Firstly let me start by congratulating the team at mpconsulting as well as Ministers Cash and Irons for the Rapid Review of ASQA’s Regulatory Practices and Processes.
As someone who has called out the endless number of reviews and other major changes the VET sector has been through in the last two decades (the equivalent of one every fortnight, every year for 20 years) I was concerned and sceptical of “yet another review”. This was especially after the excellent Braithwaite and Joyce reviews had identified consistent problems in ASQA’s approach – and I felt action was needed to implement their recommendations, not another review.
I was wrong.
This review is an excellent piece of work which puts ‘flesh on the bones’ of Braithwaite’s and Joyce’s recommendations. That is – this report provides a “how to” for ASQA to address the earlier reviews’ recommendations.
And that is going to be a huge challenge for the CEO and her leadership team.
But before looking at what’s recommended and why – some context captured by the review team highlights the challenges ASQA faces in its external environment even before it tries to implement major internal cultural change.
Appendix 3 of the report states that “A number of stakeholders expressed concern that ASQA seems to ‘lack direction as to what its role is’. Submissions variously highlighted:
- that stakeholders have very different and wide-ranging expectations of ASQA and its role in engaging with and educating providers on how to meet their regulatory obligations
- the very different regard in which different stakeholders hold ASQA
- the diversity of the sector and the different needs and experiences of providers
- the challenges inherent in consistently regulating, engaging and communicating with a large and diverse sector
- the extent of concerns regarding the wider VET Quality Framework, many of which directly impact how ASQA performs its functions.”
And so to the recommendations – there are 24 in total and they span the following aspects of ASQA’s work and the changes the organisation will need to make:
Chapter 5: Moving from input and compliance controls to a focus on self-assurance and excellence in training outcomes
- Develop a shared understanding of what ‘quality’ and ‘outcomes’ look like, how these should be reflected in outcomes-focused standards and performance assessed by ASQA.
- Develop new standards in consultation with the sector, with a view to decreasing prescriptive detail and increasing the focus on quality training delivery and outcomes for students and employers.
- Develop resources to support providers to meet the standards including self-assessment tools to encourage continuous improvement.
- Adjust ASQA’s approach to performance monitoring in line with revised standards and a focus on provider self-assurance.
- Publish more information regarding provider performance to support students and employers to differentiate between providers.
- Realign ASQA’s cost recovery arrangements to reflect ASQA’s new approach to performance monitoring.
Chapter 6: Clarifying and modernising ASQA’s role and regulatory culture
- Build a common understanding of ASQA’s role and regulatory approach, what stakeholders can and cannot expect of ASQA and areas of shared stakeholder responsibility.
Chapter 7: Aligning governance arrangements with ASQA’s renewed focus
- Change ASQA’s organisational structure and focus to strengthen strategic oversight and managerial capacity to:
- support implementation of critical reforms (including in relation to engagement and education, performance assessment and proportionate response to non-compliance)
- support change management
- strengthen internal systems and quality controls.
- Establish an advisory council to improve access to high-level ongoing expert advice including in relation to ASQA’s strategic objectives and approach to regulation.
Chapter 8: Strengthening engagement and education
- Strengthen ASQA’s strategic stakeholder engagement and education, including to:
- build provider capacity for self-assurance
- co-design new regulatory tools with the sector (for example, to support self-assessment)
- identify common areas of non-compliance and develop consistent guidance for external stakeholders and for ASQA.
- Strengthen strategic engagement with SSON, IRCs and SSOs to establish a feedback loop regarding broader VET reform, training packages, their intent and their implementation by providers.
Chapter 9: Using intelligence to effectively monitor strategic risk and provider performance
- Expand ASQA’s post-market monitoring to include risk-based and routine monitoring to support public confidence in the regulation of the sector.
Chapter 10: Aligning audit practice to focus on self-assurance
- Review the provider self-assessment tool and the annual declaration on compliance, such that they better support providers to identify and address non-compliance and drive continuous improvement.
- Adopt a range of monitoring activities that can be selected based on risk and the purpose for monitoring, to better align regulatory effort to risk.
Chapter 11: Appropriate and proportionate regulatory action where non-compliance is identified
- More clearly distinguish the functions of monitoring provider performance and determining the most appropriate regulatory response where non-compliance is identified to improve consistency of audit outcomes and proportionality of regulatory response.
