16 April, 2017

TAFE must be the foundation

By Aaron Devine

Have hope, the Vocational Education and Training system has finally reached the bottom and government, industry, peak training organisations and policy makers are ready to start the long climb out of the hole dug by failed policies. They simply need a ladder.

The ladder is an alternative VET policy and purchasing framework that builds skills and innovation and is of value to students and communities. TAFE must be the foundation of that policy and central to its formation. The private RTO charlatans who have left students, taxpayers and the community with debt, meaningless qualifications and a loss of confidence in the value of qualifications have evidenced the failure of a market system based on profit and profiteering. The comments from Mr Rod Sims[i] from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald are noteworthy:

“In a blistering attack on decades of common government practice, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims said the sale of ports and electricity infrastructure and the opening of vocational education to private companies had caused him and the public to lose faith in privatisation and deregulation.”

Mr Sims comments are telling and support the need the for fresh thinking in vocational education following the recent changes from Ministers and governments who are talking tough, changing legislation and cracking down on poor behaviour. The changes in legislation are biting and no advocate for TAFE will celebrate RTO closures, as it lays bare the human cost of people losing their jobs and highlights students left with debt and shattered dreams. However, it also highlights an ever-present reminder of greed and unconscionable conduct that should motivate real policy change.

The current legislative changes, while welcome, are best characterised as a holding policy, focussed on building barriers to stop students (and the taxpayer) from continuing to throw themselves over the metaphorical cliff into debt and poor outcomes. VET policy needs to look beyond this holding pattern and focus on how Australia builds the skills bridge over the cliff to enable us to engage and thrive as a community in the modern world economy.

While never forgetting the lessons of the recent past, TAFE must now shift from focussing on the failures of the system to creating a new future. TAFE leaders and staff should courageously look to new thinking and policy that will stabilise our training system and focus funding and activity back to training and meeting the needs of industry and communities.

Central to any new policy model for vocational education is that ‘for profit’ training organisations should not have access to government funding or government loan schemes. While the behaviour of the market is evidence enough for this change, there is also international support for this position as outlined by the Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education[ii] for the Conservative Government in the United Kingdom:

“… given what appears to be the highly unusual nature of this arrangement compared to other countries and the high costs associated with offering world-class technical education, we see a strong case for public funding for education and training to be restricted to institutions where surpluses are reinvested into the country’s education infrastructure.”

International comparisons show a growing realisation that institutions with deep community links and strong industry engagement are needed to build the skills of tomorrow. Institutions that have learning and teaching deeply engrained into their organisational culture are best able to support reengaging learners and those from social disadvantage.

Internationally, VET system are being directly guided by their governments, with long term plans and industry specialisations being carved out based on the identified skills needs of the future and not a laissez faire student entitlement model and Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Specialist infrastructure, curriculum and investment in the development of leading educators in new industry areas are being established and supported by governments looking to the future needs of their industry and society.

A tiered approach to regulation based on risk is imperative. Any future model for vocational education should encourage the development and progression of our TAFE colleges into self-accrediting institutions, in equal status, academic freedom and capability as our universities. The costs and benefits of moving away from national training packages to allow development of new local curriculum linked to local community and industry needs to be considered. Self-regulating institutions underwritten by their state governments, should hold accountability for their outcomes and report to their communities and state government. While this journey will take time and investment in capability, it should be a guiding goal. Light tight regulation as experienced by our universities is a good model for consideration for our TAFE system. It is imperative that every dollar possible is spent on training and building workforce capacity, community demands and less on regulation and oversight.

TAFE staff will continue to be on the front line with second chance learners, managing significant social and economic disadvantage; while also dealing with innovation and technological change of modern workplaces. Rebuilding the TAFE workforce and their educational capability will take time, yet security of employment and long term funding commitments will encourage the attraction and retention of great talent. Purchasing policy needs to recognise the costs and benefits of efficient and effective learner support models. Any new purchasing model should also seek to recognise the need to fund and support community based learning that reengages those of social disadvantage into learning and eventually onto a pathway for employment based learning.

Australia has been the developed world’s most radical follower of a free market philosophy in vocational education and training. This experience has produced clear evidence that government funding of for profit training organisations has not delivered the outcomes expected or desired. The restriction of government funding and loans to not for profit training organisations, should be the basis of any new funding model for VET.

In addition, reform of purchasing policy to establish a community and provider model that allows for local industry priorities to be outlined, funded and supported should be considered by the Federal Government to allow for differential pricing, priorities and regional specialisation. The booming tourism and hospitality industry of the Gold Coast has significantly different training needs and priorities to that of Mt Isa and different again from those of Cape York, yet we seek to establish a one size purchasing model independent of local needs.

Student demand and student entitlement has had no discernible positive impact on skills shortages and not resulted in increased industry satisfaction. It has encouraged a race to the bottom on quality, based on price and shorter training duration. It is time to encourage communities with their local TAFE to take control of their own educational and industry needs.

Many opinions and solutions exist to rebuild confidence in our training system and it is time to start outlining them and debating their strengths and weaknesses. Quality training in quality facilities from quality staff, based on the aspirations of our community should be the basis from which to build this new future.

That is a future with hope for all Australians.

Aaron Devine was the General Manager of TAFE Queensland – Brisbane. He is now Managing Director of Devine Management Consulting

[i] http://www.smh.com.au/business/privatisation-has-damaged-the-economy-says-accc-chief-20160726-gqe2c2.html