It’s time to press the re-set button on Australia’s failed experiment with VET marketisation – and start educating for the future. JUSTIN BOWD reports.
It’s been many years since Professor Leesa Wheelahan first warned of the perils of the marketisation of our vocational education and training (VET) sector. Now, the Canadian-based academic is describing the consequences of her unheeded warnings, declaring that it is time to fundamentally reassess current ‘social settlements’ regarding VET provision in Australia.
Professor Wheelahan delivered her ‘VET in Crisis’ presentation to a capacity audience at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education in March, at the invitation of the John Cain Foundation. She is a longstanding critic of moves by Australian state and federal governments to introduce and promote contestable funding models for VET – that is, forcing TAFE to compete with private providers for public subsidies.
With the current funding accompanying the government’s National Partnership on Skills Reform program set to expire this year, now is a good time to hit the re-set button on Australia’s failed experiment with VET marketisation, she argued.
According to Wheelahan, central to VET’s current malaise is ‘atomisation’: that is, the atomisation of content under competency-based training (CBT), and a consequential explosion in the number of VET products and providers “all designed to serve a fragmented market based on exchanges between … distinct, rational, self-maximising individuals”.
This fragmentation of VET has resulted in the transfer of large amounts of public funding to the private sector and the erosion of the institutional capacity of TAFE.
Wheelahan’s central thesis is that CBT has facilitated the marketisation of VET. On the one hand, CBT was supposed to synchronise qualification standards and portability between states. It has, however, also reduced VET content to narrowly task-specific training products that are available ‘off the shelf’ to providers and employers.
VET expert Ken Wiltshire recently described this approach as treating VET graduates like “industry fodder”. It has resulted in a rapid growth in the number of qualifications eligible for government funding (currently 1,076 in Victoria), a large proportion of which have very few, if any, enrolments.
This inefficiency is compounded by the fact that, in 2016, only 33% of VET graduates were in jobs actually associated with their qualification. Wheelahan argues that “by tying learning to specific workplace roles, tasks and requirements, as they currently exist, training packages … don’t prepare students for the future.”
In other words, competency-based training is precisely the wrong approach to VET in an environment where economies and industries can change
One objective of the introduction of CBT was to facilitate a national training ‘market’. As Wheelahan says, “CBT plays a key role in a training market in allowing employers and other ‘customers’ to ‘purchase’ the specific skills that they want.”
The goals of contestable funding were to control costs through competition; guarantee quality; and discipline public providers, particularly in an industrial context. It is now clear that competition and the market approach has failed in all but the last of these goals.
Arguably the worst outcome of this policy has been the decimation of TAFE. The share of public funding for TAFE has plummeted – especially in Victoria, where it has dropped from 78% in 2009 to just 36% in 2015.
The resulting loss of staff and the casualisation of the TAFE workforce has wrought particular damage to the institutional capacity of TAFE. According to the Victorian Public Sector Commission, only 44% of the state’s TAFE workforce was employed on an ongoing basis in June 2016, compared to 60% in 2012.
Wheelahan’s proposed solution is a thorough reshaping of the VET environment. Up front, this would mean introducing more education and training programs that support general capabilities, as opposed to training students to develop a narrow set of competencies.
As the public provider, TAFE is best placed to play a central role in developing the kinds of skills that our job market needs – and any clever, forward-thinking government would ensure that it is properly supported to do so.