RTO Doctor response to the Senate Enquiry in Technical and Further Education in Australia
Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment
In recent months, there has been an inquiry undertaken by the Senate Steering Committee on Education and Employment into ‘technical and further education in Australia’. A 71-page document, RTO Doctor has analysed the findings and provided a response regarding some key issues for providers, both public and private. There remain 2 hearings and venues as at 25 May 2014 despite the fact that the report has now been finalized. These hearing dates and venues are in Adelaide on 12 June 2014 and Perth on 13 June 2014. We have provided the background to the inquiry, including the terms of reference as well as provided a brief summary discussion of some key issues of concern. This response concludes with our position on the recommendations in the report as well as some discussion regarding those recommendations.
On 11 December 2013, the Senate referred the inquiry into technical and further education in Australia. The Senate referred the inquiry to the Education and Employment References Committee with a final report to provided to the Senate. This inquiry has now been completed and the report now available from
The inquiry was to cover:
(1) Technical and further education (TAFE) in Australia, including:
(a) The role played by TAFEs in:
i. Educational linkages with secondary and higher education,
ii. The development of skills in the Australian economy,
iii. The development of opportunities for Australians to improve themselves and increase their life, education and employment prospects, and
iv. The delivery of services and programs to support regions, communities and disadvantaged individuals to access education, training and skills and, through them, a pathway to further education and employment;
(b) The effects of a competitive training market on TAFE;
(c) What public funding is adequate to ensure TAFEs remain in a strong and sustainable position to carry out their aims;
(d) What factors affect the affordability and accessibility of TAFE to students and business;
(e) Different mechanisms used by state governments to allocate funding; and
(f) The application and effect of additional charges to TAFE students.
(2) That, in conducting its inquiry, the committee must:
(a) consider any public information provided to the 2013 House of Representatives inquiry by the Standing Committee on Education and Employment on the role of the technical and further education system and its operation; and
(b) Hold public hearings in all capital cities, with a minimum of Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane, as well as a major regional centre in either New South Wales or Victoria.
(Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2014, p. 1).
RTO Doctor Discussion of the Report
Scope of the inquiry and report
The inquiry is entitled ‘Technical and further education in Australia’ which suggests that the inquiry should be about the ‘products and services’ within the technical and further education sector however upon reading the inquiry report in full, it is very clear that this report is about technical and further education as a ‘provider’. It is also supported by the terms of reference of the committee which included that the Committee will inquire into and report on the role played by TAFE’s in:
(Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2014, pp. 2-3).
It is unfortunate that the Senate has chosen to investigate and report in this way because it further promotes the perception by many in the community that TAFE colleges are the only real source of high quality providers of technical and further education products and services in Australia. Already in Australia we see a large majority for whom TAFE is synonymous with Vocational Education and Training (VET). This is further supported by the background to the inquiry that states:
“The TAFE sector is the largest education and training sector in Australia. Australia’s TAFE network comprises more than 1000 campuses located across urban, regional and remote locations, with many institutes offering further services throughout the Asia-Pacific and other offshore regions” (Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2014, p. 2).
Therefore, RTO Doctor partially supports the Coalition Senator’s assertion that
‘The issue with this inquiry has been that the terms of reference are highly partisan with a view to only discussing one side of what is a complex argument over how the VET system in Australia is managed most efficiently to produce the skills that this country desperately needs’ (Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2014, p. 37).
Role of TAFE’s
The report refers to the role of TAFE’s under the heading ‘Development of Skills’ however, at RTO Doctor, we believe that this perception is misguided. While TAFE’s nationally do have as a fundamental role to develop the skills of those seeking skill development, the role of TAFE is far richer and more diverse than this section of the report captures. Consistent with the meaning of the acronym, TAFE is also about further education. For many clients across the country, and a significant component of TAFE’s workforce, (as was highlighted in the report by a range of submissions including those from West Coast Institute of Training's 2013 Student of the Year, Ms Aliesje Kolovis, Ms Kristine Highet (a representation from the Australian Education Union), Women in Adult and Vocational Education (WAVE) for example) TAFE providers contribute significantly to the development of language, literacy and numeracy capability of the community, access and participation to vocational education and training generally and access to additional support services that would not ordinarily be available for example the provision of comprehensive disability services and other intensive support programs that enable participate in technical and further education in Australia and personal and professional development of the community.
