Does Our VET Sector Come from the Shallow End of the Pool? 2

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Wednesday, March 16th, 2016
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The governing body for world swimming requires that an Olympic-sized pool have eight lanes and be exactly 50 metres in length, but they also recognise pools that are only 25 metres long.

Records set in ‘short course’ pools are kept separate from those set in official 50-metre pools because it may be advantageous for swimmers to have more or fewer turns in a race. This differentiates a swimmer’s qualification time obtained in long and short course pools.

So what’s all this got to do with the building and construction industry, you might well ask? It’s all about the importance of using reliable metrics to measure performance outcomes. In any business, be it sport, education or the construction industry, metrics means the use of reliable quantifiable measures to track and assess the status of a specific process.

There’s a well known put-down when describing a person who displays limited intellectual capacity within a particular field. It is to suggest they come from ‘the shallow end of the pool.’

Unfortunately, Australia’s educational system, institutions and government policy seem to have aligned over the last few years to make our pool very shallow and a lot shorter.

A recent report revealed disturbing data showing that 99 per cent of the 251 students admitted into the Bachelor of Construction Management degree program at Western Sydney University for 2016 had not achieved the required minimum ATAR cut off score of 85 points. WSU is not alone. Most universities were shown to have similarly ignored ATAR results in their scramble to sign up as many students as possible. This has occurred across most educational faculties, although the construction sector affiliated courses in building, engineering and architecture were amongst some of the worst offenders.

The picture gets worse still within the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector. Qualifications issued by VET providers generally range from the Certificate to Advanced Diploma levels. Some have incorporated undergraduate and even post graduate offerings but these are in the minority.

The reputation of VET qualifications has been ravaged right across Australia. This has been precipitated by the expanse of private training providers sourcing government funding to run courses. The model relies on maximising student numbers to generate more revenue. The quicker the churn of students being issued a qualification, the better the revenue flow.

There have been several highly unscrupulous operators identified who use commission-based agents or training brokers to sign up as many people as possible. Belated attempts to stop this practice are yet to have any substantial affect. The VET fee help debacle and accumulating debt burden is really a reflection on what our universities are doing in terms of offering uncapped student numbers and accumulating HECS debt, although there is a greater likelihood that graduates (in some disciplines more so than others) will likely gain employment and earn enough to actually pay back their study fees.

But back to metrics and measuring apples with apples. One of the major problems with our free market approach to education and training specifically aligned to the VET sector is the rampant use of ‘Recognition of Prior Learning.’ It is a sound theory to be able to grant ‘exemptions’ to persons who have acquired and can demonstrate sufficient levels skill and knowledge within a particular aspect of a formal training regime, but it is also very susceptible to become a highly subjective process and manipulation of positive outcomes for students easily facilitated if the training provider is inclined to do so.

Have a look at some promotional materials associated with gaining a ‘Certificate IV’ level qualification in ‘Building’ and remember, this is the base qualification necessary for licensing purposes in NSW and other states:

  • Step 1 – Online registration
  • Step 2 – Participate in assessment
  • Step 3 – Receive result and certification

Or this one:

  1. Complete the three-minute online registration form or register over the phone
  2. Participate in a three-hour assessment (conversation and practice) with our assessor on site
  3. Get certified within two weeks of successfully completing your assessment

The oversight and auditing of the Australian VET sector is supposed to be carried out by ASQA. They have demonstrated that they have been largely ineffectual in carrying out this duty. There is no evidence to suggest that any private training provider that is able to maintain registration as an RTO is inappropriately ‘fast-tracking’ students through to a completed qualification based on accepted evidence of RPL.

But if you Google ‘Builders licensing course NSW’ you will come up with around 470,000 hits. If you scroll through the number of private training providers that are specifically offering Certificate III trade and Certificate IV post-trade building qualifications for licensing purposes that focus heavily on the application of an RPL process to award these qualifications, you might rightly consider this to be an area of extreme concern for government and its builder licensing agencies.

Back to swimming pools and perhaps the tenuous link of making sure properly qualified builders (and politicians too) at least know how to read a tape measure. There’s a great story from 2015 of the then Federal Treasurer, Joe Hockey, announcing $4.5 million of taxpayers’ money to be spent on renovating an existing pool that was said to be 500 millimetres short of the Olympic standard.

Hockey told reporters it was “kind of extraordinary” that the pool was only 49.5 metres long and that his government would bring it up to Olympic standard. Unfortunately for the ex-treasurer, it soon became clear that the pool’s problem might actually have been that it was too long! It was constructed in 1960 to the imperial measurements of 55 yards in length, the standard size of competitive swimming pools of that era. This meant that it was really 50.3 metres, or 300 millimetres too long.

“I’m very pleased to be here with the elected representatives of City of Darwin to make a 50-metre pool, 50 metres,” he was later quoted as saying. “It’s kind of extraordinary that it’s 49.5 metres but of course, being a capital city you should have an Olympic approved pool, and that means that your swimmers have the chance to compete with the rest of the world.”

We are all aware that “Smokin’ Joe” has since gone on to a bigger and better things in public service as our ambassador in New York and we have a new leader and leadership team supposedly steering Australia. But if we really want to “have the chance to compete with the rest of the world,” then we need to stop the rampant shortening of the qualification standards pool and stop drawing our future building and construction industry graduates from the shallowest end of a very short pool.

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  1. Derek Bailey

    Though there will be many who will knock your commentary for some interpretation's on the whole the article resonated with me.
    Even with the race to the bottom that the free market approach has created for VET education in Australia another part of the problem is that many candidates exhibit some lesser aptitude to deal with the language, literacy and especially the numeracy requirements of Australian Qualifications Framework Level Three or "Certificate 3" course which is used to benchmark trade persons to achieve qualified competency.
    Note that these candidates have completed Year 12 and so have as a minimum 12 years of schooling and plus in many cases.
    But yet they experience difficulty in meeting the requirements of a training package's LLN rating as benchmarked using the Foundations Skills Framework.
    There are reviews of the state of Australian VET occurring now and others in the pipeline.
    But none of the reviews address the issue of the raw material coming into the VET system.
    After nearly 50 years as a tradesperson and many in industry training and latterly in the public RTO system then "Blind Freddy" can see how much is not taught/trained/assessed at the Cert 3 level compared to earlier times.
    If the curricula of the late 1980's was reintroduced then the attrition rates in trades would really nosedive from the average 55% in todays figures.
    The whole of the educational system requires an integrated review and not concentrating on the siloed streams of school, further education and higher education.

    • Brett Bates

      Thanks Derek. I don't have any qualms about trying to highlight this as a significant problem for Australia's built environment. Governments of both the major parties at federal and state levels are equally culpable in the drastic reductions to the quality of building graduates with a trade, vocational or degree qualifications.
      Anyone who thinks that pushing as many people as possible through second rate 'Diploma Factories' as is the current practice results in a positive outcome is kidding themselves or shareholders in those colleges. The subsequent avalanche of defective building disasters that will be delivered by these 'qualified' and 'licensed' individuals will sure keep the tribunals and courts very busy. I eagerly await the first instance of a disgruntled building or home owner engaging a spirited law firm to sue the government for facilitating such inadequate training and then licensing the problem!