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18 November May, 2016

The future for TAFE in Australia

By Gavin Moodie

Australian vocational education is beset by several big problems that have accumulated and enlarged over decades. But solutions seem as remote as ever because vocational education is limited by seemingly intractable constraints, some of them contradictory, and many extending far beyond vocational education. So pervasive, longstanding and deeply embedded are many of these problems that perhaps the only feasible approach may be to start with undoing the simplest and most blatant of the problems and progressively work towards improving the system.

Stop the scams

State and federal governments are at last trying to end private for profit providers’ schemes which are illegal, and to make illegal their schemes which are dishonest without simply breaking the law. Governments are hampered in this by having such weak institutions for policing and enforcing the law in education. Strong enforcement isn’t needed in school education because for profit schools are illegal and it isn’t needed in higher education because higher education providers must have education as their main purpose and because higher education standards specify extensive inputs which are readily checked and thus less expensive to police.

Governments are starting to require more and better specified inputs into vocational education, but the requirements remain very weak and accordingly governments are having to spend a lot more on policing to stop the scams. Presumably governments will continue to change the balance from expensive policing to requiring standards which are cheaper to enforce, and such standards could improve the quality of vocational education as well as stop the scams. But governments are doing this very slowly and apparently reluctantly, so extensive expensive enforcement will continue to be needed for a considerable time.

Stop the exploitation

The exploitation of students has so outraged the public that governments are also at last trying to stop providers’ behaviour which isn’t illegal or even dishonest yet clearly takes advantage of mostly vulnerable students. Again, this is more difficult in vocational education because of governments’ reluctance to reintroduce what might be thought of as an activity test in vocational education.

Higher education has fairly clear expectations that teachers will present and students will participate in classes in person or online and submit and assess assignments. Higher education students are careful about incurring this responsibility, as vocational education students were before the expectation was undermined by the introduction of competency based training and the great expansion of recognition of prior learning in vocational education. The lack of a universal expectation that vocational education students have to invest substantial effort in their study makes it much easier for recruiters to recruit students with promises of a valuable credential with little or no cost to them.

While governments seem a long way from requiring that vocational education have teaching-learning processes, they at least seem likely to stop the more outrageous selling ploys that have so undermined vocational education’s standing and credibility.

Cut the budget blowouts

State governments’ extension of public funding to private for profit providers and the introduction of the heavily subsidised VET FEE-HELP has led to an explosion of private for profit providers which have a direct financial interest in at least continuing and preferably expanding government subsidies. Some argue as if they had a proprietary interest in government programs from which they profit. A Labor proposal to cap VET FEE-HELP loans at $8,000 a year was criticised even by TAFE Directors Australia, the peak body of public providers which hopefully will one day return to seeking the public interest rather than the financial interest of their institutions and members.

But the introduction of student entitlements in vocational education has led to big blow outs of State government budgets, while the introduction of VET FEE-HELP has led to an extraordinary increase in Australian Government spending, much of it unlikely to be recovered through student loan repayments. State governments have responded to the explosion in their subsidy of private providers by slashing funding for TAFE institutes. But so big have been the budget blowouts that governments have felt the need to cut subsidies overall and the Australian Government is limiting VET FEE-HELP despite the protests of the self-interested providers.

The state and Australian governments’ attempts to limit their budget blow outs should at least stop the expansion of private for profit providers and hopefully therefore also the cuts to TAFE.

Efficiency

Efficiency is the production of the most output for the least input. State governments have cut funding per vocational student contact hour relentlessly for over a decade. Only in vocational education would such extensive and prolonged cuts be considered an increase in efficiency because the cuts would be of only waste. In every other sector cuts in funding per student would be understood to risk quality, and this is now belatedly being understood for vocational education. The difficulty is that vocational education no longer has a good measure of units of production let alone of units of output against which to measure efficiency.

