Conclusions – T J Ryan Foundation: Key policy issues in vocational education and training

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The T. J. Ryan Foundation is a progressive think tank focusing on Queensland public policy. The aims of the Foundation are to stimulate debate on issues in Queensland public administration and to review policy directions of current and past State governments on economic, social and cultural issues.

This Foundation focuses on evidence-based policy, and provides links to a range of public accessible online resources.

The Full Report is available here: http://bit.ly/1EsKUUg

by Peter Henneken AM BBus BA FIPAA FAICD Research Associate, TJRyan Foundation.

Summary of conclusions

It remains to pull the various issues together. The key issues identified in this paper are:

  • the purpose of Vocational Education and Training learning and whether this is effectively achieved by Competency-Based Training;
  • the use of market and quasi-market mechanisms for resource allocation and to encourage efficiencies;
  • the quality of outcomes and the means to ensure this;
  • entitlement models, and
  • Commonwealth-State relations and governance.

Are the current policy settings the right ones in the context of; .

ongoing economic change, the associated imperative for productivity, and the resultant structural adjustment and the need for workers to have the underlying skills to adapt and continue to learn; and .

the diverse needs of VET learners, including those already in employment and those seeking employment.

At the macro level, this paper concludes that Competency-Based Training, and the way in which it has been implemented in Australia, does not meet the needs of an economy subject to constant structural adjustment and a labour force that needs underpinning general skills which allows its participants to adapt to that change. It does not meet individual workers‘ needs to be more than mere ‘automatons’ in the production process, rather than problem-solvers and innovators. In addition, it may be very wasteful because in many programs graduates do not get employment in the area for which they have been trained.

This paper argues for broad-based initial vocational education and training in particular occupations or groups of occupations. Competency-Based Training may be suitable to learners who are already employed. But, even then, a broad notion of competency needs to be incorporated as part of that training.

At the micro level, Competency-Based Training ‘legitimises’ shortened training periods, because completion is determined by the acquisition of competencies. However, this was not a usual feature of the training system, until extensive market-based arrangements were introduced. The more extensive use of shortened training periods has often been associated with poor quality training. Historically, providers (generally State TAFE systems) issued qualifications. There are now some 5,000 providers approved to issue qualifications, making it difficult to assure the quality and validity of the qualification.

Market-based arrangements worked reasonably well in the traineeship and apprenticeship areas in which the employer is essentially the purchaser. These have been extended more generally in the last few years into areas where the learner is the purchaser. The objective was to improve resource allocation and increase efficiency and responsiveness. However, to an extent competition did not occur on the basis of quality and suitability, but rather on the basis of price, the duration of the program and in some cases, ‘glitzy’ marketing. So, of course there was a ‘race to the bottom’ on quality. This is well documented by Australian Skills Quality Authority itself.

The response was not to question whether the market arrangements were appropriate for the various types of VET programs, but rather to attempt to strengthen the regulatory system and improve information for the market participants. Improved information is certainly useful, but is not yet suitably available. In any case, it will not solve the problem by itself.

The regulatory system is largely input and process focused and has been criticised for being largely ineffective ‘red tape’. It has to deal with some 5,000 providers. There are proposals to focus it on high-risk providers, which is useful. However, the real solution is to focus on outputs and outcomes and address the fundamental ‘conflict of interest‘ in which the Registered Training Organisations are both providers and assessors. Combined with this, jurisdictions would be wise to implement market arrangements, outside apprenticeships and traineeships, in a staged and careful way.

There are claims that the ‘entitlement model’ takes us away from ‘an industry-led’ system. This is true to the extent that individual learners are choosing the type of programs that they enrol in. An industry-led system would fund a mix of programs that meets the future skills needs of industry. The data shows that outside the trades, very few graduates are getting jobs in the areas in which they are trained, so I remain to be convinced about an industry-led system. The real answer is to provide broad-based programs that are suitable for groups of occupations and whole industries, and thereby meet the long term needs of the economy.

The real issue with the entitlement model is that current budgets mean that the only way to provide for all those ‘entitled’ is to increase the fee to the learner. This is problematic given future longterm skill needs and the many economically disadvantaged would-be students who would have to forego their entitlement. If extra budget allocations are not possible, there would have to be better loan arrangements for Cert I to VI learners that take into account the subsequent career and salary experience of VET graduates.

The allocation of VET responsibility to either the States or the Commonwealth is not an effective way to manage the system. It is necessary to maintain national qualifications and a regulatory system that accommodates providers who work across borders. At the same time there needs to be room for local innovation, and to meet the need of regional labour markets. To provide proper strategic leadership, a joint Commonwealth-State body such as we had with Australian National Training Authority needs to be re-established.

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