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by Peter Henneken AM BBus BA FIPAA FAICD Research Associate, TJRyan Foundation.
From 1992 the Australian National Training Authority (ANTA) was the main provider of strategy and policy to governments on Vocational Education and Training. It also had oversight of the national qualifications system, mutual recognition and Commonwealth funding commitments. It reported on output and requisite state resourcing.
ANTA, maybe surprisingly, survived for 12 years and was not abolished until 2004 when the Howard Government closed it on the basis that its core functions should be performed by State departments).
Over the ten years since the demise of ANTA, the following problems have occurred:
1. There have been periodic Commonwealth-State agreements, often vigorously contested and marginally effective as the States increasingly went in their own direction;
2. A range of often disjointed advisory bodies and policy have been established, at both the Commonwealth and State level;
3. Constant change to the system as Ministers needed to be seen to have a reform agenda;
4. This was not assisted by of the lack of experienced, and specialist VET experts in the bureaucracy. This was particularly noticeable at the Commonwealth level because of the nature of Commonwealth public service career structures.
As this paper has shown, the Vocational Education and Training system in Australia has a number of serious challenges, which will be constrained by the current fiscal situation across the country.
So what are the potential ways forward and the appropriate governance that can guide an effective and vigorous VET system? There are a number of options:
1. First, the system could be taken over by the Commonwealth. Such an approach would seem to be inconsistent with the philosophy of the current Coalition Federal Government. It would reopen the debate on the differential effects of state VET funds re-directed to the Commonwealth, on the carve up of the GST between the States, at a time when this is already controversial. I have already expressed my concerns about the expertise at the Commonwealth level. Finally the system would likely lose the capacity to understand regional labour markets and meet local needs. This includes working with employers on particular skill shortages.
2. Second, the system could be handed to the States, including handing over relevant Commonwealth funds. My concern would be that the national qualifications system and regulatory arrangements would be lost. Furthermore, there are important links to employment policy and programs and the tertiary education system. While there can be benefits in competitive federalism, too much diversity in Vocational Education and Training can be problematic. Even under current arrangements there are already substantial differences in approach between New South Wales and Victoria.
3. Noonan has suggested a third option, which he sees as an arrangement about funding, but could and would in any case lead to a split of responsibilities and governance: (this option) clearly assigns funding responsibility to one level of government or the other for particular qualification types; for example, to the Commonwealth Government for higher education equivalent programs offered in VET institutions and to the States for certificate-level programs, supported by clear commitment by both levels of government to sustained growth to meet the targets they have set for the nation. Noonan ties his funding option with a new governance arrangement. I will call this option
4. This involves bringing back some version of ANTA, run by experienced policymakers and administrators, but accountable to Ministers. It would involve a range of stakeholders, particularly senior industry players and would be able to take a long-term view on the challenges raised in this paper.
Conclusion on Commonwealth-State relations and governance
We need to consider what is best done by each level of government, and what is best done together. There is a strong argument that we need a national qualifications system, and with that goes a regulator. There is also merit in being able to focus cooperatively on longer-term policy outcomes and stability in direction. Comparative data should also be available.
In terms of the operations of the system there is merit in the ‘competitive federalism’ argument. This would support innovation.
The Commonwealth would, of course, continue to be responsible for the unemployed and increased participation by those on social welfare and, as such, purchase supporting VET programs.
A body like ANTA is a good vehicle to pursue those matters that need to be undertaken on a cooperative basis.