As a sector, we were all so hopeful of significant change and strengthening of regulation and regulatory practice in Australia. We all, the Taskforce and respective Ministers (how many have there been again? This in itself is representative of the perceived importance of this industry is the government's eyes), knew, even the old Labour government knew about the ongoing, unscrupulous, unethical practices that existed in the VET sector in Australia. Even the then Gillard government tried (however successfully or unsuccessfully) to placate the community (local and international) in response to the public outcry of 'shonky' RTO's. These promises of reform have been consistent since at least the mid 1980’s when Australia was facing significant economic challenges including new markets, technology, high unemployment, significant retrenchments due to emerging technology and a global marketplace, governments forged strong partnerships with large industry bodies, professional associations and unions in an effort to enhance employability, increase skill development and be better prepared for a globally and highly competitive marketplace. Sound familiar?
The Government effectively grabbed VET and used it as a band aid upon which to build policies and frameworks in order to equip the current unemployed and new generations of workers. It was also a measure that could be used to demonstrate the government’s willingness and attempts at getting people ‘off the dole’ and into the workforce. The concept of continuous improvement that plagues the VET sector comes from the belief of governments that the workforce is dynamic, fluid and changes rapidly and therefore, the VET sector (the only sector) must remain current with those changes. The knowledge, skills, attitudes and capabilities that would fill this void would later become known as ‘competencies’.
Additionally in the mid 1980’s, despite government intervention to attempt to make training accountable and produce the outcomes it needed, training reform did take place to focus on the needs of commerce and industry and ensure that certain individual abilities required in the workplace were personally attained by those involved in the training. Various pieces of legislation were developed and enacted to force companies to spend a certain amount of money annually of training which also brought with it some flexibility in what type of training was permitted. All relevant and related legislation was finally repealed in the late 1990’s as it became clear that the government was not achieving its objectives.
VET’s presence in Australia has been mostly reflective of Government responses to economic issues and public outcry. As reported by the NSSC (2013, p14):
The AQTF 2007 review was in reaction to criticism of AQTF 2002 that the standards were too prescriptive. The standards were therefore re-focused to support continuous improvement and reducing the regulatory burden, as well as reflect outcomes based objectives. The AQTF 2010 review was in reaction to provider collapses and concerns about low-quality providers in the vocational education and training market. Subsequent changes focused on financial management, governance and consumer protection."
Fast forward to 2013/2014, the VET sector was waiting to see if the proposed Australian Vocational Qualification System (AVQS) was to be implemented or whether something else entirely would be determined. The AVQS of course was again developed based on Government’s reactive response to the economic and political climate, public outcry that the system was too prescriptive and de-regulation should become a key feature. New and higher level skills, as well as certification for those skills was the supposed driver behind these reforms. It was suggested that the implementation of the AVQS would provide the integrity of the qualifications deriving from the VET sector that were missing and this will
‘…support individuals on the career pathways, and ensures employers have the relevant and current skilled workforce to make them productive.’
This all of course sounds very familiar and a step back to the review of the AQTF 2002 standards that were too prescriptive, moving toward the AQTF 2007 which supported continuous improvement and reduced the regulatory burden.
So upon returning to the VET Reform website this evening, wondering why we are no further advanced in this sad joke that our VET has become, it came as no surprise when I really read the (and I mean read as opposed to listened to) the main objectives of VET Reform:
Ministers agreed on six objectives for reform of the Vocational Education and Training (VET) system:
If we look closely, nowhere do I see amongst these objectives a commitment to ensuring that the effectiveness and strengthening of regulation in the VET sector in Australia (and offshore for that matter) would be closely examined and reformed. How did I not see something so obvious before now? The closest we get to achieving this is number 4 - 'A modern and responsive national regulatory system that applies a risk-management approach and supports a competitive and well-functioning market'. Let's break that down a bit...
A modern and responsive national regulatory system:
Is it really that modern? While granted there are some areas of the RTO Standards 2015 that are newly introduced or completely redefined, there is really not much that is modern about these standards, they are for the most part rewrites, rehashing of past frameworks, reworded, reformatted and enshrined in legislation (for those who operated under AQTF as opposed to the Standards for NVR Registered Training Organisations 2012).
Responsive? Who have they been responsive to? They have certainly been responsive to the cries of many RTO's around the country who were overly concerned about the 'draconian' method of regulating, they were certainly responsive to the VET sector's cry for no AVQS, no accountable education officer, no requirement to be a company, etc. They were certainly being responsive in promoting to the public that they addressed the public's concerns about funding rorts, in particular about VET FEE HELP including the 'unethical' providers who are exploiting the disadvantaged by offering free iPads, etc. They've responded to VET providers' concerns about the ridiculous rate of change in highly unprofessional (in some cases) training packages and in some ways, they've even responded to mounting concern about the the VET sector's participation in Australia's stock market. But, have they really? (Yes, I know one should never start a sentence with 'But').
