It’s been a tumultuous year for Vocational Education and Training, or the VET sector, and we should reflect upon the serious implications and ramifications that may be damaging to the future of the Australian building and construction industry.

If VET were a racehorse, the track officials would have put the screens up with a real vet – as in veterinarian – mercifully delivering the coup de grace. It now seems that every other day, the media exposes another privately operated ‘Registered Training Provider’ (RTO) that masquerades as a tokenistic school, college or institute. Many have acted in a highly unscrupulous manner by peddling their training packages to persons who can’t realistically be expected to complete their course of study.

A common factor in most cases has been the offer of a ‘free’ laptop or tablet computer for prospective students who are willing to sign up. The excuse used by training providers to explain this generous legacy is that as their training content and assessment is delivered almost exclusively online, the device is merely an educational tool on loan to the student rather than being a lucrative incentive.

The federal government has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to such RTOs whilst incurring future liability of billions of dollars from the student loans scheme known as VET Fee Help. It was supposed to operate as HECS does in the higher education sector. However, highly disreputable VET merchants functioning as legitimate RTOs seized the opportunity to garner their upfront payments from the government, with little to no credibility as to the value of the training courses being offered or the likelihood that their students would ever be in a financial position to pay back their training debt.

It is a truly shambolic situation, which is the precise word chosen by Malcolm Turnbull to describe the VET scheme. Unfortunately, the PM’s rhetoric has not been matched by substantive actions with his education minister, Simon Birmingham, tinkering around the edges to stop obvious rorting of a highly flawed system. So how and why did it go so wrong and what are the specific implications for the building and construction sector?

Far more learned minds have been engaged on the first matter. Senate inquiries and hearings conducted at state and federal levels have either reported or are due to report – such as is the case with NSW – on their findings later this month. Let’s just hope that they have been well informed and won’t end up being a political point scoring exercise in blame shifting between the major parties, vested interest groups and ideological warriors. I won’t be holding my breath.

On the matter of future implications for the building and construction sector, I can offer the following observations from the coalface, so to speak. The deregulated VET environment has unsurprisingly generated a significant amount of interest from private RTOs who offer nationally recognised training in trade and post trade building and construction courses. This generally relates to Certificate 3 level trades through to Advanced Diploma courses. The principal focus is on the issuance of qualifications within the following:

  • CPC30111 Certificate III in Bricklaying
  • CPC30211 Certificate III in Carpentry
  • CPC40110 Certificate IV in Building and Construction
  • CPC50210 Diploma of Building and Construction
  • CPC60208 Advanced Diploma of Building and Construction

At first glance, the premise of allowing privately operated RTOs to deliver trade, technical and professional training within building and construction disciplines would be viewed as being more beneficial than maintaining a traditional model of our Technical and Further Education (TAFE) colleges and universities to exclusively deliver such training. It would theoretically increase the number of trained and qualified personnel feeding into our sector which can only be a good thing.

However, the complexity of introducing a market driven business model which naturally must be profit-focused that can also guarantee high quality educational training and valid, uniform assessment outcomes must be scrutinised before we can indulge in self congratulations and backslapping for being so clever to think of this as a great idea.

Current ‘policing’ of both private and public RTOs is undertaken by the federal agency ASQA, which has spectacularly failed in its capability to weed out even the most flagrant abusers operating in the VET sector. ASQA has only now become a little more active where the clients of poor quality training providers have made a formal complaint – or alternatively gone straight to the media – about a lack of course content and training support or when the media investigates another reported scam in the practices of RTO enrolment ‘brokers’ and their dodgy practices.

The clients of the many private RTOs who deliver construction trade and building qualifications nominated above are highly unlikely to make any complaints. They aren’t drawn to enrol with these particular training organisations because of the promise of a free laptop either. What they are strongly drawn to is the offer of obtaining a fast-tracked qualification, often in as little as 13 weeks. And that’s actually just 26 days, as the face to face ‘training’ component usually takes place on weekends.

There are several such organisations that are using high profile television and sports stars to heavily promote their training schemes. Universally, the delivery and assessment of a student’s competency is drastically shortened from what would normally be considered as an adequate training period due to the use of the process of Recognition of Prior Learning, ubiquitously titled as RPL.

Once again, as a conceptual idea, RPL is logical. Why train someone and then test them in a particular aspect of skill and knowledge when they already possess an adequate level of skill and knowledge? The big problem is of course the subjective nature and motivation of the person who is making that RPL judgement and the ‘evidence’ they rely upon to make it. When it is associated to a profit-centred business model linked to an organisational objective to process and issue qualifications to as many of their clients as quickly and easily as possible, then you have created the perfect storm conditions where there is a high probability of a serious conflict of interest arising.

Now if the course being offered was for hair dressing, then the worst consequence might result in that ‘qualified’ person giving you a bad haircut. No big problem. Wait a few weeks for your hair to grow back and then don’t go back to or recommend your old hairdresser to any of your friends! Market forces will dictate that they probably won’t be in business for too long.

But when the qualifications being issued by the RTO are intrinsically linked to obtaining and the issuance of a building contractor licence across the states and territories of Australia, then you are setting up a scenario for a catastrophic rise in the number of consumer complaints and an incremental rise in the risk to the health, safety and amenity of future building occupants and users. In this situation, it is the nation that is getting the bad haircut.

It’s time for Prime Minister Turnbull and his close colleague Premier Mike Baird to consider the ramifications of a failure to act to prevent the risk of a generation of ‘qualified’ builders who will leave a highway of defective construction problems and safety risks right across Australia’s built environment.

The PM would be wise to avoid the mistakes made by his predecessor with the so-called Pink Batts fiasco. Whenever a bucket load of government money and an entrepreneurial, market-driven approach is involved, shortcuts are invariably taken and the outcome will never be a good one.