VET market can't run free, Senate inquiry finds

Kerri Carr

Senate committee urges caution in free-market VET

While the NSW Upper House inquiry into vocational educational and training has declined to call for an overall cap on the level of contestable government funding it has acknowledged the market cannot be seen to run free, Federation Deputy Secretary (Post Schools) Maxine Sharkey said.

The General Purpose Standing Committee has called on the NSW Government to modify funding arrangements under Smart and Skilled to limit contestability for regional, rural and remote areas.

The inquiry’s report, released in December, says the Standing Committee “received compelling evidence that the contestable training market under Smart and Skilled is not working for regional, rural and remote communities”.

“The mechanisms the government has introduced to offset the impact of contestability in these ‘thin markets’ have been insufficient,” the report says.

“While the regional and remote loadings may go some way to assisting non-TAFE providers to meet the additional costs of delivering training in thin markets, realistically TAFE NSW will always be the main player, and in some cases the only player, offering vocational education and training in these areas. Community Service Obligation funding, which is currently non-contestable and goes directly to TAFE NSW, is therefore critical in ensuring that this important service can continue to be delivered to students. Nothing less than the long-term sustainability of regional, rural and remote communities is at stake.”

Ms Sharkey said: “If the market is failing in the country, the market is failing.”

She called on NSW Skills Minister John Barilaro to ensure direct funding to TAFE to keep the system sustainable.

Federation President Maurie Mulheron said: “The level of funding that is now contestable is growing exponentially each year and has led to huge inequalities, rising student debt and the loss of course provision.”

“The inquiry recognised this but only recommended weak protections for some isolated rural and remote areas. This leaves students in Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong and in regional centres at the mercy of the market,” he said.

“The NSW Teachers Federation will continue to campaign for funding to be restored to TAFE and for young people to be protected from the unscrupulous private college owners that merely sees them as cash cows rather than students.”

The Standing Committee also urged the Government to “exercise caution and restraint to avoid the mistakes of other jurisdictions” when considering whether to increase the overall level of contestability.

Face-to-face

The committee was “deeply troubled at the reduction in face-to-face delivery hours, including for courses involving high safety risks such as electro-technology”.

“We are particularly concerned at the impact that a reduction in course delivery hours will have on the quality of the education provided by TAFE, and TAFE’s ability to satisfy the learning expectations of students and employers,” the report states.

“The committee urges the government to establish and enforce minimum face-to-face delivery hours for all courses subsidised under Smart and Skilled to ensure there is adequate teaching time,” the report also states.

Ms Sharkey said apprentices need time spent in the classroom, with a qualified teacher, because otherwise they cannot find the time in their already crowded day to reinforce the concepts that are important for their trade.

Qualifications pricing

Concerns that the amounts being paid by government to training providers to deliver qualifications are too low to cover the costs of delivering courses should be taken into account by the NSW Skills Board’s review into Smart and Skilled, the Standing Committee recommends. It also recommends the NSW Skills Board undertake further research and modelling on this qualifications pricing.

Ms Sharkey said TAFE is struggling to maintain wrap-around services like disability support and literacy and numeracy support without additional funding.

TAFE facilities

The committee suggested TAFE should allow other providers to use its facilities for a commercial fee “subject of course to rigorous safety precautions and guaranteed secure access by TAFE to its buildings and facilities”.

Ms Sharkey said there are dangers for TAFE with this strategy. She said some students could be led to believe they are being taught by TAFE teachers when they are not and that TAFE-owned equipment might become damaged.

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