summer reading

Over the summer holidays, we will be revisiting some of our favourite articles published in The Australian TAFE Teacher magazine in 2012.  

As consumers, we face a barrage of marketing ploys to attract our attention and encourage us to favour one product over that of a competitor.  For education this is nothing new.  As the dynamic of the training market-place shifts towards increasingly competitiveness, emerging are a host of strategies designed to entice the uninformed into making life altering decisions, often without appropriate disclosure or assurance of quality outcomes.

Vocational training is by no means devoid of commentary on these issues, however the degree of analysis employed in the past may no longer be adequate.  The public training system has had its fair share of critics and has been taken to task for its perceived inflexibility however, while this debate rages, the VET system has been transformed, providing consumers with expanded choice.

Victoria’s demand-driven system has placed industry in the invidious position of steering vocational training while the state government has fundamentally taken a ‘hands off the wheel’ approach, allowing unbridled market forces to shape the sector.  The explosion in enrolments in the fitness sector, as revealed last year, is just one example of where industry’s capacity to truly influence training has been sorely tested.

The explosion in private training provider registrations last year gives some insight into the business opportunities that this shift in government policy unleashed.  While competition within the training system should be seen as a positive development, the flaw that has been exposed is that unrestrained and rapid growth without adequate regulations has already impacted upon training quality.

Interestingly the tone in public debate over these reforms has changed recently from one that focused on access and equity to one that now places quality firmly in the spotlight.  The transformation of training into a commodity that maintains effective quality control is an illusion at best.  While the regulatory authorities will argue standards are in place and enforced, the reality is that even with such controls dubious training continues to be openly promoted.

The Victorian sector continues to attract criticism, raising concerns that the growth in training is nothing more than a statistical charade rather than initiative of any actual substance.  The Victorian model fails to engender confidence that the integrity of the training system can be maintained in an environment of seemingly unfettered opportunism.  Recruitment into courses linked with free iPads, holidays and financial inducements is making a mockery of a system that is designed to deliver skills.

This feeding frenzy is supported by taxpayer fund, purportedly to address growing skill shortages.  Data released by Skills Victoria show a 44% increase in enrolments in the three years to 2011 but the true consequence is a $400 million black hole in the education budget.  On the surface this investment should translate into increased productivity but in reality what has flourished are qualifications with minimal if any economic return.

Accessibility to subsidised training has received much attention, with the Victorian eligibility restrictions being seen by some as a disincentive and barrier to skills attainment.  As was recently announced by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, there is a concerted effort being made in the provision of “…a high-value, high-wage, high-skill employment” and that financial barriers should not act as an impediment to advancing this commitment.

The recently announced HECS style income contingent loan proposal requires closer analysis, particularly in the environment that Victoria has developed.  For public training providers still reeling after the collapse of the international student market and cuts, these announcements have been received positively.  Likewise, private providers may also reap the benefits, as their continuing growth will be buoyed by the expectation that even larger numbers of students will be enticed into training.  Confidence in the training system has been battered in Victoria and industry’s response will be contingent upon policy that places quality and genuine skills-creation front and centre once again.

There is ground for caution, given experience where similar income contingent loan systems have been operating.  Student debt continues to escalate in the United States, amidst concerns that increased bankruptcy applications related to student loans will be the next financial disaster to hit the country.  In 2012 reports from the USA showed credit card debt of $826.5 billion with outstanding student loan debt exceeding $829 billion.  Others have estimated total debt to be closer to $1 trillion.  In the United Kingdom declining enrolments are being attributed to student debt, which are estimated to be £60,000 per student on average.

Student debt is not a new concept for Australia with the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS), and more recently HECS-HELP, which continue to support eligible Commonwealth supported students to pay their student contribution fees.  The expansion of the income contingent loan system to the VET sector, as announced by the Prime Minister purports to open up training opportunities for students undertaking Diploma and Advanced Diploma qualifications.

For VET, caution is justified as the nation prepares to extend student loan arrangements, given there may be salutary lessons to be learnt from overseas.  The potential inflationary impact upon training and cost shifting to students need to be considered in light of TAFEs traditionally servicing the needs of students from disadvantaged groups for whom qualifications translate simply to an employment outcome rather than high wages.  For such risk adverse students the loan arrangement may still not provide a viable option and ongoing skill shortages will remain.  Until the mechanisms and controls that will be enacted are outlined industry would be well advised to take a wait and see approach.

If international trends are a reliable indicator, governments will no longer be carrying the economic burden alone, with industry expected to take an increasingly active role in determining and directing training to service its needs.  Industry has contributed significantly to the Australian training system and demonstrates its support in the employment of a workforce with recognised and credible skills.  A system, however, that fails to reinforce quality will only erode confidence in VET and further exacerbate Australia’s skills shortage.

-Chris Bergemann is a former VET teacher of 23 years