TAFE’s also provide a significant contribution to the personal development of many Australians around the country through short courses and non-accredited training. While the focus of TAFE’s in this report is on the development of skills related to workforce development, RTO Doctor acknowledges it is a key role, it is not TAFE’s only role and neglects the consideration that the many associated services it provides are provided in conjunction with workforce development activities. In many cases, TAFE institutions do service the most vulnerable members of the community, whose needs are significant and cannot be met elsewhere. However, the report doesn’t really focus on this important and critical aspect of TAFE’s work in the second chapter that focuses on the core purpose of TAFE providers.
A classic example of the intensive support services that TAFE provides vulnerable and disadvantaged learners in the community to enhance their participation in vocational education and training was provided to the Committee and is provided next. What this example does is clearly articulate that the provision of this intensive support is not by any means an add on, supplementary service but rather, a service that is very much provided in conjunction with the delivery of vocational education and training to promote skills and workforce development that will lead to increased workforce participation.
“[T]he deaf people require interpreters, but often it is two interpreters because the interpreters cannot work on their own all day, so they work alternately throughout the day. But, if a deaf person has not had adequate education and they do not have the English skills to enable them to do the course, they often require extra tutoring or support. They might need one-on-one support twice a week or tutoring. Some deaf people have captions and they may need assistance to work through the captions. Also, if the person is in a remote location or has a remote interpreter, that makes it more difficult to access interacting with students in the classroom. There are other support needs that are required depending on the level of education of the deaf person…
Deaf Australia NSW also provided figures detailing the cost of providing these supports. Mr Hill from Deaf Australia NSW gave evidence that it costs $50,000 to provide an interpreter for the duration of a full time TAFE course, and illustrated how prohibitive this figure is in the context of how much support an individual receives:
I will give you one example. One smart skills course, for example, a certificate III, for a general course, will be about $6 800, for example, for one course, for the full course—the entire duration. So the 10 per cent loading fee will be $680. That is for interpreters, note takers and mentors. If that person is deaf, they will need an interpreter and a note taker for each individual class. But, suppose one class is one hour; the interpreter's fee is generally $66 per hour. So can you imagine—$680 for a full three-year course is just not going to go far enough.” (Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2014, p. 13).
While the recognition of TAFE’s as also having a role to play in the delivery of services and programs to support disadvantaged individuals and groups in the community is discussed in chapter 3 as an ‘add on’ or supplementary service that TAFE provides to its core function of skills development, it is very clear in the example provided by Deaf Australia NSW that this is clearly not the case. However, the report only promotes the concept that this is not a core component of the work that TAFE providers do, rather, it promotes that this is an additional service that TAFE providers provide. Not only is this inconsistent with the very definition of what a TAFE is (Technical and Further Education provider) but it also in is complete contrast to the reality of the provision of TAFE products and services. It also does not encompass the varied and significant income that TAFE providers around the country obtain through the provision of short and non-accredited courses including personal and professional development of individuals in the community.
While it is acknowledged by RTO Doctor that there are many private providers who do go out of their way and incorporate the provision of such services to their clientele, it is also acknowledged that just as many private providers do refer many of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the community to TAFE providers to address their needs as TAFE do have the ability to better address their needs on an individual level, not just in terms of facilities and resources but expertise also. While all providers of vocational education and training are required through registration to ensure access and equity and not discriminate in their provision of products and services, the reality is that for reasons of lack of access to expertise, facilities and financial viability, many private providers are not able to provide this intensive support.
Likewise, the report acknowledges that particularly in regional and remote areas of Australia, TAFE providers are often the only providers of technical and further education or vocational education and training, whether that be for skills, workforce or personal development. In some of these more regional and remote areas, it is not financially viable for a private provider to establish an operation or a campus and so the only provider is legitimately TAFE. The concern arises when the TAFE provider is not supported by governments to implement the skills, workforce or personal development required or desired by the local community or the individual. The provision of products and services to these geographically marginalized groups though is often not supported by adequate funding models to ensure that the provision of those products and services is consistent with actual need and delivery costs.
