Representing quality private education
providers in Australia

Well then

Monday, February 26 2018

As a self-confessed policy junkie, it is fair to say the announcement last week by the ALP left me with very mixed emotions.

In case you missed it, the Labor Party announced a review of the tertiary sector should it be elected to government. This is important and is much needed. Our Board has been calling for a roots and branch review over the last year.

It is imperative that the Sector considers how to put VET and higher education on an equal footing.

The VET system’s challenges have been identified by both the Productivity Commission and the Australia 2030: Prosperity for Innovation Plan. Government funding for VET is in decline, enrolments dropping and you pretty much know the rest.  Addressing this decline must be a national priority.
What perplexes me though was not the ALP grabbing the higher ground, it was the rationale for this much needed review.
The announcement talked about the importance of putting TAFE and Universities on an equal footing and that the number of students attending TAFE has collapsed due to funding cuts and unhealthy competition from private providers accessing government subsidies. 

That was pretty much the only reference to private providers, who actually deliver around 60 per cent of all VET student enrolments nationally (2.5 million of 4.2 million enrolments in 2016) and about 90 per cent of international student VET enrolments.

If TAFE is losing funding, it is because students make choices and that States and Territories are pulling funding as fast as they can – that is what needs to be fixed.

I have always resisted a narrow view to reform and believe that we must ensure TAFE is able to meet the needs of the future economy. However, quality private providers play a critical role also and it is perhaps a reflection on the current state of politics that ideology and not evidence now drives such important topics.

Outside of the failures of government administration and regulation and the ethics of less than 20 providers, the evidence shows that the majority of public and private providers are delivering what is required. Private providers continue to enjoy student and employer satisfaction levels on par with TAFEs and yet are consigned to the bin as restricting student choice is now the main game.

The damage this failure in VFH scheme has done and the willingness of politics to exploit the failures does undermine the likelihood of future evidenced based public policy.

Australia needs a sector that empowers students to choose between well-functioning TAFEs and quality Independent providers and likewise in higher education, where Independent providers are growing their footprint despite their students being disadvantaged by a Government 25% tax. It is critical that the review harness the capacity of all providers to ensure Australia has a tertiary sector that can respond to the changes sweeping our economy and workforce.

Surely it is in no-one’s interests to create barriers for students, as that will also lock in inefficiency and declining outcomes.

Australian students, industry and the economy need greater innovation and flexibility - not less. Not a week goes by when there isn’t a report about the impact of the 4th Industrial Revolution, the Internet of Things and the vulnerability of so many of our existing jobs to restructuring or replacement.

So, what should the review focus on?
A more independent review might consider the key arrangements that ensure the tertiary education and training sector is best positioned to address the skill needs of students, industry and economy. The review should therefore consider, in particular:

  • Arrangements to support a stronger alignment of the VET and higher education sectors, with regard particularly to planning, needs assessment and coordination of delivery
  • Sustainable, coherent and affordable funding arrangements (for governments and students) that support the best choices for students and industry
  • Governance that provides clear lines of accountability for federal, state and territory governments and their agencies
  • Arrangements to drive, monitor and review reforms agreed by COAG.

Australia has much to be proud of in terms of its performance and expenditure on tertiary education and training. Of course, there is the debate in Australia about the merits of the relative contributions by students and governments given the higher proportionate contribution by students but, overall, a good position to be in. 

But in a world ‘without borders’ the skills and talent of our workforce is increasingly likely to be a key difference to Australia’s economic growth and prosperity. This is particularly the case as digital and other technologies continue to shape the skill needs of business and industry and of our young people and others seeking to pursue their career aspirations.

The need for VET sector reform has long been recognised. The Reform of the Federation initiative established under the Abbott Government included governance reform of the VET sector as one of its top priorities. But this opportunity for reform was lost with the shelving of the initiative. Proposals for the federal government to take over responsibility for the sector have also been rejected by some states and territories in light of the track record in managing VFH.

Put simply recent government program failures have tarnished a long and proud record of achievement.

The current shared responsibilities between states and territories and the federal government essentially means eight models for the governance and funding of the sector.  This is reflected in the growing differences between jurisdictions in priorities, funding and participation levels.

This decline can be seen in the very latest national data that shows government funded student numbers declined 5.3% in the period January-June 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. A trend that has continued for several years.

Without fundamental reform, the sector will continue to slide with increasingly erratic governance, policy and funding decisions driven by budget imperatives and a seemingly, at times, ambivalent commitment to VET. This will increasingly put at risk the ability of the sector to meet the needs of students, industry and its workforce and the longer-term capacity to contribute to the economic growth of the nation.

This at a time when the Productivity Commission and others have highlighted the important and complementary relationship between high-skilled jobs and new technology and the grounds for increased investment in skills development - particularly for those who are most at risk.
It’s time to act – but let’s act on the right principles.

Rod Camm
Chief Executive Officer


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