May 13, 2018

Turning the ship around

By John Ross

I’ve been a tertiary education journalist for about a decade, but I’ve been a tertiary education consumer much longer. Ever since the early 80s I’ve sampled the range of post-secondary offerings: a degree at an institution that now calls itself a university; lots of community college courses; a couple of introductory TAFE certificates; some so-called professional development programs of highly variable quality.

By far the best thing I did was a four-week certificate in teaching English to adult speakers of other languages, which I undertook at a Sydney private college almost 20 years ago. It was well thought out, expertly taught, personable, rigorous and demanding.

I never really used the qualification professionally – when I got to Spain, I ended up writing my great unpublished novel instead – but it has served me in many ways. It’s made me a better writer, choosing words with more precision and thinking more analytically about tenses. It’s helped me understand the craft of education.

It’s even influenced my parenting. One of the ideas underpinning English teaching is that because it’s such a ubiquitous language, foreigners often know the words for things. But they don’t know they know them. So, if students ask for vocabulary translations, teachers shouldn’t immediately dish up the answers – they should try to elicit them first.

The eureka moment students experience, when they realise the word was there in their heads all along, helps build their skills and confidence. Consequently, when six year-old Jem asks me “what does ‘discovery’ mean?, my invariable response – to his extreme frustration – is “what do you think?”.

That course cost me about $2000, way back in 2001, and it was worth every cent. Perhaps there’s an argument that a course of such quality should be subsidised by the government. Why not? It provides a clear job outcome – even if it didn’t for me – and international education, as we all know, is Australia’s third biggest export industry.

There’s a view that funding for vocationally oriented courses should be premised on student choice. People should be supported to study wherever they want, regardless of whether it’s a public or private college. Others maintain that only public education institutions should receive public money, and private colleges should be privately funded.

I’m not sure exactly where I stand in that debate. I suspect that, as in most things, some sort of balance is probably desirable. But I’m certain of one thing: a rich liberal democracy like Australia warrants a viable and effective public vocational education system.

People should have access to training that gives them work skills or a leg-up into further learning. And, as with schools and universities, that opportunity should be available to everybody. Cost should be no barrier.

While people bellyache interminably about our public schools, as a society we take it for granted – in fact, we insist – that every child can gain a place in one. We don’t allow cost to stop hard-up kids from going to school.

Fees are low and discretionary. We expect schools within a reasonable distance of where people live, teaching an adequate spread of subjects. If we didn’t get that, there’d be riots. And if a regulator hung the sword of Damocles over an entire state schooling system, because of perceived shortcomings in the way it was doing things, we’d be appalled.

Yet that’s exactly what’s happened in public vocational education and training. When I started full-time journalism back in 2008, there were about 58 TAFE institutes across Australia. People living in metropolitan areas did not have to travel too far to find courses in anything from business to building, bricklaying to basket weaving. Courses were not too expensive – a damn sight less than university degrees – and concessions were widely available to disadvantaged people.

Now there are about 33 TAFE institutes. The reduction is mainly because of mergers, but they’ve been driven by budgets that have been stretched to the wall. Some campuses have closed outright. Thousands of TAFE teachers have lost their jobs.

Courses have been slashed, and most are now only subsidised if they’re directly associated with hard-to-fill jobs – even though most vocational education graduates don’t end up working in the areas in which they’ve trained.

Even courses for occupations with plenty of job vacancies, such as hospitality, can attract little or no government support. Students can be forced to travel miles to access classes for trades like plumbing and plastering, despite job opportunities triggered by the metropolitan construction booms.

TAFE diploma courses, which typically cost about $1000 to $1500 a decade ago, now charge up to 10 times as much. Once a low-cost alternative to university, TAFE can now cost more. Lots of exemptions and concessions for people from low socioeconomic backgrounds have been scrapped, and advanced vocational courses in at least one state now attract no government support at all.

In a shock development last year, South Australia’s public vocational education provider comprehensively failed a random audit by the Australian Skills Quality Authority. Now the regulator is threatening to stop TAFE SA from running 10 courses and is set to scrutinise a whole lot more.

Ominously, the regulator says the performance at other states’ TAFEs is likely to be worse. It says that while 67 per cent of its audits of TAFE SA activities have revealed problems, the “noncompliance” rate across Australia’s other TAFEs is an extraordinary 80 per cent.

How did it come to this? In my mind, the regulatory mindset in Australia has flipped from trust to paranoia, courtesy of the bare-faced rorts that have undermined repeated attempts to turn vocational education and training into a quasi-market.

As a reporter, I’ve been gobsmacked by the sheer brazenness of frauds I’ve uncovered. The fly-by-night Melbourne college that awarded footy club members certificate IVs in outdoor recreation for a few nights spent ‘learning’ on their own premises. It gave participants $1000 kickbacks, bankrolled from state government subsidies, and called them “scholarships”.