In remote Australia for example, as highlighted in the report, the Community Services Health Industry Skills Council (CSHISC) stated that they were aware of 44 per cent of people who undertake training from the health and the community services training packages come from rural and remote areas. They also make it very clear that ‘In particular, we have got a high uptake of Aboriginal people who are doing our training packages and come from regional and remote areas’ (Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2014, p. 19). Again, the significance of this statement is that it truly captures the importance of TAFE as a provider of more than just skills development; it also very clearly articulates that skills development in some communities just cannot be provided without the specialist intensive support that it provides in conjunction with vocational education and training as opposed to a completely separate adjunct.
Competitive Training Markets
The report discusses that with regard to competitive training markets in vocational education and training in Australia “One of the central themes in the various changes to the delivery of technical and further education across the country is the introduction of an open market for the delivery of training. The exact market model being introduced differs across the States and Territories, but all jurisdictions have, or are in the process of introducing far-reaching changes to the TAFE system” (Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2014, p. 25).
While the concept of having a competitive training market has been unpopular amongst TAFE’s around the nation, there are many reasons for the lack of popularity and just as many reasons for opening up the market. While it is true that it costs more to operate as a public sector provider (particularly as previously outlined) but also being obliged as submitted to the Committee by the Victorian TAFE Association to provide services that are not necessarily required to the same degree by a private provider including libraries, cafeterias, counseling services, childcare services, transportation, facilities and equipment and compliance costs of being a public entity including for example having a governing board that is appointed by the government that is remunerated by the TAFE (Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2014).
On the other hand, TAFE’s have never had to compete for their funds before to the extent required today, funding was always there. Now they are for the first time, really having to look at the variety of business models that private providers have had to engage in for many years and in many cases, this concept is quite foreign and abhorred. For many years, TAFE providers have never had to ‘look’ for alternative funding models; their financial viability of course had never been threatened. Suddenly, with the commencement of the competitive training market, TAFE providers are having to seek out alternative business models knowing the Student Contact Hours (SCH’s) are not necessarily going to be there.
Another closely related issue of course is the amount that each SCH is funded. Where a TAFE (or public provider for that matter) has to rely on the provision of a product and/or service that is based only upon SCH funding allocations, it is critical that the funding allocated to that SCH reflect the actual cost of delivery. It has long been known that nominal hours are only a reflection of structured face to face content however there is a greater expectation of workplace delivery as well as a significant amount of additional concurrent training and development that is not necessarily covered in the allocation of this funding either (take for example the case study previously mentioned by Deaf Australia NSW or a TAFE provider in remote Australia who provides a Certificate II qualification to Indigenous people whose nearest campus is some 4,000 kilometres away. The funding model currently does not support the provision of quality education and training provision in these circumstances.
It is interesting to note that the issue of regulation was not too far away from the issue of contestable training markets. The Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency has been quoted as stating that ‘…there needs to be a level playing field, standards and regulation have to be equally applied’. While at RTO Doctor we acknowledge that there continue to be some unethical providers of vocational education and training in Australia, they are not in the majority. Our experience is that there are just as many TAFE providers whose attention to quality matters and compliance is just as diminished as private providers. The reality is that for many years, as government departments that have been (and in some cases, despite what the Senate Report states, still are) regulated by their own State government counterparts, there was little chance of being heavily scrutinized, suspended or de-registered. A government department was never going to shut down another associated government department for poor quality delivery. In fact, what is most likely to have happened is that there was not a level playing field with regard to regulation, even historically.
It is highly possible and in our opinion, quite probable, that while the playing field is still not level in terms of how providers are regulated (public versus private), the reality is that it appears to be leveling out (although not quite there yet). The issue of having a level playing field however is closely associated with consistency in regulatory activity and the two should not be confused. While there continues to be widespread inconsistency in regulatory practice, we believe that it happens just as commonly across private providers as it does between public and private. What is of more concern to us however is that the issue is not really about public or private but rather ensuring that consumers get quality vocational education and training that meets their needs and that providers, whether they are public or private, are appropriately remunerated for the actual delivery that was required to take place.
