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

The Australian vocational education and training system is too complex, too expensive and yet too easy for VET providers to enter.  It has too many qualifications that take a lot of money to develop for too few students.

There are currently 170 registered higher education providers in Australia, and 4900 ‘active’ Vet registered training organisations.  In 2010, the biggest 100 VET providers (that is, 2% of all providers) delivered 86% of teaching, while only 61 VET providers had 1000 or more equivalent full-time students.

In 2012-13 the Australian Government allocated almost $19.5 million to the higher education regulator – the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Authority, while it allocated almost $32.8 million to the VET regulator – the Australian Skills Quality Authority.

Each year, the Australian Government spends millions of dollars to support 11 industry skills councils to develop qualifications for their industries.  Qualifications are part of a ‘training package’ for that industry and providers are required to offer only approved training package qualifications unless there isn’t one in the appropriate area.  In 2010, 70% of VET students undertook training package qualifications compared to 66% in 2009.

In 2010, there were at least 1416 training package qualifications offered by VET providers.  The median number of equivalent full-time students in these qualifications was 34.  That is, half of these qualifications was 34.  That is, half of these qualifications had fewer than 34 equivalent full-time students, and half had more that 34.  This is not the median number of equivalent full-time students in each qualification in each VET provider; it is the median number in each qualification in Australia. In universities, each qualification needs to have at least 25 equivalent full-time students, or management will come hunting.

Some 13% of training package qualifications had no student in 2010, while 56% had fewer than 50 equivalent full-time students.  In contrast, 14% of qualifications had more than 500 equivalent full-time students, showing it is possible to get at least some economies of scale.

There is obviously something very wrong.  We have an expensive edifice that doesn’t work and declining confidence in qualifications.  Quality is a problem which hasn’t been solved by the establishment of ASQA and is unlikely to be fixed for as long as ASQA persists with the flawed framework which it inherited.  Millions are spent creating qualifications that aren’t used effectively which are delivered by thousands of small providers that teach few students.  Moreover, it is some small private providers that have ruined Australia’s reputation amongst international students, and are well on the way to ruining VET’s reputation with domestic students.

Australia needs a new approach to developing and accrediting qualification.  An alternative would be to allow each provider to develop its own qualifications and require them to be accredited by a qualifications authority.  This is the model used in higher education to accredit qualifications offered by non-self accrediting higher education institutions.

This would very quickly reduce the number of VET providers by a couple of thousand.  Only providers that are serious and have the necessary resources and capacity would develop their own qualifications.  It would create a market in qualifications, rather than a market for the price charged for qualifications, which only drives down fees and quality.  This approach should suit serious private providers and TAFE institutes because it would give them the opportunity to distinguish themselves in the market and escape from restrictive training packages.  Our research on other countries shows that when institutions develop their own qualifications, staff have a much greater investment and sense of ownership of those qualifications.

Qualifications would still be nationally portable because they would be developed using simplified core national standards and based on a national assessment framework in which core components are either assessed externally or externally moderated.  Local accreditation committees would include industry representatives, similar to the role professional bodies play in accrediting professional qualification in higher education.  This would give industry far more input into qualifications than is currently the case, because it would influence the structure and design of the qualification, curriculum, syllabus, assessment and requirements for teaching staff.  Representatives from schools and higher education would also be included to support the development of pathways.

Economies of scale would be achieved because providers would only develop and accredit qualifications that attracted sufficient numbers of students to make their investment worthwhile.  Consistency would be maintained and proliferation of different types of qualifications would be avoided by a national assessment framework and simplified standards, just as it is in nursing or engineering.  There will be some areas where it will be impossible to have economies of scale (such as the Certificate III in Sawdoctoring) and alternative arrangements will be needed, just as they are in higher education in similar circumstances.  However, the system should not be organised around these small number of cases.

Increasing the cost of entry by providers (as this approach would do) is needed because we need to imrpvoe the quality of providers and their qualifications.  The point of VET is not to spend millions creating an infrastructure that supports thousands of small providers that contribute minimally to VET, but to create a high quality VET system with qualifications that are trusted.

-Dr Leesa Wheelahan is an associate professor at the LH Martin Institute for Tertiary Education and Management and is the co-ordinator of the Graduate Certificate in Tertiary Teaching at the Melbourne School of Education, University of Melbourne.

Leesa’s latest book is “Why knowledge matters in curriculum: a social realist argument”