Vocational Education and Training

16 October 2019

I rise to speak on Australia's vocational education and training sector and the need to overhaul much of the way it operates. The VET sector is complex, with 4,200 registered training organisations delivering services to a massive 4.2 million students each year.

The current regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority, was established in 2011 with the aim of addressing concerns that were evident within the VET sector at the time and to provide a better national regulatory framework. Unfortunately, issues in the VET sector have not improved. In fact, they have worsened every year and the concerns evident prior to 2011 still remain unresolved.

Two of the main concerns that remain entrenched eight years later are inconsistent course duration and audit unpredictability. The impact of both is huge. It means that potentially many students each year have been receiving substandard learning from training providers, and that includes both TAFEs and private providers. Poor regulation and inconsistent course duration has led to many VET certificates being looked upon by some employers as having little or no value. Students of these courses are paying good money to study and to receive their VET certificates, only to find out when they try to secure employment that their certificate is worth nothing.

During the inquiry into the future of Australia's aged-care sector workforce, some aged-care training providers delivered certificate courses in as little as four weeks. This is despite the Australian Qualifications Framework guidelines setting a benchmark recommending one year as a minimum and up to two years as the appropriate course length for a certificate III qualification. As one witness told the inquiry, some courses were so worthless that students may as well have cut their qualifications from a Weet-Bix box. The inquiry heard that some employers would turn students away from placements because their entry level skills were so poor, and others actually ignored job applications from students who had graduated from particular RTOs, because they knew the course standards were so inadequate—again, four weeks for some and two years for others, for exactly the same certificate.

Unfortunately, students don't know this is going on. They have no idea. They think that, going to any provider, they're going to receive the same level of qualification and the same degree of study across the nation. They undertake their studies in good faith, hoping for a job at the end, and have absolutely no idea that their chosen training organisation has been effectively blackballed by potential employers. This is a bad investment not only for students but also for taxpayers, because the government is also funding many of these students to complete their VET studies.

Between 2013 and 2017, ASQA conducted seven strategic reviews, and all of these identified issues with course duration being too short. Aged care isn't the only industry facing these problems. It's endemic. A quick scan of the courses provided by registered providers clearly confirms the issues with course duration. For example, there are 92 providers offering the certificate III in early childhood education and care, yet the course duration for early childhood education and care varies from 19 weeks to 60 weeks, depending on the provider. How can there not be a difference in the standard of training that's offered between someone that does it in 19 weeks versus someone who does it in 60 weeks? How is it possible? In fact, only 34 of the 92 registered providers, or just over a third, are delivering the recommended minimum volume of learning, which is 52 weeks for a certificate III course—just over a third! ASQA's 2017 strategic review on course duration looked at 422 training package qualifications and found the majority of providers were not delivering courses which met the recommended minimum volume of learning.

Three recommendations were made by ASQA as a result of the 2017 review. The first was to provide a definition for the amount of supervised training. This was done, but it is still not very clear, as providers still continue to not fully understand the requirement. Next was a requirement for a mandatory amount of training, in particular for training packages in six sectors, including aged care, early childhood, security and construction and safety. This has not been implemented at all. Finally, RTOs were to provide a product disclosure statement—something that's very important for students—for all of their courses, which was to include the amount of training, the volume of training. The PDS was to be provided to students and also submitted to the Australian government's My Skills website for access by employers and potential students. Incredibly, this was also not implemented, and hence there is no register where all RTOs disclose the duration of their courses.

Another independent review was conducted in 2017 by Professor Braithwaite, and many of those recommendations have also not been implemented. Why are we spending money conducting all of these reviews when the recommendations are never actioned? The most recent independent review, conducted by the Hon. Steven Joyce, released in March 2019, made 63 recommendations, but I seriously wonder whether any of these will actually be implemented at all. The Joyce review made some great recommendations, and if all were implemented appropriately they'd make a great dent in repairing our damaged VET sector.

One concern is audit and audit inconsistencies that were previously raised in June 2017. How can an RTO have a course duration approved for 10 weeks by an auditor when the minimum AQF volume of learning is 52 weeks? Another RTO who tries to get the same course approved to be delivered over, say, 26 weeks but using another auditor might be found non-compliant, as they're not meeting the volume of learning that's required. These are crazy inconsistencies that cause financial grief to RTOs who want to do the right thing and be compliant. It just leads to a race to the bottom, when RTOs seeking to deliver courses over 52 weeks, for instance, try to compete with ones that are delivering courses in under 10 weeks.

This domino effect has been happening for the last 10 years in the VET sector and continues. Why is ASQA letting this continue? The domino effect is now so large that only drastic regulatory change will be able to stop it. What is ASQA doing to address audit and auditor inconsistencies? I'd like to share one example provided to me by an RTO consultant. The consultant was asked to validate learning and assessment resources, for an automotive qualification, for a new RTO registration. The consultant found large gaps in the resources and advised the RTO to either rectify the gaps or not use them. The RTO chose to ignore the consultant's advice and went ahead and presented those sources at audit. And guess what? The new RTO registration was approved. The consultant was then part of a re-registration audit that included the same qualification and resources for another RTO, and that RTO was found to be non-compliant as there were gaps in the resources.

Why is ASQA allowing this to happen? Shouldn't all RTOs be using the same learning and assessment resources for the same qualifications? Why is each RTO reinventing the wheel? ASQA should be conducting random audits of providers on a regular basis to ensure that they are implementing compliant training and that graduates are competent. There are other issues that I could get into, and there's a hell of a lot of detail that I have here, but we don't have the time to do this. But the fact that RTOs are only required to keep completed student assessment work for six months—even though RTOs get audited every five to seven years—is a very good example of where the problems are. RTOs should be required to keep electronic copies of all assessment work until they get audited.

Much needs to be done to lift the VET sector, and ASQA needs to step up to the plate. The question is: will this government make it happen?

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