Evidence-free Voc. Ed. & Training privatisation policy

Evidence grunge rubber stamps on white, vector illustration

by Dr Robin Ryan, adjunct lecturer in educational leadership and management at Flinders University, Campus Review, November 17, 2008, http://bit.ly/1JE9kPi

Above all, governments seemed then and now unable to face up to the factors that would be necessary to make TAFE institutes ready for flat playing field competition. (Robin Ryan, Evidence free policy, Campus Review, 17 November 2008, 11)

The fundamental point of the desirability of market forces in VET has almost always been resolved simply by assertion, often with reference back to a report which had previously made the same act of faith. ‘Skills for Australia,’ a discussion paper issued by then education minister John Dawkins in 1987, quoted in his next document, ‘A Changing Workforce’ in 1988, set off this self-referential chain. It was something I noted in a paper commissioned by NCVER in 1995, ‘The market for training’.

The velocity with which the government is heading toward a fully contestable market for VET is breathtaking. Yet Robin Ryan reveals historically there is no evidence to justify the direction.

The Rudd Government has been subject to considerable criticism for its habit of instituting inquiries and reviews – “hit the ground reviewing” is a favoured derision. This seems a bit unfair to those of us who have been demanding evidence-based policy, and at least some of these reviews seem to be progressing to a timely and substantial conclusion. The Cutler innovation review did so and Bradley review members are adamant that their job will be finished at year’s end and there are bound to be significant proposals. Sadly, both have coincided with a depleting Treasury cupboard.

In VET policy, though, the signs are that the favoured nostrums of the 1990s are set to roll again with little regard to the need for evidentiary support. It’s not that these ideas are necessarily undesirable, but that ideological fervour still seems a stronger driving impulse than research and testing. One currently in vogue, at least in Victoria, South Australia and the Commonwealth, is increased contestability in VET funding.

Origins

I was reminded of this some weeks ago when I heard a radio interview with the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. The interviewer asked whether there shouldn’t be some evidence before embarking on a path of radical change. She replied there’d been a string of relevant research reports starting with the Deveson inquiry and no further investigation seemed necessary.

As one of the secretariat team who wrote the Deveson report, which was published in 1990, this nearly made me choke on my cornflakes. The few paragraphs in Deveson on market forces in VET, added at the end of a chapter which I had otherwise drafted, were added late one night after most of the report had been finished. Committee member Barry Hughes commented that the draft contained no comment whatever on market forces and surely we should say something. He sent out for pizzas and, with the secretariat, drafted the essence of what now appears. It was perfectly sensible stuff, but it had zero research content and we never troubled the other committee members for their views.

Some years later I worked on the secretariat of the Taylor review, an evaluative exercise mandated by the ANTA Act. Rae Taylor had been the Australia Post chief executive who had taken the organisation into corporatisation and a new era of profit-making. A major issue for his 1996 review, ‘Review of the ANTA agreement’, was the pace of implementation of market-based reform in VET. We felt at that time that it was far too slow and developed what I would still consider to be one the most rational analyses of the case both for markets and for the public role, with a defensible set of principles for the greater use of market-flavoured policy and from freeing TAFE for effective competition.

Although it was well argued, it definitely had no evidence base apart from the review’s reaction to submissions which themselves had little research content. Few were unequivocal about the use of a market-based approach, although it was supported by the Business Council of Australia, which had commissioned a report by the National Institute of Labour studies (NILS). What was striking was the ideological zeal of the Commonwealth’s submission, to the extent that Taylor in his letter of transmission expressed concern at submissions which saw competition as an end in itself. As he wrote to Prime Minister Paul Keating: “Competition is not an end objective, but a useful tool for stimulating efficiency and for stimulating public sector reform”.

Looking for evidence

Although there has subsequently been research on peripheral issues, the fundamental point of the desirability of market forces in VET has almost always been resolved simply by assertion, often with reference back to a report which had previously made the same act of faith. ‘Skills for Australia,’ a discussion paper issued by then education minister John Dawkins in 1987, quoted in his next document, ‘A Changing Workforce’ in 1988, set off this self-referential chain. It was something I noted in a paper commissioned by NCVER in 1995, ‘The market for training’. http://bit.ly/1F4cn2k 

I wasn’t quite sure what a policy discussion paper was supposed to be, but it definitely wasn’t a research effort and I felt entitled to an opinionated approach. On the other hand, I did note the divergence of advocated practice from either traditional economic theory or the then emerging literature of quasi-markets. I listed a range of unanswered questions which largely remain unresolved today.

The most serious approach to comprehensive research to date is a study by Damon Anderson for NCVER in 2005. Anderson’s initial problem was discovering what market-based policies were supposed to be for: they were touted as a universal solution, but the issue they were resolving was seldom articulated. By trawling through government statements, he was able to construct a set of desiderata with official, usually ministerial council, endorsement. He then rigorously evaluated against the criteria – not surprisingly, finding a mix of good, bad and ambiguous outcomes, still with much the same constellation of unresolved issues. Above all, governments seemed then and now unable to face up to the factors that would be necessary to make TAFE institutes ready for flat playing field competition.

Running on the spot

I finished my 1995 paper by arguing that the future held more rather than less privatisation of training but that, currently, enthusiasm for market solutions ran ahead of development of the conceptual infrastructure that is essential for rational policy development and effective implementation. Not much has changed.

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