The popular BBC television series ‘Yes Minister’ examined the often toxic yet symbiotic relationship between politicians heading ministerial portfolios and public servant mandarins who managed them.

In many episodes, the permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby was the key protagonist to the various characters he would artfully manipulate. No doubt part of the show’s success was the perception that the theme and narrative of each episode were much closer to reality than many might care to admit. One of Sir Humphrey’s advisory ‘golden rules’ to the mere mortal politicians was to never hold any inquiry unless you knew in advance what the findings would be. They ignored this advice to their detriment.

On that note, I have recently read a copy of BN16/4889 addressed to the Clerk of the Parliaments and Legislative Councils concerning the Inquiry into Vocational Education and Training in NSW. I received it just as others would have if they had made submissions to the inquiry. The central theme of my own submission focused on the concerns regarding the delivery of training and assessment in building and construction related VET courses, particularly when that qualification was intrinsically linked to obtaining an occupational licence.

The rampant deregulation of the vocational education and training sector over the past few years has spawned many businesses operating as private training providers. This result is linked more to the decisions of federal governments rather than the states. However, the deleterious impact and provision of taxpayer funding via state sponsored subsidies and federally funded fee loan schemes are now well documented for the abject failure it has become.

PM Malcolm Turnbull once described the VET system in Australia as a ‘shambles.’ You can expect that the coalition must consider that the origin of this ‘shambles’ have Labor fingerprints all over it, and they are correct in this respect. The Gillard government, with the support of the unions, thought the way to argue for an increase in wages was to link that demand to more people having a post-school qualification. This was good in theory, but the consequences – as we can see – were ill-conceived. The current government must also carry the blame for having done nothing to proactively rectify the ‘shambles’ and are in any case highly unlikely to depart from demands of private enterprise and free market ideologies.

But here’s something to think about when it comes to an apolitical view of how the business operations of many private training providers deliver their particular products. Whilst highly effective at delivering the ‘qualification’ part, they are less than authentic in their delivery of any actual training and assessment.

Fairfax media carried the story of how a group of Chinese construction workers were flown to Australia under the China Australia Free Trade Agreement to work on a site in Melbourne. Visas can be approved within 24 hours provided they have a letter stating that the worker’s employment conditions satisfy Australian workplace standards and that the work activity won’t have adverse impacts on any Australian workers. Australia’s Work Health and Safety Regulations (WH&S) require that every worker on construction sites undertake an approved course of training in general construction work safety induction. This is commonly referred to within industry as ‘White Card’ training. This qualification was issued to the seven Chinese workers by a private training provider three days after their visas were approved.

The national standard of training for issuance of a ‘White Card’ that is recognised by our various state and territory safety authorities (such as WorkCover in NSW) is the AQF level 1 unit of competence titled CPCCOHS1001A Work safely in the construction industry. WorkCover NSW does not allow the provision of on-line training for delivery of this qualification. Ironically, they do have an agreement on mutual recognition of this same unit even if it was completed by on-line training delivery in other states.

Such is the ‘dead hand’ of our state bureaucracies and the shameful inability to extract meaningful collective actions from COAG when it comes to adopting national standards for occupational licensing!

Other construction workers on the building site noted the PPE items being used by the men looked like toys rather than being high quality, Australian Standards approved safety equipment. The non-English speaking Chinese workers had all managed to successfully undertake their online training course delivered in English. Enquiries to the training provider to help explain how a non-English speaking worker could understand the course content and then be able to successfully complete the assessment task revealed that there were many people who spoke Mandarin who could “translate” and that there was nothing to prevent these people from assisting the workers – and more. It was explained that someone who was bilingual could do the course, write down and hand out the correct answers to the assessment for the others to go online and complete their course.

This really should come as no surprise to anyone. Nearly four years ago the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) pledged to undertake a strategic review specifically targeted at the entry level occupational health and safety training course required to work on construction sites in Australia, commonly known as the White Card. They were concerned with the extreme laxity that is inherent in the application and use of online learning and assessment tools and the subsequent lack of validity of any such qualification being issued that relies upon online assessment.  Since 2012, nothing has really changed.

Whilst the reliability of the issuance of a single AQF level 1 unit CPCCOHS1001A Work safely in the construction industry leading to a ‘White Card’ occupational licence is a serious enough problem, imagine the ramifications where there are 15 or 30 separate ‘units of competence’ but they are at much higher AQF levels, being completed online with the support of ‘other persons.’ That is precisely what is currently allowed to happen. And the qualifications being issued by many private training providers are for the Certificate 3, Certificate 4, Diploma and Advanced Diploma qualifications which facilitate the issuance of trade and full building contractor licences. It is a pathetic situation that our federal and state governments and their statutory agencies should be taking real action on, and not simply having ineffectual ‘inquiries.’

Speaking of which, let’s return to BN16/4889. Two of the 25 recommendations and responses from that inquiry that touch on the above matters of the validity of online learning and assessment processes were:

Recommendation 9

That the NSW Government establish and enforce minimum face-to-face delivery hours for all courses subsidised under Smart and Skilled to ensure that there is adequate teaching time.

Response: Supported in principle.

Delivery requirements are set by industry as part of the development of national training packages. Specifications relating to training delivery modes (including the number of face-to-face hours) apply uniformly across states and territories. Delivery modes are considered as part of the NSW Government’s quality assurance process.

Recommendation 10

That the NSW Skills Board study the post-qualification outcomes of graduates of online courses, compared with graduates of face-to-face courses, to determine whether there is any variance in employment, income and participation in further vocational or tertiary education.

Response: Supported

The NSW Skills Board is considering commissioning research to examine the post qualification outcomes of VET graduates, including those undertaking online courses in the context of its future research agenda.

So let’s get this straight. The outcomes are that there might be some ‘in principle support’ for minimum standard of face-to-face delivery, but only for subsidised courses and this may not include the ‘face-to- face’ delivery of the critical assessment component. The other response recommends that ‘support’ is given to consider commissioning research of post-qualification outcomes of those who have used online courses to obtain their qualification. Talk about locking the door after the house is robbed!

It’s all too little and too late as far as any courses that allow an individual or organisation to legally advertise and offer their services to consumers as a professional ‘licensed’ builder. It exposes consumers to an unprecedented level of risk. Disgruntled home building consumers should consider organising a class action against government agencies for allowing this risk to perpetuate.

This situation could be rectified by the development and implementation of a high quality standardised, externally prepared and audited examination process as the single pathway to obtaining acceptable building licence credentials. This would require meaningful and purposeful actions that would place powerful lobby groups and industry mouthpieces at odds with the governments that they fund.

We must recall Sir Humphrey’s ‘golden rule’ in respect of running any inquiry. Never hold one unless you know what the results of the findings will be. It seems that advice was followed to the letter in respect of the recommendations emanating from the Inquiry into Vocational Education and Training in NSW.

‘Yes Minister’ indeed.