A media release was sent out earlier this year by the NSW opposition Shadow Minister for Skills, Prue Car MP, highlighting the risks to potential students seeking to enrol in vocational education and training courses in NSW.

It was an important message, but it needed to go much further. As unrelated as it might first appear, this issue should be ringing alarm bells in Minister for Better Regulation Matt Kean’s office.

Unfortunately, he seems most concerned about real estate agents who underquote their price guide figures to potential purchasers. This is of course the well-known tactic ostensibly used to attract more numbers to participate in the ‘bid it up’ theatrics of a Sydney house auction.

All the while, risks are accruing in the building construction sector when it comes to regulatory licencing and consumer protection.

In an ABC news report, Kean was quoted as saying he was ready to consider tougher penalties and giving inspectors greater powers to investigate real estate agents who were underquoting.

“I think we should look at all options,” he said. “We want to make sure shonky real estate agents are weeded out of the market and consumers get a fair deal.”

Now that’s a career challenge if ever one existed!

This may be worthy of the Minister’s attention, and Fair Trading has implemented measures to increase the level of training and qualifications required in licencing for the real estate sector. But the Minister, his office and the NSW government appear to be totally ignorant of the facts when dealing with the enormous consequential risks to the building construction industry and to home building consumers being generated by the disastrous outcomes of a massively deregulated vocational education and training market.

Car’s media message was titled Berejiklian Government Secrecy Jeopardises the Future of Thousands of Vocational Education Students. It focused on the privately operated registered training organisations (RTOs) offering courses and issuing Nationally Recognised Training Certificates and Diplomas within various skills categories that have lost their access to taxpayer funding through the NSW government’s ‘Smart and Skilled’ program.

Some of the reasons given for the removal of the government funding from these private colleges and training providers were:

  • failure to properly train and assess students with accordance with training package requirements
  • failure to provide compliant Training and Assessment Strategies
  • submitting training activity and receiving subsidies for learners where there was no evidence of commencement
  • non-compliance with record keeping requirements
  • failure to provide records and evidence upon request
  • providing incorrect information in the application
  • failure to meet Standards for RTOs

Despite finding sufficient evidence to discredit the integrity of these particular organisations’ ability to deliver reputable training and assessment, you should keep in mind that they can still legally operate to provide students with ‘training’ and issue them with a ‘qualification’ that must be recognised across Australia. The NSW government’s actions simply result in the decision not to pay them to do this anymore!

What’s equally worrying is that there are many more private RTOs that have not been disqualified from accessing training funds but have merely been ‘suspended.’ But the government refuses to identify those ones. The media release described the situation by stating:

“The Berejiklian-Barilaro Government is jeopardising the future of thousands of students by refusing to name the vocational education providers that have had their funding suspended after misconduct and quality control failures. The Government’s disdain for transparency has placed the thousands of people across NSW enrolling in new vocational education courses at risk of signing up to a course with a potentially dodgy provider. The Government is refusing to name the VET providers that have had their funding suspended and are under investigation. The refusal to name the providers comes after the Government fought vehemently against a NSW Labor campaign to reveal the names and the impact failed providers were having on students in NSW. Labor’s campaign of freedom of information requests and courtroom battles in the NSW Civil Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) finally forced the Government to reveal a list of the 11 terminated providers and the courses that were being targeted but was unable to force the release of the suspended providers.”

So what were the areas of training that were being delivered by the RTOs disqualified from access to the taxpayer funded scheme? Interestingly enough, very few delivered qualifications linked to any occupational licencing. They included:

  • Certificate III in Business Administration
  • Certificate III in Hospitality
  • Certificate III in Early Childhood Education and Care
  • Certificate III in Warehousing Operations
  • Certificate III in Driving Operations
  • Certificate III in Aged Care
  • Certificate III in Individual Support
  • Certificate III in Retail Operations
  • Certificate IV in Business
  • Certificate II in Hospitality

So a few dodgy providers caught operating at the lower end of the skills scale in delivering AQF level 2 & 3 qualifications within ‘hospitality’ are seen as a big risk? It may have the potential to ruin your day if you were given smashed avocado on burnt sourdough toast and your cold flat white was served by a highly ‘qualified’ but entirely unskilled waiter at your local café. Despite personal suffering, the world would still turn and you could just choose to switch to the café down the street for your next $25 breakfast.

The mediocre intervention to ensure high quality standards in terms of skills training and reliability of the qualifications issued to persons working to provide any type of service to consumers may be well intentioned. However, it really only plays at the margins of what is potentially a much greater and far more significant problem.

The media release then goes on to state:

“NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley announced Labor’s Private Provider Investigation Unit policy to help weed out shonky providers during his budget reply speech. The investigation unit would investigate dodgy training providers and ensure that taxpayer money is only given to reputable providers.”

The government and the opposition must take a proactive approach on this matter. However, the focus should be placed squarely on formal qualifications currently linked to the issuance of an occupational licence. Most particularly, the focus should be on those qualifications linked to the issuance of building contractor and construction trades licensing.

This is where those training providers that seek to compromise quality standards by implementation of various ‘fast track’ and ‘short cut’ systems to enable their participants to get their qualification quickly must not just be restricted from receiving taxpayer training subsidies. They need to be stamped out entirely. And this can only be done by government licensing agencies openly declaring that they will not be recognising such qualifications as being a reliable form of evidence of an applicant’s attainment of the requisite skills and knowledge necessary to obtain a licence.

The provision of a valid system of training and rigorous assessment standards by training providers are ultimately relied upon by our state agencies to authenticate a licence applicants’ skills and knowledge. The validity of those systems of training and the subsequent issuance of a nationally recognised qualification to persons who are seeking licenced accreditation within the building and construction sector must be the priority objective.

By having done little to nothing on this matter, the government has effectively placed future consumers of home building works and other construction services at the severe risk of signing up a contract with a ‘licenced’ building contractor or tradesperson who will actually have little to no idea of how to undertake the desired scope of works satisfactorily, in accordance with contractual requirements and in a fully compliant manner.

This disastrous consumer transaction won’t simply come with the risk of a disappointing $25 snack. It will most likely involve tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in disputed contract value together with the subsequent time and cost of chasing resolution through a tribunal decision.

The situation requires an immediate response from government to rectify the risks inherent to the building licencing regime.