ACPET

Representing quality private education
providers in Australia

Edition 579, 10 November 2014

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In Focus

Monday, November 10 2014

Our sector is undoubtedly in the middle of one of the largest debates in our history.

The proposed higher education reforms, VET Fee Help growth, contestability and its variances and of course the general debate regarding quality are all creating a significant discussion about the merits of private tertiary education providers.

As you are aware, ACPET is strongly committed to a quality tertiary education sector.

We have met with key stakeholders to address the issue of poor quality and are committed to see such providers eliminated from the sector.  Poor outcomes are without question undermining the confidence in what our members actually do very well – educate students for the labour market.
I am very concerned that there is a risk that the quality debate fails to recognise that the sector is comprised of high quality colleges providing a much needed service. I have already visited some outstanding colleges with leading edge facilities. This end of our sector is not attracting the attention it deserves.

Both public and private institutions are required to meet the same quality standards.
The private sector has grown to meet the demand of individuals, industry and governments of all persuasions, which was not being met by the public sector.  They have also grown in an environment where governments of all persuasions have sought to establish a more efficient industry with a diminished reliance on government funding.

Student and broader industry choice is actually what drives the success of high quality providers, regardless of whether they are private or public.

Unfortunately, some supporters of the public provider network sight the growth of the private sector as evidence of unscrupulous activity. The fact is in all contestable markets across Australia, students are overwhelmingly selecting private providers over TAFE. I refute that, with the exception of the problems we are encountering at the margins of the industry, this is for any reason but that the student is making an informed choice in their own best interest.

Let us briefly reflect on the current policy debate:

Higher Education

The reforms currently before the senate have the chance to truly change Australia’s tertiary education landscape.

The introduction of competition can and will open up a plethora of opportunities for students in the education journey. High quality private colleges can offer highly flexible, innovative programs with real workplace outcomes well beyond what is available now.

However, the debate about whether the reforms should be accessible to the private sector is a short sighted one. Any notion of restricting access to public providers will completely miss the innovation that is possible from the reforms.

While I have been disappointed to see calls from the TAFE sector to restrict the reforms to their network, we can agree on one principle. That is that the bar to access should be clear and require being considered a lower risk by the regulators. That will impact on some public and private providers.

Real reform will come from competition and only this market pressure will ensure quality courses are made available, while keeping downward pressure on prices and student debt.

VET Fee Help

VET FEE HELP for private providers of VET courses was a response by government to assist students who chose the private sector providers to meet the cost of the courses in much the same way as it assisted students attending universities.  The success of VET FEE HELP should be welcomed as it reduces the burden on government and facilitates greater choice for students.

If it wasn’t for this program, skills development in this country would be in serious trouble, with state and territory governments reducing their expenditures in a much needed sector

VET FEE HELP has been extended to allow public TAFEs the same access as private providers.  Many TAFEs now access VET FEE HELP for their students for courses previously subsidised by the public sector. Public institutions have been given access to VET FEE HELP in recognition of the need for them to compete in the marketplace.

The debate cannot be about a simple analysis of funding growth.  It should be argued that the growth in VET FEE HELP is a good thing as it is seeing individuals investing more in their future with the help of the scheme. 

VET FEE-HELP is making higher-level VET qualifications available to students who may not otherwise have accessed the training. That is those who are unable to afford upfront fees. That means students who are not employed or who are disadvantaged in the labour market before training are more likely to access VET FEE-HELP than those employed before training. Those assisted through the program group may not have enrolled in a course without VET FEE-HELP.

The debate therefore should be about how to ensure quality and student support, not why they choose a particular provider.

Contestability

Many state governments have sought to introduce more competitive demand driven systems to ensure that students can obtain qualifications which meet the evolving needs of industry in a more cost effective manner than reliance on the traditional courses offered by TAFEs.  They have not excluded TAFEs from this competition.

The current reform agenda comes at a time of fiscal pressure across government. However, skills play a vital role in building the economy. The reforms have the opportunity to reduce costs, increase students and drive innovation to enhance both productivity and job outcomes.

There have however been some much publicised quality failures.

Unfortunately the Smart and Skilled Reforms in NSW have been a step back for vocational education and training. It’s a missed opportunity for NSW to grow the skills base despite the current fiscal environment. Some of our highest quality providers are still trying to just understand the logic behind the decision making process.

In summary though there does still remain much work to be done in the quality space. We are developing a draft code of conduct to help demonstrate that our members are the best of the best. I hope to begin sharing this in the weeks to come. It will not be about more red tape and regulation. It will be about committing to the principles that separate high quality from the rest.

There appears to be three threshold issues that we as an industry must confront. The roles and standard of brokers and third party delivery arrangements are seen as the areas of greatest quality risk for providers.

However, there also remains a nagging concern about courses that are shorter than desired which can incur student debt or attract government subsidy.

We must work together to get address these issues and get this right.

We do not wish to stifle innovation. We do wish to uphold quality.

Rod Camm
ACPET CEO


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