The degradation of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector has come about thanks in no small part to the abundance of privately operated registered training providers who claim to be able to deliver nationally recognized qualifications within absurdly short time frames.

The common feature of many of these types of training providers is to be extremely generous in their facilitation of recognition of prior learning of their customers.

This practice effectively dispenses with time-consuming educational delivery and the application of any rigorous assessment process. The auditing of the validity of the use of such training methods is pathetically weak. ASQA, the federally funded body responsible for regulation and auditing, is meant to prevent ‘shonky’ VET business operations but has been largely left wringing its hands on the sidelines. Fortunately, the media has led the charge by lifting the lid on some of the most extreme operators of ‘carpetbagger’ VET schemes.

The question as to whether such ‘fast tracked’ course qualifications are worthless is to some extent irrelevant, although we taxpayers are committed to pick up the VET Fee Help loans that are accruing billions of dollars in future debt. The main dangers here are where these types of potentially fraudulently issued qualifications were then used to obtain state issued occupational licenses, particularly within the construction industry and specifically for the heavily advertised purposes of obtaining builder license accreditation.

It seems that we must have surely reached rock bottom in the fiasco that our vocational and higher education systems have been allowed to become at the hands of politicians in state and federal government. But once again it has been left to the media to reveal the widespread obfuscation and systemic decay of our university sector with the revelation that the ATAR admission system is routinely abused by schools looking to recruit as many students as possible into their undergraduate programs.

Most disturbingly, it would appear that many construction sector affiliated courses such as building, engineering and architecture are amongst some of the worst offenders. To demonstrate the poor quality standards functioning within the universities admission process, Fairfax media focused on the percentage of students who had not achieved the nominated ATAR scores but were nonetheless admitted into courses regardless of evidence of their capacity to undertake the course content.

The most disturbing data showed that 99 per cent of the 251 students admitted into the Bachelor of Construction Management degree program at Western Sydney University for 2016 have not achieved the required ATAR cut off score of 85 points.

We can have a separate discussion about the ATAR system and the value of what a secondary school education delivers in terms of someone completing year 12 and their capacity to move on to a chosen field of study. The point is, we have allowed a very serious problem to develop with respect to the diminished quality of our vocational and higher educational training. Not that long ago, Australia was fully entitled to boast of world-class quality standards from our graduates from our TAFE and university systems. Not anymore. That status has been severely compromised and leaders from both sides of politics, particularly within the educational portfolios, have been found to be less than adequate in their capacity to develop strategic actions to correct this situation.

The transcript below forms the basis for a conference paper that will be presented shortly. It was prepared by a colleague as part of a research paper. Whilst it is written in academic style, it looks at a disturbing situation currently impacting on the vocational education and training sector in NSW. It is not a pleasing portent for our future objectives, which should be focused on achieving the highest quality standards in our educational and training outcomes.

“After the NSW state election on 28 March 2015, the VET portfolio became the responsibility of the Minister for Regional Development and Skills, John Barilaro. This was the first time since the inception of state-subsidised technical education in NSW in 1883 that technical education has not been part of the Education portfolio. In a number of interviews, the Minister showed a lack of understanding of policy and issues relating to the VET sector, and in particular the challenges currently confronting TAFE NSW. Here are a few examples:

1. Contestability
On 22 April 2015, the Minister claimed that he did not support 100 per cent contestation for VET as TAFE NSW could not compete against the private providers because TAFE’s infrastructure and salary costs would not allow it to be competitive:

[TAFE] might be able to [be competitive] in 10 years, but [it] can’t now. While I hesitate to use the word, a degree of protectionism may be in order so we don’t put a valuable public asset at risk (Ross, 2015).

The Minister is incognisant of his own government’s 2013 policies on TAFE contestability:

Under Smart and Skilled reforms, funding to support student entitlements will be subject to contestability…TAFE NSW Institutes will be expected to compete with approved private and community training providers for entitlement funding (TAFENSW, 2013, 7).

TAFE institutes will tender for student places in competition with commercial providers…TAFE institutes will be required to operate on a more autonomously commercial basis (Wilkinson, 2014, 19).

There is a huge amount of funding invested through TAFE and government has a responsibility to ensure that it gets the best value for every dollar it spends. In many cases TAFE will be the most appropriate provider, but other times a private RTO will be the best option. In the Coalition’s view, opening the sector up to the market will provide efficiencies, innovation and dynamism, which will benefit all stakeholders  (APO, 2014, 43).

On 1 October 2015 the Minister claimed that:

TAFE would struggle if the federal government obtained jurisdiction over vocational education and implemented a fully competitive market (Coulton, 2015, 1).

After being appointed Minister for Skills in April 2015, the Minister is still not aware that the NSW government’s policy for TAFE is that of full contestation. He also claimed that:

…each provider had to charge the same fee and compete on quality (Coulton, 2015, 1).

The Minister is clueless. He claims that all RTOs charge the same fees. Private providers charge low fees and counterpoise this practice by appreciably reducing face-to-face tuition time and/or employ 100 per cent on-line tuition. TAFE NSW institutes have also been in commercial competition against each other, since the 1990s, and in competition against the private providers. The Minister should be aware of this. In July 2015, the Diploma of Building Design course was being offered at Granville College (South Western Sydney Institute) for $2,000/year and for $8,500/year at Ultimo College (Sydney institute). The Smart and Skilled website lists the full fee (where there is no government-sponsored place available) for the Diploma of Building Design course for 2016 as

$7,135/year. Sydney Institute is charging $9,990/year in 2016. The Minister has no inkling of what fees his own TAFE institutes are charging, let alone what private providers are charging. He appears to be “getting quite desperate. Every week the spin changes and the blame shifts” (Kaye, 2015, 1), while not realising that he is inadvertently complaining about his own government’s policies.

2. Smart and Skilled
Between 2012 and 2015 enrolments in TAFE NSW have declined by 83,000. There were 30,000 fewer student enrolments at the start of 2015 (Smith and Needham, 2015). On 24 June 2015 the Minister claimed that:

Enrolments in diploma courses in TAFE NSW will rise by 10,000 in 2015. This increase in higher-level qualifications is a direct result of industry demand. The NSW Government’s policy is to invest in qualifications that directly leads to jobs (Smith and Needham, 2015, 1).

The Minister is heedless and uninformed of the current enrolment numbers in TAFE NSW. He made the above statement in June 2015 when all indicators showed a significant reduction in enrolments in Diploma courses in TAFE NSW. Enrolments declined appreciably in 2015 due to the introduction of the Smart and Skilled policy initiatives, where certain course fees increased over 500 per cent. In the Faculty of the Built Environment and Transport at Sydney Institute enrolments dropped from 8,699 in 2013 to approximately 4,000 in 2015. The exact figures are not available due to the failure of the LMBR computer system.”

For the Minister to posit on facts and comment upon issues relating to his own portfolio when he has no concept of what he is espousing is of serious concern for the future of TAFE NSW and the VET sector.