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Debate heats up on VET future

Monday, February 22 2016

The debate around the future directions for the VET sector gained momentum this week with both the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) and the Australian Industry Group (AIG) making considerable contributions that were reported in the national media. With a Federation reform white paper outlining proposals for the future governance of VET due later this year, it’s important there is a wide ranging debate to help inform the important decisions governments will need to make.

Its pleasing to see that industry is contributing its views as the needs of business across the country are a key consideration that must inform the future of the sector.  With the need to lift workforce innovation and productivity to boost economic growth, it is fundamental that the VET sector is fit-for-purpose.

A lot of recent commentary has focused on the merits of a federal government ‘takeover’. Of course, the failings of the VET FEE-HELP program certainly are not helping the case for states and territories to transfer their VET responsibilities.  There is a risk, however, that an argument over who’s to blame for past failings gets in the way of a debate about ensuring a VET sector that is responsive to the needs of industry and students.

It was also pleasing, then, to see the reported comments from the new federal Minister for Vocational Education and Skills, Senator Scott Ryan, that he has a focus on student outcomes and recognises the sector is working for many students and industry. The vast majority of providers, public and private, who are delivering quality training that meets the needs of their students and industry will welcome these comments.
While there have been some fundamental flaws with VET FEE-HELP, they shouldn’t cloud the need for real reform of the sector, including the public funding arrangements.  As ACCI and AIG both noted the sector is beset by multiple and inconsistent funding and associated administrative regimes.

The approach (and very mixed results) of states and territories in implementing a student entitlement highlight these inconsistencies and also that the Commonwealth doesn’t have a monopoly on poor program design and implementation.

So while the debate about the competence to ‘run’ VET is important, so too is the need to address the long-term failure by governments to adequately invest in the sector which is now being reflected in the program and funding inconsistencies and quality concerns we are now witnessing.

This failure to invest was clearly identified by the Productivity Commission in its Report on Government Services 2016 that was released two weeks ago. This report highlights that real government expenditure per annual hour has declined 31.5 per cent over the 10 years to 2014. This expenditure squeeze was also highlighted in the analysis undertaken by Peter Noonan and colleagues at the Mitchell Institute which found that total expenditure increased by 5 per cent over the decade to 2013-14 (higher education funding was up about 40 per cent). At the same time the workforce had grown by more than 20 per cent.

Consideration of how best to ensure sustainable public funding, then, must also be part of the debate about the future of the sector. Of course, there needs to be resolution of the tangled governance arrangements and the quality concerns we have witnessed recently but without addressing the funding issues that are driving so many of the recent concerns identified by AIG and ACCI not much may change.

Rod Camm


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