on representation (the National Quality Council) and expertise (the National Skills Standards Council) have been tried. What will be the model this time?
Next, the minister has announced yet another review of Training Packages. This will be the third in my living memory: the first was under the Australian National Training Authority, which was closed down before the recommendations were implemented. I was more intimately involved with the second, conducted under a joint National Quality Council and Council of Australian Governments (COAG) steering committee.
That was not, I can tell you, an easy process. The inherent conservatism of VET’s stakeholder groups meant that the reforms proposed then probably did not go far enough. In fact, what was proposed was unwound to some extent on implementation.
So I wish this new Training Package reform process a lot of luck. It will need it.
One of the minister’s interesting proposals is more “skill sets” training. This is worth a look, particularly for upskilling or more broadly skilling existing workers. Will training in “skills sets” attract government funding as part of a more flexible approach, however?
The final area where the jury is still out is the quality and usability of the standards for training providers to be introduced early next year. It is vital that ASQA and providers have standards they can both work with. One fear is that the latest version will make the regulator’s job harder, not easier. Another is that they will not be sufficiently precise so that providers can clearly understand what is expected of them.
All of this misses the point, VET is chronically underfunded
It may be that all of this talk of reform is missing a couple of important points. First, VET is continually expected to do more with less. A recent paper by VET researcher Peter Noonan points out:
While investment in schools and universities in Australia has risen significantly in recent years, there has been a much lower rate of growth in VET, with an even bleaker funding outlook in years to come.
This needs to be redressed. The other area of real concern is that while all this reform is being proposed, little, if anything, is being done to ensure that VET teachers and trainers have the skills, support and ongoing professional development they need to do their highly important work effectively.
You can regulate and change all you like, but it is the teachers and trainers on the ground who will make the real difference. They need the resources to be able to do this.