Draconian methods of regulating - in the interests of keeping keeping the peace with RTO's around the country, it is our experience that the quality and performance of regulatory activity around the country has significantly decreased since the VET Reform process began. Many RTO's called this 'reducing the red tape', in fact, I'm pretty certain this is what the government called it to. Only there is a consequence of reducing the red tape and reviewing 'draconian regulatory practice', it was never going to benefit consumers of the VET sector; it would only favour providers, particularly those who the draconian measures were meant to identify, monitor and manage in the first place (and most likely, the loudest supporters)!
Exploitation and VET FEE-HELP rorts - responsive to the public? Absolutely! They've been told everything they wanted to hear! This government is looking out for you, we're getting rid of 'unethical providers' whether they be brokers or training providers, we've strengthened legislation, etc. What the public doesn't know however won't hurt them will it? The public doesn't really understand that many of the ads and companies responsible for this exploitation have been known to authorities for months (sometimes longer) and still nothing has been done to stop it (and in some cases, the lack of enabling legislation was not the cause of inaction). In terms of enhancing requirements for identifying providers and brokers, RTOID's, fees, charges and refunds, etc., all of this information was already required under the standards anyway! Examples could go on but enough for this one for now...
That applies a risk-management approach:
A risk-management approach has been developed and implemented we are told however, with no transparency about how either of these actions occurred, it is difficult to analyse with any integrity whether the framework adopted is appropriate or adequate. It is my personal belief that if you are going to be risk-rated and your future regulatory oversight determined based on that risk-rating, you have every right to know how and why that risk rating was achieved and how, if at all, you can reduce the risk over time. With this lack of transparency, it is questionable whether or not the risk-management approach that we've been told has been accomplished will actually be fit for purpose and fair and equitable to all providers.
And supports a competitive and well-functioning market:
It would appear that supporting a competitive and well-functioning market is in the process of being addressed however not as a result of enhanced regulatory performance but rather as an ongoing political football regarding competitive funding and the 'increased exploitation of funding by private providers at the expense of TAFE colleges around the country'. Who is the well-functioning market? Is the well-functioning market consumers and their needs? Having better informed consumers? Is it having better informed employers? Is it having more financially viable TAFE colleges? Is it having less private providers accessing funding and a greater push for government funds to be returned to the TAFE sector?
When one looks at the break down of this particular subheading of the VET Reform 'Mission', it is easy to see that very little of this really has anything to do with enhancing the quality and performance of regulation in Australia, it is, as always has been, about keeping the crowds quiet and voting at election time.
At the time of the consultation process regarding the AVQS, I personally and as the Founding Director of RTO Doctor was very vocal about some very significant benefits and drawbacks of such a system. I made it very clear that, it wasn't that we necessarily needed a new system, we just needed a more focused system, more focused regulation with auditors who do the job properly, consistently and transparently. It was imperative that when the Taskforce reviewed policies in relation to the VET sector that it also considered the many other layers of legislation and policy guidelines (both State and Federal) that must be concurrently adhered to and they must not conflict with each other. Was this achieved?
It was also imperative that the Taskforce take into consideration some data from ASQA that may actually not be a true reflection of applications submitted that were deemed non-compliant. In many cases, the time frames for ASQA to process an application meant that in conjunction with the rapid transition rate of training packages, the materials being audited were always going to be non-compliant against the standards – ASQA were taking anywhere between 9 and 12 months to conduct an initial registration audit, an extension to scope of registration could take up to 9 months in some cases and there were numerous losses of applications and when clients have followed up the progress of those applications, they were advised that they had been lost. While the duration for application processing times may in some cases have improved, the reality is there are many applications being approved that have left many observers completely gobsmacked with outcomes that are completely unjustifiable! The level of inconsistency in auditing performance in our opinion has worsened to a degree never seen before. It is our experience that the quality of auditing that has been taking place for the past 6 months at least has dramatically deteriorated and some providers are getting away with significant breaches. There is (and hasn't been for some time) a demand for compliance or quality from providers because there has been none from the regulators.
