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Strengthening the VET system to support disadvantaged Victorians Analysis

Strengthening the VET system to support disadvantaged Victorians

Victoria’s vocational education and training system has undergone significant changes over recent years which are having drastic effects on how well the system works for disadvantaged groups of people. Declining enrolments among disadvantaged groups, poor quality control, and significant funding shortfalls risk undermining the credibility of the system as a whole. The state government is conducting the VET Funding Review to determine the impact of these changes on the capacity of the system ability to meet the needs of industries and communities.

Vocational education provides an important pathway to employment and is an essential tool for tackling a range of barriers to workforce participation, including long-term unemployment, early school leaving, low literacy or numeracy skills, and the need to retrain or up-skill. VET has also provided a very important education pathway for Aboriginal students, students from rural and regional areas, and students from culturally diverse backgrounds. However, current VET funding levels, the recent decline in funding for TAFEs, the inadequate quality control of training and consumer protection of students, risks undermining  the credibility of the VET system and the capacity of the system to engage learners from population groups who face barriers to education, training and employment.

The VCOSS submission to the VET Funding Review outlines recommendations to ensure the VET system is accessible to those in our community who may face barriers to accessing vocational education, and for the VET system to provide a pathway to meaningful employment. The submission also discusses the specific future requirements of the community services and health sectors that will need to be served by the vocational education and training system.

Declining VET and TAFE enrolments

Current data reveals some declines in VET enrolments since 2012, particularly in relation to young people aged 15 to19 (including early school leavers), Aboriginal students and students in rural areas.[1] During this period there has also been a reduction in course enrolments for other vulnerable groups including students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and students with disability, particularly in relation to Certificate I and II levels which are important pathways into higher level courses.[2]

These reductions are influenced by a range of factors, however, the 2012 reforms to the VET funding system are likely to be a significant contributor due to: reducing the capacity of TAFEs to offer student support services, increasing course costs as a result of tightening eligibility requires for access to subsidies and the impact of cuts on VET delivery in rural and regional areas. These changes were compounded by state government funding cuts to the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) Coordinators in 2012 and the closure of a number of programs to support vulnerable young people’s education engagement and pathways to employment, including the federally funded Youth Connection program and a number of Victorian ‘work-ready’ programs.

VCOSS recommends that VET funding models are modified to reflect the additional costs of providing education to higher-needs students, including disengaged young people, young people who are not employed, students in rural and regional areas, students with disabilities, Aboriginal students and students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. This should be supported by targeted initiatives which improve enrolments and engagement of people who face barriers to accessing vocational education.

Pathway to employment

Unemployment and underemployment are growing issues for the Victorian community. The unemployment rate in Victoria increased from 4.9 per cent in June 2011 to 6.3 per cent as of February 2015.[3] Young people in Victoria are particularly affected and as of June 2014 the youth unemployment rate was at 13.9 per cent, up from 9.1 per cent in 2011.[4] Given the important role of VET in providing a pathway to meaningful employment, it is recommended that the VET funding review considers options for matching training opportunities to job opportunities and high growth industries. Consideration should be given to the needs of regional and rural learners where there may not be critical mass to offer financially viable training, however, there is a local demand for skilled employees in that area. Additional support for early school leavers and at-risk young people would further help to address this gap. For example, investing in a state wide re-engagement program to provide intensive case-managed support and funding Local Learning and Employment Networks above the $32m already committed to help develop innovative models to reengage young people and provide pathways into the VET system.

Importance of TAFE

The move to a market driven funding model has led to a substantial shift in the proportion of tax-payer funded, government subsidized enrolments away from TAFEs to private RTOs. This has resulted in a significant decline in the financial sustainability of the TAFE sector [5], some campus closures and a sizeable drop in staff numbers.[6] TAFEs play a key role in servicing ‘thin’ markets, engaging members of the community who face barriers to inclusion, providing a broad range of community supports such as library facilities, disability liaison officers, interpreters and counselling support, and improving core literary, language and numeracy skills of students. The important role and value of TAFEs should be recognised through reinstating loading that adequately reflect the greater costs of delivering training in the TAFE sector, such as infrastructure maintenance, IT and library resources, and to enable rural and regional students to access local TAFEs.

There have been concerns highlighted in the media and broader community about the provision of quality training from some for-profit RTOs, including subcontracting delivery, providing 100 per cent online delivery, and allowing students to complete qualifications in less than a quarter of the nominal duration. [7] Other issues include avoiding offering courses in skill shortage areas like the trades which are often expensive to provide and may be subject to more rigorous quality assurance. There have also been reports of unscrupulous practices for enrolling students, including signing up students to VET FEE Help loans they have little realistic prospect of repaying.  It is therefore important that the quality control and auditing process for the VET system is strengthened across all VET providers by placing strong emphasis on the accountability to stakeholders. Other options to strengthen the system include eliminating the use of subcontracting, restricting the role of ‘enrolment brokers’ and requiring RTOs to attract students to their courses through transparent provision of information. Placing a cap of 30 per cent on contestable funding would help to reserve funding for TAFEs and would help to stabilise the sector, while still providing sufficient competition in the sector.[8] This could be supported by a complaints mechanism to help report and deal with poor provider performance in the VET system. The system also needs to provide students with access to information and advice to make informed decisions about appropriate courses and providers.

Support the development of the community services workforce

The Community Services and Health Industry workforce is one of the fastest growing sectors in Australia. It plays a critical role not only in providing employment to Victorians and contributing to the economy but also creating a fairer society. However, there are a range of challenges faced by the community services sector in relation to workforce development, recruitment, funding and service provision which need to be met. Some of these challenges include: uncertainty about whether Australia will have the capacity to meet the increasing demand for health and community services workers, a need to ensure that the community services and health workforce has the right mix of skills and qualifications to meet demand and clients’ complex needs, and a continued need for qualifications and pathways that recognise common skills across similar sectors in community services and health. The restrictive nature of the current funding system, which promotes a linear qualification process has also been identified by the Victorian TAFE Association as posing particular problems for the community service workforce.

The review of the VET system can help to address some of these challenges by ensuring that VET funding models give adequate consideration to the community services workforce to enable it to meet increasing demand into the future and identifying opportunities for recognising common skills across similar sectors in the Community Services and Health Industry. Exemptions to subsided training could be introduced where there are clear benefits to a student in enrolling in a course at the same or lower qualification level, or where the exemption will strengthen the workforce and increase enrolments, including in the community services industry. To help the sector obtain quality graduates, community services and health courses should also be assisted to provide meaningful opportunities for student placement.

[1] Department of Education and Training Victoria, Victorian Training Market Report 2014. Melbourne, 2015.

[2] Department of Education and Training Victoria, Victorian Training Market Report 2014. Melbourne, 2015.

[3] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Force Australia, Cat. No. 6202.0, February 2015.

[4] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Force Australia, Cat. No. 6202.0, October 2014.

[5] Technical and Further Education Institutes: Results of the 2013 Audits. Victorian Auditor Generals Report. August 2014. 2014-15:1 p.vii

[6] The Victorian Public Sector Commission, The State of the Public Sector in Victoria 2013-14. Melbourne, 2015, p. 90.

[7] Yu, S & Oliver, D. The capture of Public Wealth by the for-profit VET sector: A report prepared for the Australian Education Union. The University of Sydney, Sydney, 2015, pp. 4-5.

[8] Yu, S & Oliver, D. op.cit. p. 43.