What’s the future of VET, vocational education and training?

It was very surprising to hear that a private Registered Training Organisation (RTO) I have had some association with over the past few years is considering abandoning it’s formal RTO status. The requirements on the organisation to prove itself compliant have become too onerous; for them, it’s just not worth the trouble. It will still provide industry training, but no longer within the formal VET competency framework. Does this signal what is about to be unleashed by the Abbott government’s approach to skills training in Australia?

Under the Abbott regime, VET is now the responsibility of the Department of Industry and Minister Macfarlane. In a recent article in the Australian announcing the policy switch, the Higher Education Supplement “sought reasons for the move from the Prime Minister’s Office, which did not respond”. This is a significant shift, and flags that training will now be directed by industry; not by training bureaucrats and training organisations: what do they know about training?

In the latest communique from the Minister and the COAG Industry and Skills Council, three priorities were agreed on: examining training provider standards in line with Abbott government deregulation objectives; reducing processes in updating training packages and increasing industry involvement in VET sector performance. The communique also reported that “a key area of focus was consideration of reducing regulation in apprenticeships training.”

Some more pertinent quotes from the VET reform website: [my emphasis]

“Implementing a risk-based approach to regulation to minimise regulatory burden for high quality providers”

“A modern and responsive national regulatory system that applies a risk-management approach and supports a competitive and well-functioning market

Read as: all future VET developments will be under the deregulation banner, the new Abbott government mantra.

Part and parcel of this approach is a profound shift in language. No longer featured in their rhetoric is anything about quality training. It’s all now, with eyes blazing, about efficiency, productivity, competitiveness, markets, profitability. Industry language; not training.

It would be reasonable to predict that the first to fall under this regime will be the training quality regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA). (It even has quality in its title – how quaint!)  It’s role is to regulate “courses and training providers to ensure nationally approved quality standards are met”.

ASQA audits

ASQA audits

They have been operating for 2 years and oversee about 4,000 registered training providers. What is interesting is their role as a quality regulator.

Let’s have a brief look at their stats, which gives some idea of their regulation system, and what may happen if the system is, as MacFarlane promises, deregulated.

In its second year of operation, ASQA finalised 282 applications for initial registration as a new provider. Of these, 185 were approved, and 42 were rejected, meaning that about 20 per cent of applicants (or one in five applicants) for initial registration did not meet the required standards to enter the system and become a registered provider.

In 2012–13, ASQA finalised some 664 applications to renew the registration of providers, of which 556 were approved and 63 rejected. Approximately ten per cent of previously registered providers do not meet the required national standards.

In terms of monitoring the training provision, ASQA adopts a risk management framework (which is now being touted by the Abbott government as if it’s something they discovered). ASQA’s categorisation is:

  • High risk—288 providers (7.1%)
  • Medium risk—1553 providers (38.1%)
  • Low risk—1854 providers (45.4%)
  • No rating assigned—382 providers (9.4%)

Their classification is based on data generated through complaints about training providers or compliance information gathered from previous audits) and assesses data and intelligence from industry, governments and consumers.

Of the 1942 completed audits, 1289 (66.4%) found the provider to be compliant; 509 (26.2%) were non-compliant; and in 144 cases (7.4%) the audit was discontinued or the audit was complete but awaiting a decision from an ASQA Commissioner.

That is, about 20% (1 in 5) do not comply when registering; 10% of those re-registering are not compliant, and 26% of those audited were not compliant. And about 45% of those RTOs operating are classified in the medium-high risk group, so need some level of auditing.

These are not encouraging statistics for a deregulated regime. It means there are still a lot of dodgy training providers out there, and a large number trying to enter the system.

ASQA makes their determination of ‘not compliant’ on the basis of:

  •  failure to comply with the standards relating to delivery of training packages or individual qualifications
  • failure to have appropriate assessment methods or systems in place, and/or
  • failure to have trainers employed with the appropriate competencies or the relevant industry experience

Perhaps ASQA judgements are just too strict, as the Australian claimed in a recent article on the matter.

If this is the case, what can we expect in a deregulated regime? A lowering of the training standards; less stringent assessment methods being applied and/or engaging a less qualified teaching workforce (no need to have teachers with an accredited teaching certificate).

Even the ‘low risk’ (quality) providers will be under pressure, in order to meet the competition from the new entry and less scrutinised providers, to lower costs, find efficiencies and compromise training standards.

So, the double-edged sword in a deregulated VET is that it may allow more training providers to enter and perhaps survive the game, to provide training that is more adaptable to the requirements of industry as it stands today, but with the consequence of producing a less skilled workforce (as the quality compliance and teaching standards are diminished). Is this what the Abbott government is intending?


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