The training bazaar

Sue Simpson
Research Officer

Private providers’ advertising campaigns reveal how education has become a “product”. Advertising blurbs for higher-level training courses that promise a dream job are hardly distinguishable from those for designer clothes that will make you stand out in the crowd. Negotiating your way around the offers, you are exposed to the glossy images of beautiful, successful careerists who have achieved their dreams of money and success courtesy of enrolling in a life-changing course.

NSW is scheduled to extend the tendering for government-funded courses from next year. Students wishing to enrol in Certificate I, II and III courses will effectively be given a voucher to use at the provider they choose. The marketing of high-cost diploma courses is made more attractive with VET FEE Help that lends itself to “study now pay later” advertising. But how can young school-leavers and other students know what lies behind the gloss?

A recent February promotion on the social media site www.livingsocial.com.au offered amidst its promotions for gifts and gadgets, cut-price business and management diplomas. Individual diplomas of business, management and HR were being offered for less than half the full price. You could also “surpass your career competition” with offers of double or triple diplomas in management, HR and business for less than the full price of just one diploma.

Going to the private provider’s website, the company’s code of practice states that it “operates in an ethical and open manner, and meets or exceeds applicable Australian Federal, State and local regulatory requirements. We constantly review our training products and services to ensure the highest educational standards. We are committed to maintaining a learning environment which is conducive to the success of all participants.”

Another private provider’s website was promoting its “Expand Your Career” Sale On NOW! — Invest in Your Future and Save up to $1500! Hurry! Ends February 28!

How are school-leavers and other students to know the real quality of the provision? With cut-price provision, what support could be provided to those with special and diverse learning needs? A recent report from the Australian Skills Quality Authority(ASQA) on the marketing and advertising practices of registered training organisations questioned the marketing practices of “up to a half of registered training organisations” as “potentially misleading to consumers”. Yet the federal minister responsible for vocational education and training, Ian MacFarlane, has stated in interviews that the sector is over-regulated.

Martin Riordan, CEO, TAFE Directors Australia, addressing a recent federal parliamentary hearing, suggested that public funds should not be provided to companies with questionable marketing practices: “If one is offering trips to Bali and otherwise to sign up and offering courses for nothing it is hardly appropriate to then receive public funds. One of our Melbourne members indicated that a college — which was a kind word for a shopfront down the road — was trying to offer a diploma in the shortest possible time for one-tenth of the real cost.”

TAFE as a public provider, accountable to the citizens of NSW through the NSW Parliament, should not have to compete in such a marketplace and should not be having its funds cut. TAFE is not just about individuals achieving their dreams but about building community capacity and assisting those individuals who need more support and encouragement to pursue their studies. As Greens MP John Kaye pointed out recently in parliament, TAFE is a public service, “a key ingredient in creating social justice in our community” rather than a business.

In 2012, the NSW government paid 8.7 per cent of total government recurrent funding to non-TAFE providers. Non-TAFE providers include secondary schools, other government providers, enterprises, private providers, community providers, industry and local government providers.

NSW was the state with the lowest proportion of government funds going to non-TAFE providers. The states that have already “freed” the market were very much higher, with Victoria at 41.3 per cent and South Australia at 24.5 per cent. Under Smart and Skilled, NSW students will have to make sure they can see through the advertising hype.