Novemeber 13 , 1015

New voices question the concept of student choice

By Dr John Mitchell

New voices are emerging in the national debate about the direction of VET and the future of TAFE, and these voices provide some hope for those people who have been concerned over the last four to five years about the simplistic arguments used by the supporters of “market design”. Market designers want the VET sector opened up to anyone who can obtain registration as a training provider and their simplistic arguments normally include the reverential use of the word “choice”: that we can do nothing nobler for our fellow Australians than to give them choice about which training provider they can select; and the more training providers the better.

Sadly, most of those market design ideologues have not been silenced in the last ten to eleven months by the election victories of Labor governments in Victoria and Queensland who have promised to rescue TAFE and better protect prospective VET students, so the public battle continues between the advocates of market design and those who are alarmed by the wreckage the market design idealists have wrought on the VET system, including its students.

To remove any doubt in readers’ minds about whether the emotive term wreckage is appropriate, that wreckage is best symbolized by the need for the Victorian government since late last year to send out letters to around 10,000 students notifying them that their qualifications need to be revoked, following the realisation that the relevant training providers had not provided adequate training and assessment. 10,000 is a massive number of people to exploit. Who left open to abuse these 10,000 Victorians? Have those responsible lost their jobs, like the 2,000 or more TAFE teachers in Victoria who have lost their jobs in the last few years?

The wreckage in VET caused by opening up the provider market to shonky operators is described in a set of four “strategic review” reports by the national regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA), most recently with its report on training in the field of child care. As it did in late 2013 in its report on training in the aged care sector, ASQA’s 2015 child care report found that the Certificate III was being delivered in too short a time frame and that most training providers were not fully compliant with the national standards at the initial audit. The main reason for the non-compliance was inadequate assessment, the very foundation of the competency based system. Two related deficiencies identified by ASQA in both the aged care and child care investigations were the lack of industry currency of the trainers and the absence of any workplace training or simulated training. These findings add up to a crisis in VET and yet the market designers remain committed to opening up the sector to even more providers.

Conventional critiques

Several conventional but significant reports this year in Victoria, funded by the government, have dissected the mess in VET. The first report, “Review of Quality Assurance in Victoria’s VET System”, was prepared by Deloitte and provided further descriptions of the VET wreckage and listed twelve issues facing the Victorian VET system and made various recommendations for improvement.

The second report, “Vocational Education and Training Review Issues Paper”, was commissioned by the Victorian Minister for Training and Skills Mr Steve Herbert MP and prepared by Bruce Mackenzie (chair) and Neil Coulson, following their extensive consultations across the state. The issues paper described 27 changes proposed for the VET sector in Victoria, including three changes to make TAFE more sustainable, four changes to better support jobs and industry, five changes to support training for vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, six changes to how funds are allocated to providers and nine changes to ensure students are better protected and supported. The release of the final report is much anticipated.

New voice number one

While Deloittes and Mackenzie and Coulson are well-known contributors to public debate, who are the new voices railing against the abuse of unsuspecting VET students? The first one is unexpected and the second is an even more surprising participant in the VET debate. The first voice is the mass media, including often ridiculed Sunday newspapers such as The Sun Herald in NSW and the second is the Consumer Action Law Centre based in Melbourne.

Contradicting the view that Sunday newspapers contain lightweight journalism, crucial points were made about the mess in VET – including the extent of low quality training and the rorting of government funding schemes by training providers – in the editorial in The Sun Herald on 27 June 2015, “TAFE cuts short-sighted and damaging”, and in an accompanying article by journalist Kirsty Needham, “NSW school leavers vote with their feet on NSW TAFE fee hikes”.

The Sun Herald had followed for some time the slow train wreck in VET, as noted in its editorial. “For months, The Sun-Herald has reported on the devastating effects of cuts to TAFE and growing alarm about the consequences of the state government's ‘Smart and Skilled’ agenda for change, which has hiked fees and made TAFE compete with private providers for government funds. Courses have been abolished or shortened. Supports for the disabled have been stripped away. Those least able to pay have found once-free courses now cost thousands.

“Insiders warned that school leavers were baulking at the fees and enrolments were down. This week, the budget papers confirmed their warnings. More than 30,000 students have been driven away this year and the number of Aboriginal students and students with a disability has dropped. Certificate III enrolments declined by 18,073.”

