Australia is about to elect its next federal government.
The broad platform of ‘education’ has been raised, as it is at every election. As a nation and a society we recognise how important formal education is. All political parties have made various policy commitments that they believe would improve educational outcomes. They involve everything from ‘pre-school’ through to ‘post-school’ university placement.
I’d like to focus on Vocational Education and Training (VET) and Tertiary education and narrow that focus to courses, learning content and assessment mechanisms used to deliver qualifications to graduates vital to Australia’s building and construction industry sector.
Educational systems are used to gain the qualifications needed to work across a range of skilled trades, administrative, supervisory and management roles. It is an essential element to the success of Australia’s future. Unfortunately, our educational systems and their capability to maintain high quality outcomes have never been in a worse position. All indicators show they will likely continue to decline. And no political party is talking about it.
Reasons behind the decline are complex. We used to do education and training really well. The federally funded private RTO scheme to deliver VET course qualifications was subsequently shown to be worthless. It was mismanaged and extorted with billions of training dollars wasted. It now seems to have been conveniently forgotten. Many private RTO’s continue to aggressively tout for business. They guarantee customers a ‘nationally recognised qualification’ in various building courses without need for formal study or exams and this can be achieved either ‘on-line’ or at worst, a few days. They replace rigorous learning and testing of skills and knowledge by using the ‘loophole’ of Recognition of Prior Learning or ‘RPL’. This is a highly contentious and widely discredited aspect of formal educational delivery when used to facilitate unrealistic course completion. Documented ‘evidence’ of attainment of the relevant ‘prior learning’ is easily manipulated by both the participant and the RTO delivering – some would say ‘selling’ – the course qualification.
The tertiary sector isn’t immune from contributing to the decline. At the start of 2017, an investigative report by Fairfax journalists Eryk Bagshaw and Inga Ting titled “NSW universities taking students with ATARs as low as 30” should have flagged a crisis in our tertiary institutions. Of particular interest was data showing that “at Western Sydney University, 99 per cent of the 251 students offered places in its Bachelor of Construction Management program did not make the cut-off of 85.” Based on those metrics and using some positive rounding up to avoid a half student result, it meant that only three of the 251 student cohort managed to accumulate a relatively modest ATAR entry score of 85 from their year 11 and 12 assessment. ATAR values are highly contentious in their own right but for those of you like me who left their secondary education a few decades back, speak to a current high school teacher to determine how achievable a score of 85 actually is. Let me put it this way. If you turn up to school to have your name marked off on the roll book through years 11 and 12 but did little to no academic study, you could probably scrape together an ATAR of 50. To participate in a proper tertiary course of study and be awarded a degree qualification in Construction Management, it would seem reasonable to assume you need to have significantly greater higher order problem solving capabilities. I don’t want to isolate WSU in this regard. It’s happening elsewhere too. An ABC Four Corners program on May 6 provided insight into how our university sector operates in respect of their international student intake. It made interesting viewing.
If you tried to sum up the decline with a single word, ‘commoditisation’ is a good one. Basically it means the process whereby differentiation is eroded by competition, leading to a commoditised market with price-based competition. Customers treat the offering as a commodity, selecting between vendors purely on price with no differentiating factors as the basis of competition. In the post-school world, we stopped enrolling ‘students’ years ago. We now have ‘customers’. And like all customers, they shop around for the ‘best deal’. When it comes to the types of qualifications linked to licensing and professional accreditation, the ‘best deal’ doesn’t always mean the cheapest price. The main focus here is often the ease of access, the lack of assessment and the shortest time period in which the ‘customer’ can get their qualification.
Sometimes this is not relevant in terms of consequences. Should we care if a person gets a Certificate IV in floristry from a private RTO without participating in training? Would the situation be worse if a media studies degree is issued to someone simply because they were a full fee paying international student? End users of the ‘qualified’ person’s services could finish up with a strange flower arrangement or an obscure opinion piece in a local paper. This is a simplistic example and the relative importance of different fields of endeavour are subjective. I don’t wish to offend any talented florists or journalists out there! I’m attempting to make an important point that should otherwise be fairly obvious. What if the qualifications are highly significant in respect of their validity to assess whether the person who obtains them is actually skilled to perform the works associated with their qualifications?
What if the status of the qualification is linked to national or state regulatory licensing or professional accreditation and registration scheme? That’s exactly what most vocational and tertiary qualifications associated with the building and construction industry are being used for. Consumers of licensed building trades and related accredited professional services are entitled to rely on this evidence. But they are being let down.
Here’s an example to help illustrate the potential problem. This is what NSW Fair Trading’s web page says:
“Any work that is residential building work under the Home Building Act 1989 which involves construction of a dwelling, or alterations or additions to a dwelling. It also includes repairing, renovating, decorating or applying protective treatment to a dwelling. Any contract for general building work can include any specialist work that is integral to the overall work, but such work must be carried out by the holder of an endorsed contractor licence or qualified supervisor certificate in the relevant category of specialist work. The current qualification and experience requirements, outlined below, commenced on 31 March 2017. 1. Certificate IV in Building and Construction (BCG40106 or CPC40108 Building or CPC40110 Building) or (BCG40206 or CPC40208 Contract Administration) or (BCG40306 or CPC40308 Estimating) or (BCG40506 or CPC40508 Site Management). This qualification is designed to meet the needs of builders and managers of small to medium-sized building businesses. The builder may also be the appropriately licensed person with responsibility under the relevant building licensing authority in the State or Territory. Builder licensing varies across States and Territories and additional requirements to attainment of this qualification may be required. Occupational titles may include Builder or Construction Manager. To find registered training organisations that are registered to deliver nationally recognised training to obtain qualifications for a building, trade or specialist licence or certificate, you can use the training.gov.au website and search via the course code or name.”
The directive is to the website of the federal government Department of Education & Training. If you use the search function for the ‘Certificate IV’ courses listed by Fair Trading as the compulsory qualification used to demonstrate capacity for a NSW building contractors licence, you will find around 145 ‘Registered Training Organisations’ (RTO’s) the government lists as providers of this course across Australia. Apart from university and TAFE providers, the majority are private sector providers. They are for profit businesses accredited by ‘ASQA’ – the ‘Australian Skills Quality Authority’ – which is the federal government agency established to oversee the VET sector. The equivalent bureaucracy for university course accreditation and compliance is the ‘Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency or ‘TEQSA’.
Our banking and financial industry sector recently underwent close scrutiny. Commissioner Hayne was critical of the two main regulatory bodies APRA and ASIC in their failure to effectively control this sector. It is delusional to think ASQA or TEQSA are capable of carrying out their roles to properly regulate VET and Tertiary educational standards. It is equally delusional to think that our separate mix of state and territory statutory authorities can ensure adequate regulatory standards for licensing and registration of building trades and construction professionals. The end results of this situation for consumers of building and construction projects is self-evident and I’m not just referring to the fiasco of combustible ACP’s.
Who would have possibly thought that in 2018 a newly completed 36 storey residential apartment building in Australia’s biggest city would need to be evacuated due to design and construction defects? Then I saw this today “Nine multi-storey Darwin buildings found to be non-compliant after investigation into engineer.”
Our industry is in a real crisis.
We need a Royal Commission.