While RTO Doctor agrees that there remain unethical providers in the vocational education and training sector, it disagrees with the following statement in the report from the Australian Industry Group:
“AIG were unequivocal in asserting that further regulation is required of the private RTOs rather than TAFEs. When discussing whether increased regulation would increase the regulatory burden on industry, AIG's view was that protection is required to ensure quality is delivered through private RTOs…’ (Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2014; p. 29).
It is also our experience that the comments from the Australian Greens in relation to high risk private providers are also misinformed and do not support VET reform efforts. The Australian Greens submitted that:
“A lack of regulatory oversight has resulted in a substantial proportion of low-quality high-risk private for-profit businesses being registered as RTOs and delivering substandard qualifications that are of no use to either employers or the student. This has resulted in students 'wasting' their once-only training entitlement; the skills needs of employers and industry are not being met; wasting of considerable public funding that is urgently needed in our TAFE systems; and a diminished confidence in the VET system as a whole (Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2014; p. 47).
It is our experience that compliance and provision of quality education and training occurs in both public and private providers, just as non-compliant and poor quality training and assessment does. It is detrimental to the education and training sector, as well as the community to continue to promote such a fallacy and does nothing to enhance the reputation of the sector. Further, it depletes and discourages any confidence by the public in our system as well as discourages and is inconsistent with the nation’s current attempts at reform.
The Australian Industry Group (AIG) did suggest an alternative to the contestability model that RTO Doctor believes could be beneficial and fair, particularly in the context of the previous discussion. RTO Doctor’s position in relation to this matter is consistent with the Coalition Senators view in that:
“…TAFE provides some unique services in areas that could not be provided through the private sector. The dual role that TAFE has of providing pathways to the workforce through the delivery of both vocational skills, and tertiary education at numerous levels is of unparalleled value in allowing people from all backgrounds and circumstances to participate in education and ultimately the workforce. This has real benefits to the individual and the economy and society more broadly” (Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2014; p. 31).
Based on this, it would appear that the following model proposed by AIG seems the most appropriate:
“One of the ideas we had was that you could have a split funding model, where you had a base of provision, which could protect TAFE in thin markets, such as in regional areas, and then on top of that have a contestable model. In other words, there would not be contestability across the board, but a more managed approach to contestability.” (Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2014; p. 31).
Further, RTO Doctor supports the Coalition Senators view that ‘…in many cases TAFE will be the most appropriate provider, but other times a private RTO will be the best option’ (Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2014; p. 43).
Throughout the Coalition Senator’s report, there is an overwhelming presence of providers both public and private that are failing to engage with industry to develop training and assessment that is relevant to industry needs. The frustration of employers needs not being met is also contributing to and exacerbating falling apprentice numbers. There are reports that peak industry bodies, despite their ongoing notification to providers that they felt that their needs were not being met and that they weren’t being listened to were still not being met and that sooner rather than later, if they are not being listened to, they will go elsewhere with their needs, including potentially becoming an enterprise RTO. With this issue also so closely linked to regulation, RTO Doctor asks the question therefore, if industry is so dissatisfied, how are regulators approving that providers (public and private) are meeting their registration requirements in relation to industry consultation?
An interesting point though is to consider the role of Industry Skills Councils within this context though. There has been discussion in public, particularly in webinars and workshops held by the VET Reform Taskforce, through social media for a such as LinkedIn that Industry Skills Councils are not engaging adequately with the industries that they are supposed to represent in relation to the development of their training packages. At the end of the day, providers, both public and private, can only train and assess nationally recognized training that is contained within these training packages and accredited courses so if these are not accurate portrayals of what industry is really seeking in terms of outcomes, then is it really the public or private providers’ fault if the training and assessment is inconsistent with industry requirements?
In concluding its review on the Senate Inquiry into technical and further education in Australia, RTO Doctor supports and disagrees with a range of recommendations provided.
