We’re dipping into the archives today and sharing an article published in the Autumn edition of The Australian TAFE Teacher.

Around the world, vocational education and training is under increasing pressure from privatisation and marketisation.

While not new, the vulnerability of VET to these pressures has been heightened in the current political and economic context.  The global financial crisis, recession and rise in public sector deficits has pushed many more governments to reduce public spending and expand the private sector’s involvement in a range of public services including VET.

The growth of the for-profit VET sector globally has been staggering.  Two-thirds of Brazil’s tertiary VET institutes are for-profit.  In Chile, the military dictatorship privatised all of VET in the 1980s.  Across the Middle East and Africa, there has been a dramatic proliferation of offshore for-profit training centres and programs.  In the Philippines, 50% of all VET students are enrolled in private, for-profit institutions.  Meanwhile, for-profit education and training is the fastest growing educational sector in the United States, worth an estimated $120 billion annually.

The growth of the for-profit sector has had serious impacts on the quality and relevance of VET.  Quality is often compromised as there are pressures to narrow the curriculum and to shift resources away from the classroom into marketing and student recruitment.  In 2010, a US Congressional investigation into the sector found that just one-third of graduates of for-profit colleges were able to repay their student loans, well below those graduating from public colleges and institutes.  The majority of students graduating from for-profit VET programs simply don’t have the skills needed to find meaningful employment.

In addition, there have been renewed concerns about questionable recruitment practices of for-profit VET institutions, practices that often cross the line into outright fraud.  The US investigation into the sector found many instances of recruitment agents lying to potential students about the nature of programs on offer and likely employment prospects.  At the extreme, some institutions were found to have recruited homeless people, pocketing government-backed student loans with the full knowledge that such students were unlikely to begin let alone finish a program.  This is a practice of “sub-prime education”, referring to how unscrupulous sup-prime mortgage lenders engaged in similar strategies to sell to high risk borrowers.

Staffing of for-profit VET is highly casualised.  In the United States, nearly 75% of tertiary teachers are now employed on fixed-term or casual contracts, nearly three times the figure than a generation ago.  One key factor behind this has been the rise in the for-profit sector as many career colleges and institutions have no full-time or continuing staff.

For students, the impact of privatisation shows up not just in reduced quality, but also higher costs.  For-profit institutions, often charge extremely high tuition fees, often subsidised by public loans and bursaries.  However, even public institutions have privatised financing in recent years, raising costs for students and their families that threaten to impair access.

In short, marketisation and privatisation of VET has failed.  Markets are not the best way to produce and deliver education in an efficient fair or equitable way.

What needs to be done to build more sustainable VET systems?  Clearly, governments need to invest in VET and to recognise that public VET plays a vital role in delivering high quality programs that promote social and economic development.  Governments should have learned the lesson of the crisis about the importance of investment in public vocational institutions for the future of the economy and society.

If VET is to be successful, we need to put staff at the heart of the mission.  VET staff are the key to ensuring we have high quality and relevant systems that meet the needs of students and society at large.  We have to treat VET teachers as the professionals they are, and let them do their job.

VET teachers can help their cause if they build stronger alliances.  The most effective opposition to market-driven education in recent years has come from students.  Witness the major student demonstrations in Chile and Colombia.  Working more closely with students is the first step, but we also need to broaden our message beyond education  specifically.  The kind of education system we want must be more firmly framed in terms of what kind of society we want. 

These are not easy tasks, but they are necessary.  A private and market-based VET system is simply unsustainable.  We need to expose this, but also to bring forward a renewed vision of VET based on the public service values of quality and equality.

David Robinson is Senior Advisor, Education International