Notional student delivery hour has become so debased and so detached from what many providers offer that it is no longer a reliable indicator of the effort invested by providers in qualifying their students. Again, a similar problem does not arise in school or higher education. Any higher education provider which proposes to offer a qualification with substantially less input of time than the standard duration set out in the Australian qualification framework is required to justify their approach in detail by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. Unlike in vocational education, it is not credible for a higher education provider to claim that they can assess their students as competent in a diploma after a fortnight’s teaching-learning.

It is hard to see how to restore a reliable measure of efficiency in vocational education without monitoring much more rigorously the standard durations of qualification specified in the Australian qualification framework. This in turn undermines the whole concept of competency based training, that students continue learning not for a specified time but until they are assessed as competent. Nonetheless, the Australian Skills Quality Authority seems to be expecting providers to justify programs that are radically shorter than the specified minimum.

Notional student delivery hour is of course a measure of an input. In principle it is far better to measure efficiency not by inputs but by outputs, such as competencies achieved or programs completed. However, this would be a strong incentive for providers to further lower standards of assessment and program completion requirements and should not be pursued without far more rigorous methods for ensuring the standards of assessment and completion.

Effectiveness

There is no point in being efficient without being effective, or achieving valuable outcomes. Of course specifying valuable outcomes raises the purposes of vocational education. The trite claim is that vocational education’s purpose is to increase graduates’ value in the workforce. But this is too narrow even by the remarkably narrow criteria that shape Australian vocational education policy. Surely vocational education should not only increase individual graduates’ employability but also increase the productivity of the workforce as a whole. This implies anticipating future needs and supporting the development of whole regions, industries and sectors rather than just meeting the current needs of individual graduates and employers. But even this can’t be a complete purpose since much vocational education is of lower level certificates which don’t and are not designed to increase graduates’ direct employability but to prepare them for further study.

Privatising TAFEs is an obvious corollary of competitive neutrality (making all providers compete against themselves equally) and contestability (the jargon for making public subsidies available to private providers). Yet all governments seem to reject privatising TAFE institutes or even granting them more autonomy so they may compete against each other and against private providers. Indeed, Victoria’s stacking of TAFE boards and NSW’s ‘One TAFE’ program are reducing institutes’ independence and making them more an instrument of government policy. So even the most rabid marketisers see a distinctive role for TAFE, or at least recognise that a substantial part of the population values a distinctive role for TAFE It is worth elaborating TAFEs distinctive role, and this could be part of describing vocational education’s effectiveness.

An integrated tertiary education sector?

Some of us have been arguing for some time for an integrated tertiary education sector. This has been rejected consistently, even by members of the Bradley Committee which recommended the introduction of the demand driven system of public higher education. This removed the limits on the number of Bachelor students that could be enrolled by public universities in all fields except medicine, and has resulted in universities enrolling in degrees substantial numbers of students who would probably have otherwise enrolled in vocational diplomas and advanced certificates. So enrolment targets for vocational education can no longer be set in isolation from enrolment trends in higher education.

The roles of vocational education diplomas and advanced diplomas overlap considerably with those of higher education diplomas, associate degrees and baccalaureates. Yet vocational education’s funding rates and conditions are grotesquely poorer than those for higher education. These different funding rates and conditions can be maintained only by maintaining that the sectors are fundamentally different.

The conditions for VET FEE-HELP are very similar to those for higher education’s FEE-HELP for fee for service programs and are not very different from HECS-HELP for subsidised places at public universities. Yet VET FEE-HELP has financed huge problems and scams, which have been mostly absent in higher education. The fact that substantially the same loan scheme can have markedly different outcomes in vocational and higher education suggests that the standards and institutions and processes that support them are much weaker in vocational education than in higher education.

For these and other reasons the long term future of vocational education cannot be determined in isolation from higher education.

Gavin Moodie is Adjunct Professor, Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education, OISE, University of Toronto and Adjunct Professor of Education at RMIT University, Australia

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