The Sun Herald editorial then turned the spotlight onto the Baird government. “The state government would no doubt be hoping some of these people found their way into government-subsided places in the private sector, which it is fostering with a generous share of the vocational training budget. But … new figures show training in the private sector has also fallen.”

“And there are serious questions to be asked about the quality of the education the private sector provides. In the pursuit of profit, why would course depth and duration not be sacrificed? In other states, which embraced the market more rapidly than NSW, TAFEs have been strangled and unscrupulous operators have run outrageous scams. There are reports of colleges signing up thousands of students who never complete their studies.”

In the same issue of The Sun Herald, journalist Needham extended that newspaper’s critique of the state government’s VET policies. She noted that “the Baird government's overhaul of TAFE was supposed to make the venerable institution modernise by competing with private training colleges. Instead, school leavers have voted with their feet following fee hikes, dropping out of any vocational training in droves. TAFE [NSW] registered 22,000 fewer enrolments for the most useful, nationally recognised trade qualifications, or Certificate III courses, this year. The 10 TAFE colleges had to compete for student enrolments (and government funding) with 330 private training colleges by cutting teachers and classes.

“But the Budget papers show many of these missing TAFE students didn't go private when the new training market ‘Smart and Skilled’ started on January 1. There are 30,000 fewer students enrolled in government-funded vocational training of any sort in NSW this year. It appears these teens are sitting at home instead. This is bad news for youth unemployment rates, and a NSW economy facing a shortage of tradespeople.”

The approach taken by Needham and The Sun Herald continued the insightful reporting by a range of other mass media channels over the last year, from ABC Radio hosts such as Jon Faine who profiled the exploitation of VET students leading up to the Victorian State election in November 2014, to journalists at The Age such as Timna Jacks, to producers on the ABC 7.30 Report who provided several powerful programs earlier this year on rogue training providers recruiting students from aged care facilities and queues outside Centrelink.

New voice number two

The second new voice in the public debate about VET is that of the Consumer Action Law Centre (CALM) in Melbourne that is surprised to find itself needing to champion the cause of unsuspecting potential and enrolled students. At the TAFE Directors Australia (TDA) conference in Hobart in early September 2015, the Director of Policy and Campaigns at CALM Denise Boyd put the awkward question “Why is it being left to a government funded legal centres such as ours to try and help people through an adversarial court system to get redress for courses they [unsuspecting students] should never have been signed up to?” (TDA 14 April 2015).

TDA’s Member Services newsletter reported further on Boyd’s address: “This is what happens when you deregulate a public sector and don’t have the appropriate consumer protections in place. We’re looking at people in the [vocational] education sector who are carrying debts of twenty to thirty thousand dollars that they didn’t even know they’d accrued. It is not appropriate that you have people on commission sales flogging courses that you don’t really know are appropriate to your needs. We need to have a remediation package for those people who have been left with that debt. We are all going to be carrying the cost of that because that money has gone.”

CALM’s submission on 7 August 2015 in response to the Victorian VET Funding Review Issues Paper discussed the notion of consumer choice, and recommended that “the Government undertake further research to determine whether students wishing to study a VET course currently have “too much” choice. While CALM could be expected to favour optimal levels of consumer choice, it noted that “behavioural economists have found that sometimes too much choice can lead to poor decisions, or no decision at all. As options multiply, there may be a point at which the effort required to obtain enough information to be able to distinguish sensibly between alternatives outweighs the benefit to the consumer of the extra choice. Too many options means too much effort to make a sensible decision: better to bury your head under a pillow, or have somebody else pick for you.”

CALM added that “consumers are not in a strong position to compare the strengths and weaknesses of different VET courses, making it difficult for consumers to determine whether they are selecting the course that is appropriate quality or best suits their needs.”

Readers who have experience in VET know that the concept of consumer choice has gone astray, in those governments under the influence of bureaucrats spouting simplistic versions of VET market design. Those bureaucrats do not understand that a vast proportion of VET potential students are not well equipped to make a decision about which training provider to select, given those potential students’ low levels of literacy, or low self esteem due to previous negative experiences of education or lack of confidence due to their length of time away from formal education.

While new voices in the debate about VET such as CALM and The Sun Herald are now exposing the exploitation of unsuspecting potential students by disreputable providers, their efforts are too late, for example, for the 10,000 or more Victorian students ripped off last year.

Dr John Mitchell is a VET researcher and analyst. See