Such demands form a critical part of the regulatory landscape. If minimum standards of registration and performance by RTOs (public and private) are legislated, so too are the sanctions available to regulators. A good case in point is the national database Training.Gov.Au who for the last 7 months at least has had approximately 20 odd providers who as at 23 March 2015, have been suspended due to non-payment of annual registration fees! If regulators are going to enforce legislation, they also need to use the sanctions available to them otherwise the regulatory space will continue to be perceived by many in this space as a laughable joke. Some of the most commonly sighted companies on social media and supermarkets engaging in the highly discussed ads and recruiting practices exploiting prospective students have been known to authorities for so long, the ads and details provided to authorities and formal complaints been made however when those unethical providers see that they will not face any real action as a result of their activities, why would they stop? Legislation currently provides ASQA for example to sanction providers for a signifiant range of breaches by financial penalty or jail and yet it is my experience that none of these actions have ever occurred. While it is understood that the one size fits all approach to regulation does not make sense, it seems the vast inconsistency in regulatory performance and quality has little rhyme or reason. Some providers get qualifications through in 4 days with and without an audit, others have to wait 3 or more months for a site visit.
Are current reform proposals the solution?
If the current reform efforts do not go back and look at the historical development of the VET sector, how it came to be and closely analyse the successes and shortcomings from the past, we will never end up with a reform effort that adequately addresses the needs of this country and our reputation internationally as a leader in the provision of education and training. What is currently being demonstrated is a real knee jerk reaction to a political issue that is not really addressing the fundamental flaws of the system by introducing changes that are heavily influenced by a political message that should never have been applied to Australia’s education and training sector but it is in order to appease voters and protect the Prime Minister’s election pledge of de-regulation and reducing the red tape. If the government’s commitment to our future is to provide a system that develops the skills and knowledge of our future country members (and those around the world), it is negligent in believing and promoting that a de-regulated and/or self-regulated approach is the way of the future.
In a sector where people’s lives are put at risk on a daily basis and will continue to get worse in the future, when the only time they consider ‘self-regulation’ is when there’s an audit coming otherwise it is ‘free for all and let’s get away with what we can’, our future generations are in trouble. Either the Taskforce really engages in genuine reform and makes the changes that need to be made as opposed to the changes that would equate to maintaining election promises or it has also been negligent and let down the current and future generations of our nation. The current proposals laid out to the sector are not fit for purpose, the current regulatory framework is not fit for purpose and the concept of de-regulation or self regulation is not fit for purpose. While it is understood and accepted that the Taskforce have done a great job so far of engaging with the sector, ensuring a more cooperative regulator in ASQA, encouraging ASQA to be a more capability building and customer service focused regulator, it needs to look much further and deeper than it is currently to really see the issues that are the most critical that need to be addressed.
In 2008, Tovey and Lawlor (p.3) wrote about training being “…frequently accused of being spasmodic, of little relevance to organisational, management and individual goals and very hard to measure…Many training programs were faddish in nature, swinging from one flavour of the month to another…Often training programs had been badly designed by unqualified individuals with insufficient experience.” I would like to prose that Australia's efforts at VET Reform could just as easily be exchanged for the word 'training'.
The Kangan Report (1974) states that relevance is the key factor in VET courses and that content must be relevant, that meaningless or underused knowledge and skills should be removed. Despite all of this historical knowledge, nothing has really changed since 1974 in course design (training package development for example) or in the regulatory space. As Tovey and Lawlor (2008, p.31) rightly state
Governments, commerce and industry pay scant attention to the qualifications and expertise needed to facilitate the type and nature of learning required to deliver the results of which they constantly talk”.
Not much has changed. If they did, there wouldn’t be such significant unrest in Australia’s second largest export industry. Effectively, what it boils down to is that the purpose of VET will be different for different people. For the government it means one thing, for the community another. For TAFE it means one thing, for the private RTO it means another. For the employer and the student, it can often mean something very different again. How can we develop a basis for a better system when we don’t actually understand its true purpose? Maybe there is more than one purpose and it depends on whose needs we are trying to meet. For now though, I will continue to be disillusioned (and saddened) by the ongoing neglect of our VET sector and the providers who continue to engage in intentionally non-compliant and/or unethical practices. For now, I will continue to shake my head in shame at the constant failures of our reform process to adequately manage the exploitation of consumers and to accept (read, in other words, not demand better) sub-standard performance for one of the most critical components of the sector, regulation.
Tovey, M., Lawlor, D. (2008). Training in Australia, 3rd Edition. Pearson Education, New South Wales.
Commonwealth of Australia. (2013). NSSC Standards Policy Framework - Improving Vocational Education and Training: The Australian Vocational Qualification System. NSSC, http://www.nssc.natese.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/75272/NSSC_Standards_Policy_Framework.pdf Accessed: 6 April 2014, 11.24am.
Commonwealth of Australia. (1974). TAFE in Australia: Report on needs in technical and further education, Volume 1: Report [Kangan Report]. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.
Commonwealth of Australia. (1974). TAFE in Australia: Report on needs in technical and further education, Volume 2: Report [Kangan Report]. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.
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