Be careful what you wish for – comment by CEO Craig Robertson

Be careful what you wish for – comment by CEO Craig Robertson

A federal takeover of VET was raised again this week, fuelled by submissions to the Joyce Review. To be fair, the call is for national VET coordination, and for harmonisation of funding and regulation for higher education and VET. I argue, be careful what you wish for.

If the national takeover is under consideration, let’s explore the issues. That makes this piece a little longer this week.

Federations have a purpose. They put checks and balance on power. The lack of coordination is frustrating, infuriating even, but the down side of a unitary system can be deep.

Let’s imagine the future of VET funding was reliant on the current federal government. Despite VET’s critical role in generating skilled workers to keep Australia at the forefront of productivity, helping workers jump across adjusting industries and offering pathways for some to catch-up on lost education the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison government cut funding. Despite the obvious benefits to the Australian economy, it wavered. It’s not just this government. Malcolm Fraser, for example, squibbed on much of Myer Kangan’s recommendations.

Shared responsibility has its benefits. Observers of the sector would acknowledge that Victoria led the sector down the full-blown market pathway – but to its credit is showing other governments the way out. That TAFE (as the institution and as the representation of skills training) has featured as an issue in state elections has brought the issue to national prominence. That’s not necessarily guaranteed in a unitary system. I haven’t seen many first ministers criticise Senator Birmingham’s decision to cap funding on universities, for example.

If the VET takeover proposal were to proceed, two important principles of public policy would need to be reconciled – subsidiarity and community.

In the micro-economic playpen that has been the VET sector in recent years the notion of subsidiarity has been central. What is it? That best value in the supply and demand equation – the student and provider exchange – occurs at that level. Governments are notoriously bad, especially cloistered in Canberra, at dictating such decisions.

The whole point of the Bradley reforms was to move control from Canberra – or ‘Moscow on the Molonglo’ as it was once referred to – to higher education providers and students. It’s unfortunate that expanding access to Commonwealth Supported Places is unfinished Bradley business. With both sides of politics restricting demand-driven subsidy to universities, other higher education providers rely on student loans knowing when they offer this arrangement to students, they incur a 25 per cent loan fee. Despite this tax on choice and the clear intra-sector inequity the Government hasn’t budged.

Are proponents suggesting we move to the Moscow model? I’m sure they’re not. But when VET is so connected to jobs and industry and the question of regulation and public funding needs some arbitration, within and between sectors, then government planning and intervention surely follows.

Leaving one level of government to deal with the complexity needs some consideration. A tertiary commission has been suggested but let’s be clear, it still reports to a federal government and may rely on a federal Budget. Even though ANTA embodied industry and worked across governments, that didn’t stop a cock-a-hoop prime minister trading in his states-rights convictions to close it down in favour of centralised control.

And control is what we have. Exhibit 1 – VET Student Loans – the response to a laisse faire approach to VET FEE-HELP has resulted in control central. To put aside doubt over where it lies, the legislation enshrines all power on the Secretary of the Commonwealth department! Demand has plummeted and the Government refuses to budge, convinced its reform is working.

Community has been lost in the VET narrative. Thank goodness Community Colleges Australia reminds us of its importance. With extremes such as ours – from dense CBDs, sprawling suburbia, vibrant regions and acres of lonely scrub – we can’t afford to forget community. The Productivity Commission some years ago demonstrated that Australians are pretty-poor movers, even when there were high paying jobs available across the top of Australia.

With the economic transformation expected through digitisation and automation, the risk is even higher that communities without these capabilities, city and rural, will miss out. We have to accept that with the benefits that’ll flow through new technology, a necessary cost will need to be access to high grade tertiary education for all. Without this, communities are at risk of digital isolation and at risk of being left further behind.

Some may ask why the unitary funding and regulation approach works for universities. Universities are bestowed two key capabilities by governments – that’s right, subsidiarity and community. Subsidiarity is in the form of self-accrediting powers to adapt programs to meet local need and they are specifically commissioned under the Higher Education Provider standards to serve community.

For a national system to work, with balance across sectors, TAFEs and other capable providers need to be given these capabilities, otherwise students in inner Sydney, Broken Hill, Katherine and Bunbury are served the same course with little regard to local conditions, and service to community is put at risk.

Terry Moran is saying as much in his report on TAFE SA. South Australia is at risk of skills paralysis if the only options are served up from Canberra.

My point is that this is complex. The two sectors have been administered in the one Commonwealth Department for the last 15 years and the sense of cohesion seems even more distant.

What is the answer then? The first step is leadership! To the best of my knowledge, since the Hobart meeting of skills ministers in November 2015 there has not been a meeting of ministers where quorum has been reached. Higher Education policy resides in the Schools Council – go figure!

And does leadership rely solely on gifts from the public purse? No! Start with vision. Show a positive future and ministers will come, as will the sector(s).

While it’s tough for those who hold the VET sector dear to see the current malaise, there’s always hope. Our citizens can vote.

There’s a footnote. Apprenticeships and traineeships stand-out for national takeover. This formalised training arrangement, which is more work than training, should join with national workplace relations arrangements.