The soon-to-be-bankrupt Sydney-based college whose directors paid its shareholders –including themselves – $15 million in dividends, on the same day the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission launched proceedings to recover tens of millions of dollars in improperly obtained student loans.

Swindles of this sort are light years removed from the business model of non-profits like TAFEs, and exemplary private colleges like the one where I trained to be a language teacher. But in the scramble to shut down the rorts, regulators tar everybody with the same brush and raise the audit bar accordingly.

It’s hard to say whether TAFEs’ fundamental capabilities have been eroded by years of starvation funding, or the regulatory regime has been amped up so much that you can fail an audit because of a typo in your assessment documentation. I suspect it’s a bit of both. Either way, the TAFE SA debacle won’t be the last of its type. Interstate TAFEs know the same fate could befall them when the auditors come calling.

TAFEs are the bedrock of a proud Australian vocational education system that used to impress the world, if not the people back home. Even back in the 90s and naughties it seemed they were under constant reform. But the slippery slope really began with a series of ill-conceived attempts to turn vocational education into an open market, beginning with Labor’s Productivity Places Program in 2008.

The scheme was designed to shake up TAFEs by offering private colleges funding on an equal footing. This was supposed to make training more “flexible” and “agile” and responsive to student and industry demand.

Instead, it was monopolised by private colleges predictably maximising their profits by teaching courses that required little infrastructure – security and sales, for example – rather than the training society needed in areas like aged care and health.

A mid-term review found that the $2.1 billion scheme was so badly administered that evaluators couldn’t tell how many people had participated. It was eventually scrapped half-way through what was supposed to be a five-year term.

You’d think that would have set the alarm bells ringing. Instead, the PPP became the prototype for a string of failed state attempts at marketisation. The Victorian Training Guarantee, which was cut to the bone in 2012 after the training budget blew out by $400 million. South Australia’s Skills for All, which was subjected to constant tinkering and eventually axed after a similar overspend.

Every state tried similar schemes, while vowing not to repeat each other’s mistakes. And while the latter schemes weren’t plagued by the bare-faced rorting experienced in Victoria, TAFEs bled market share, money, courses and teachers while students copped massive fee hikes.

Some states had no choice. They were obliged to follow suit by an April 2012 agreement with the Gillard government, ominously signed on Friday the 13th. States that tried to minimise the damage to TAFEs – i.e. NSW – ended up sending decent private colleges broke.

The doozey of open market schemes, of course, was the federal government’s VET FEE-HELP loans scheme. A modest program under its original design, it snowballed after the Gillard government relaxed the rules in 2012. The scheme’s appalling design and negligent oversight saw allocations mushroom from a little over $300m in 2012 to $2.9bn in 2015, before it was finally pared back and then replaced.

Around $8bn was squandered this way, and the government has already surrendered any hope of getting at least a quarter of it back. Much has been written about the personal toll on naïve outer metropolitan students taken for a ride by predatory scamsters.

The toll on the wider system has been equally catastrophic. The money lavished on VET FEE-HELP and the other debacles is now lost to the vocational sector.

Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute recently found that VET’s share of education spending had plummeted by 30 per cent in a little over a decade, as opportunistic states used VET FEE-HELP as an excuse to rip funds out of the sector. Meanwhile, universities circled like sharks, snapping up students who would have done better at TAFE – and pocketing the funding that came with them.

The ideologues behind this ill-fated marketisation push weren’t stupid. They saw problems in TAFE that warranted fixing. I have no doubt they were right. I spent about 15 years as a public servant and witnessed any amount of waste, so doubtless TAFEs could have pulled their socks up.

But so too could schools. And don’t get me started on universities. Why single out TAFEs? Obviously, because the ideologues could get away with it. TAFEs lacked the political clout wielded by schools and unis.

And the reformers clearly underestimated the capacity of the profit motive to skew colleges’ behaviour. The market cure for TAFEs and VET has turned out to be a whole lot worse than the disease.

So, what now? On the bright side, the plight of public VET has clearly entered the public’s consciousness. Business groups are releasing position papers about it. Newspapers, which once confined their VET coverage to the latest scam, are running stories about broader policy. Even university vice-chancellors are acknowledging VET as the biggest issue in tertiary education.

The federal Coalition is at least making a stab at putting some money back into VET, albeit through an unconvincing fund. Labor and the Greens are elevating VET as an election issue and promising to curtail or eliminate market-based funding.

Here’s hoping a new policy narrative can turn the ship around.

John Ross is Asia Pacific editor of Times Higher Education magazine, and a former tertiary education journalist with The Australian and Campus Review. This article, written when he was between jobs, contains his personal reflections.