VET changes need a revamped ASQA

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7 November 2016

By Dr John Mitchell

The recent announcement that the Chief Commissioner for the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) would be replaced by a person who would “help restore confidence” in VET raises a number of issues, not least of which is whether ASQA, with its current powers and responsibilities, is capable of restoring confidence in a sector that is in unprecedented chaos.

The Federal Government has bitten the bullet and announced that the disaster which is VET FEE-HELP will be scrapped after 2016. Its replacement is being rushed into being in time for 2017, and Education Minister Simon Birmingham needs to ensure that the mistakes which allowed for-profit providers to rort the chaotic VET FEE-HELP scheme are not repeated.

That chaos is illustrated by the raft of scandalous revelations in the national media in the last few months about the large number of dodgy providers and exploited students. For instance, the Sydney Morning Herald (11 August 2016) reported that “more than 4,000 Victorian students have been forced to change courses following an unprecedented crackdown on dodgy providers”. This disruption to students is because the Victorian state government “has terminated the contracts of 18 providers, and is set to recoup up to $50 million from the scandal plagued sector”.

To have 18 RTOs in Victoria alone is a significant number. On top of that, a “further 16 providers are being monitored, five have been imposed with restrictions and four have received termination notices”. Running total: 43 RTOs. All credit to the Victorian government for this extensive purge.

In the same newspaper report, Victorian Training and Skills Minister Steve Herbert, using the expression now employed by the new Assistant Minister for Vocational Education and Skills, Karen Andrews, in announcing the recruitment process for the new ASQA chief commissioner, said he “wanted to restore confidence in the sector.

When she described the type of person she wants recruited as the new Chief Commissioner for ASQA, Minister Andrews, inferred, perhaps unwittingly, that to date ASQA has under-performed. She said: “A high performing ASQA is fundamental to a high quality, diverse VET system”. As if she views the incumbent commissioner with limited capabilities, she also said that the government would be looking for a candidate “with rigor and judgment, a background in regulation of quality, but not necessarily in VET. They will also have legislative experience and the energy to support wide-ranging reform”.

ASQA’s job will be harder if the Federal Government fails to set rigorous guidelines for how for-profit providers can access the new loans scheme. Providers must be required to provide actual training and have minimum hours set for courses.

Who is to blame, ASQA or others?

Is this yet another example of the Federal Government looking for someone to blame for a mess for which it doesn’t wish to take responsibility? Like the previous Minister, Senator Scott Ryan, in his discussion paper last April, blaming the federal Labor Party in 2012-13 and shonky providers for the massive blow-out in VET FEE-HELP debts, without highlighting that the federal government from 2014 onwards had lax methods for vetting providers seeking to offer VET FEE-HELP loans to prospective students.

Some of those lax methods were exposed by the ABC investigative reporter Paddy Manning earlier this year in two reports on the Radio National program Background Briefing. To the embarrassment of the Federal Government, Manning found that the Department for Education and Training did not visit RTOs requesting the ability to promote VET FEE-HELP loans to future students: the bureaucrats simply did a desk audit.

ASQA has not always been given the information it needs to do its job properly.

Manning found that the department did not pass on to ASQA which providers were signing up massive numbers of students for VET FEE-HELP; that is, ASQA was kept in the dark. Apparently the accidental source of this information was the ASQA Chief Commissioner in an interview with Manning, and, given how inept the Federal Government emerged from this anecdote, the Federal Government is probably pleased it will be appointing a replacement soon. Potential applicants, take note: don’t be open with the media.

At present, ASQA is limited in what it can do within the sector, mostly by the requirement that it seek to ensure the standards set out in the Standards for RTOs (2015).

Those standards are set so low that shonky individuals and companies are attracted to the sector. An example of how low the bar is set is that an RTO does not need an accountable educational officer; that is, anybody can own and operate an RTO, no educational knowledge required.

Compare this to the tight restrictions around universities, and you can begin to see how the rorting of VET FEE-HELP was not just predictable, but inevitable, regardless of what efforts ASQA might have made.

Arguably the major achievement of the current Chief Commissioner of ASQA, the widely respected Chris Robinson, was the production of a series of strategic reviews since 2013 on scandals related to training in the construction, security, equine, aged care and child care industries. Each of those reviews made a range of recommendations, particularly about reviewing related weaknesses in training packages. It appears that most of these recommendations have languished except for the current review being conducted into a major weakness of training packages, the issue of the duration of courses.

What can be done?

Clearly, ASQA has not had sufficient legal powers to investigate shonky providers, evidenced by the fact that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has moved into the sector and is taking exceptional legal action against providers that have rorted VET FEE-HELP. ASQA was not set up with the same legal muscle as the ACCC to investigate and prosecute criminal behavior.

Hence, if the Federal Government wants the new Chief Commissioner for ASQA to help restore confidence in VET, first the government needs to tighten the standards for RTOs that it authored. Second the Federal Government needs to improve its methods for approving and monitoring VET FEE-HELP providers. And third, most of its work will be in addressing the large number of recommendations from ASQA’s strategic reports since 2013.

Some of that work will be reviewing fundamental elements of training packages, a task that deserves input from educators, not just bureaucrats, advisers, lobbyists and donors to the Coalition.

Fourth, to restore confidence in the VET sector, the federal government needs to stop blaming others and commission a thorough, independent analysis of the flaws in the sector and fully respond to that analysis.

Even with VET FEE-HELP scrapped, we need to ensure that the review politely ignores the supporters of privatisation, whose blind faith in the market has got us into this mess.

Importantly, that review needs to investigate the major flaw in the sector’s recent history, that insufficient safeguards for students and inadequate requirements for new RTOs were put in place before governments recklessly started shifting funding from the public provider, TAFE, to the private sector. Governments around Australia from 2009 onwards should hang their heads in shame for this irresponsible and calamitous behaviour, although the present Victorian Government is to be commended for trying hardest to rectify past mistakes.

Some of the results of that sector review might be tighter standards for RTOs, stricter requirements for VET FEE-HELP providers, better framed training packages, tougher demands on private providers seeking public funds and increased powers for the regulator, ASQA. Hopefully, as one part of this improved framework for the VET sector, the new Chief Commissioner for ASQA will be set up for success, not blame.

Dr John Mitchell is a VET researcher and analyst. See www.jma.com.au.