RTO Doctor supports the following recommendations. These recommendations are labeled as per the Senate Report however it should be noted that RTO Doctor does not support any of these parties in particular. To avoid confusion, as an example, where the recommendation is highlighted ‘(Greens recommendation)’ it is done so as it has been copied directly from the report:
Page 48 (Greens recommendation) Recommendation 2
1.13 A complete and rigorous examination of the real costs of the provision of high quality vocational and further education, including:
(a) Technical skills for work,
(b) Adult literacy and numeracy,
(c) Crucial supporting knowledge and theory,
(d) Student support and counselling services,
(e) Support for the development of relationships with industry and employers,
(f) Support for the development of relationships and partnerships with universities and schools,
(g) Support for research and innovation,
(h) Support for initial qualifications and ongoing professional development for teachers and staff.
Page 48 (Greens recommendation) Recommendation 3
1.14 Guaranteed funding for the public TAFE system based on the actual costs of providing education, and on a funding model that supports a strong and increased base for capital works, maintenance, infrastructure, and equipment, and which properly recognises the important role of TAFE in providing vocational and technical education in areas of high and low demand, in rural and remote areas and improved access and participation for disadvantaged learners.
Page 49 (Greens recommendation) Recommendation 5
1.16 The development of improved standards for registration of training organisations, and the provision of vocational education. The now defunct National Skills Standards Council made a start on the development of improved standards, but this work was set in the context of a rapid opening up of the market under the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development. This work now needs to be revisited and the standards strengthened and improved. The current regulatory environment provides no guarantee of quality for students, nor any mechanism for them to get their money back, or their once only entitlement back if the provider they attended provided no training, or was of poor quality. Every provider seeking registration to deliver vocational education in Australia should have the provision of vocational education as its primary purpose.
RTO Doctor acknowledges previous attempts by governments to ensure that all CRICOS providers had a principle purpose of providing quality education and training however the risk model that was incorporated, as well as its implementation was based on a flawed structure that was unreliable and did not achieve its intended purpose. Therefore, any attempt at trying to achieve this across vocational education and training must consider and eliminate the fundamental flaws associated with that model.
Page 49 (Greens recommendation) Recommendation 6
1.17 As part of the development of improved standards, there must be a mandated minimum funded duration of learning in all vocational education qualifications. It is the lack of a mandated minimum which, for example, allows providers to deliver qualifications over weekends, and then be paid as if they had delivered the full qualification.
Recommendation 9 (Committee & Coalition Senators)
4.50 The committee recommends that the VET FEE-HELP Loan Fee of 20 per cent be reduced significantly in line with comparable financial industry products.
Where the interpretation of this recommendation means that the VET FEE-HELP loan fee is consistent with other FEE-HELP arrangements as ‘comparable financial industry products’ then we support this recommendation. Consistent with the Committee’s recommendations below at 4.46 and 4.47, RTO Doctor believes that there is a need to review the structure of VET FEE-HELP arrangements as a matter of priority:
4.46 The committee also has very real concerns that administration costs such as the 20 per cent VET FEE-HELP Loan Fee further inflate the costs for students.
4.47 This loading is far in excess of what the committee considers a reasonable administration cost. The committee was also concerned that accessibility to fee assistance programs was limited to full fee paying courses.
RTO Doctor does not support:
Recommendation 3 (Committee recommendation)
4.21 The committee recommends that resources and funding for the Australian Skills Qualification Authority be proportionally increased relative to the number of private providers entering the training market.
RTO Doctor believes it is not up to private providers to subsidise the regulation of TAFE’s across the country. Further, this blanket rule does not acknowledge the fact that not all TAFE’s are regulated by ASQA and it also doesn’t reflect that not all providers operate under ASQA’s jurisdiction. This blanket recommendation would be unfair to all providers. Further, the issue of non-compliance and poor quality does not, in our experience occur predominantly at initial registration but rather, throughout the registration period. Enhancing regulatory activity at initial registration will not, on its own, change the current problem.
We note also that there are a range of factual errors and assumptions made that are incorrect as well as outdated information, typos and incorrectly reported data. Some examples of these discrepancies are:
It should be noted that on page 37 of the Senate report, it is stated that:
“… Senate committees are not political footballs. They have scarce resources that should be employed to produce substantial, high quality reports based on extensive and comprehensive evidence gathering. Senate reports should be reputable, with high quality reference material that everyone in the policy arena can access with confidence.”