Labor says VET privatisation has gone too far

Federal opposition leader Bill Shorten has declared that the privatisation of vocational education has swung too far, and that a Labor government would redress the imbalance through new investment in TAFE.

Speaking in Sydney on Friday, Mr Shorten also dismissed overseas skilled migration as a solution to skills shortages.

“I don’t think that we should be getting people from overseas for a day longer than it takes to train in Australia to do a skills shortage. That’s why it’s very important to double down on TAFE.

“I think the pendulum of privatisation has swung too far to privatisation in the case of vocational training. And I certainly want to put public TAFE back at the centre of our plans to train the workforce of the future rather than just relying upon overseas guest labour,” he said.

He also signalled action to reverse the slide in apprenticeships over recent years.

“It’s a real concern that under this current government the number of apprentices has fallen so dramatically – north of 400,000 apprentices before this government came in, and now it’s under 300,000 – this is a disaster.”

He reiterated Labor’s commitment to pay the upfront fees, in the first three years, of 100,000 apprentices.

International education sector brings record $34bn

The value of Australia’s international education sector rose a solid 15% during 2018 to $34 billion, according to the latest ABS data international trade in goods and services.

The Minister for Education Dan Tehan said Australia hosted a record 690,000 international students in 2018 who paid tuition fees and spent money on living costs.

“Over decades of investment, hard work and the commitment of world-class scholars, teachers and administrators, Australia has established a global reputation as a leader in higher education,” Mr Tehan said.

He also urged more focus to attract international students to rural and regional areas.

“International students who study in regional Australia rate their living and learning experience higher than students based in metropolitan centres,” he said.

NSW Labor promises 600,000 free TAFE courses in election pledge 

The NSW Labor opposition has thrown a bold element into the NSW election campaign, with a promise to create 600,000 free TAFE places, if elected in March.

Opposition leader Michael Daley said the free courses would be in skill shortage areas including plumbing, electrical trades, disability, aged care and childcare in a 10-year plan that will be modified each year to fill skill gaps.

Students will be eligible for one fee-free course, starting in January 2020. The first four years of the plan have been costed at $65 million by the parliamentary budget office.

The commitment brings TAFE to centre stage in the knife edge election contest.

It would mark the end for the government’s Smart and Skilled program which is subsidising some 80,000 apprenticeships.

“This government is deliberately killing TAFE and we need to rescue it,” Michael Daley said.

“Free TAFE will not only help teach young people the skills they need but also offer older people who’ve lost their jobs the opportunity to retrain – and retrain free of charge.”

$2m in grants to boost Tasmanian apprenticeships

The Tasmanian government has announced a new $2m grants program aimed at boosting the number of apprentices by 40% by 2025.

The Growing Apprenticeships and Traineeships program will address both industry and region-specific barriers to apprentice and trainee growth.

It will provide up to $200,000 for projects delivered through bodies such as industry associations, regional associations, or through partnerships with individual businesses, training providers, group training organisations or apprenticeship network providers.

Applications close March 5.

More information and guidelines are available here.

Peak independent higher education lobby has a new identity

The peak body representing the independent higher education sector has a new name and identity – Independent Higher Education Australia (IHEA).

It replaces the former name, the Council of Private Higher Education (COPHE), and comes with a fresh look and feel.

Chief Executive Officer Simon Finn said the new name better reflects the positive contribution of independent higher education providers to Australian higher education.

“The new identity gives greater clarity to representative models within the sector and assists community awareness of the range of Australian higher education providers.

“We know that it will take a little while for our new identity to entrench. Almost two decades of representing independent providers resulted in wide recognition of our former name,” he said.

New resource for VET practitioners in the pipeline

NCVER’s VOCEDplus team is developing a new resource for VET practitioners, which is planned for release later this year.

This resource is aimed at supporting practitioners in their teaching and learning practice and research by providing a single online access point for content available in VOCEDplus, as well as links to a range of other resources.

Please share your thoughts about what should be included in this resource via this short survey, which is open until Friday March 1.

Diary Dates

VDC 2019 Teaching & Learning Conference
16 & 17 May 2019
RACV Torquay Resort, Great Ocean Road, Victoria
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2019 VET CEO Conference
Velg Training
17 May 2019
Doltone House – Sydney
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2019 EduTech
6-7 June 2019
International Convention Centre, Sydney
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22nd Annual Conference of the Australian Vocational Education and Training Research Association (AVETRA)
No future for old VET’: Researching for the training system/s of tomorrow
17-18 June 2019
Western Sydney University and University College, Parramatta, Sydney
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No Frills
28th National Vocational Education and Training Research Conference
10-12 July 2019
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QLD School VET Conference
Velg Training
9 August 2019
Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, Brisbane
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VTA 2019 State Conference
15 – 16 August 2019
RACV City Club, 501 Bourke Street, Melbourne
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TAFE Directors Australia 2019 Convention
4-6 September 2019
More information coming soon

2019 National VET Conference
Velg Training
12 &13 September 2019
Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, Brisbane
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Australian Training Awards
21 November 2019
Brisbane, Queensland
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