- Give providers opportunity to remedy any identified non-compliance within 20 working days, or in accordance with an undertaking to remedy (providing a longer period within which to address the non-compliance on a more systemic and sustained basis).
- Enhance opportunity to undertake early dispute resolution.
Chapter 12: Meaningful reporting on provider performance
- Revise the report that is given to providers following audit to more comprehensively describe any non-compliance as identified issues against the student-centred journey; reduce the amount of non-essential text; and distinguish between minor non-compliances or areas for improvement and more significant non-compliances.
- Notify government agencies of provider non-compliance after the provider has had the opportunity to respond to the audit report (except where there is significant and immediate risk to public funding, students or others as a result of the identified non-compliance).
- In the short term, build on the information ASQA publishes in respect of regulatory decisions to include the main reasons for the decision, so as to improve transparency of decision-making.
- In the long-term, publish a summary of ASQA’s findings regarding the provider’s performance against the standards.
Chapter 13: Supporting ASQA staff to deliver the outcomes
- Strengthen induction training for ASQA auditors and decision-makers, including to support consistent regulatory practice, decision-making and documentation.
- Implement a formal program for continuing professional development for ASQA auditors and decision-makers.
- Implement a program of internal quality assurance, including regular:
- opportunities for moderation of audit outcomes and decision-making
- internal review of audit reports and compliance outcomes.
Taken together what does it all mean?
The most noticeable differences for providers are likely to come in three areas:
- more education being offered by ASQA
- better audits, and
- more proportionate actions being taken off the back of much more informative audit reports.
Underpinning these changes will be major changes to how ASQA engages with the sector, not least the appointment of the Stakeholder Liaison Group to advise the ASQA CEO and the senior leadership team. It will also require significant changes to the way ASQA staff, most noticeably the audit teams, approach their work.
The size of the challenge for ASQA in managing the shift to a regulatory focus on provider self-assurance is evidenced in these comments in the report from stakeholders and ASQA staff when discussing ASQA’s role and approach:
“Confusion regarding ASQA’s role and regulatory posture was evidenced in discussions with ASQA staff, government agencies and submissions from a number of stakeholders who variously:
- expressed concern that an increased focus on education and engagement may equate to ASQA ‘going soft’ on poor performing providers
- queried whether ASQA’s key role is in quality assurance, education or investigation
- felt that ASQA should take into account the economic impact on the sector before making a regulatory decision
- felt that ASQA should adopt a different approach to providers delivering courses to overseas students because motivations for study were more closely aligned to short-term residency rather than the needs of Australian employers
- queried ASQA’s role, relative to others, in driving the quality of the VET sector
- mistakenly understood ASQA to play a lead role in determining policy and standard setting for the VET sector.
If you’re trying to understand what ASQA’s new audit reports might look like and how the focus on provider self-assurance might be presented – then it is worth looking at the approach taken by the New Zealand tertiary education regulator, the NZQA.
The NZQA’s audit approach and reports rate providers on two things (a) their educational performance and (b) their capability in self-assessment.
If you’re unfamiliar with these reports – you can read them for each one of NZ’s private VET providers here (and note that the NZQA audits every campus a provider operates). Click on the link for a provider and then scroll to the bottom of that provider’s page (and you’ll find the report as a pdf document under the heading External Quality Assurance).
Please don’t interpret my advice as saying ASQA will simply follow the NZQA’s approach. Clearly it won’t – I expect ASQA will work with providers and stakeholders in the sector here to determine the nature of their new approach and their reporting – but if you want to have some understanding of the kind of approach they will take then the NZQA reports are useful.
The NZQA’s audit reports describe the education the provider offers and how well (or not) they run their organisation. They are a straightforward read and allow an outsider an easy insight into a provider’s operations. They rate providers on two scales and then uses those ratings to assign them a category.
For example: the regulator is confident in the educational performance of Claire Field’s Training College and in the college’s self-assessment capability. On that basis it is rated as a Category 2 provider.
|Confident||Not Yet Confident||
|Not Yet Confident|
Category 1 and 2 providers are given incentives as a result of their performance, while Category 3 and 4 providers are sanctioned. Details on this aspect of the NZQA’s approach are here if you’re interested.
In conclusion – the mpconsulting report and the acceptance by the government of all of the report’s recommendations heralds an exciting time for VET regulation. A chance for a major step forward and a new way for ASQA to engage with the sector.
I wish them all the very best in their efforts to implement these important recommendations but do not for one minute think their task will be easy.
That said, everyone in the sector owes ASQA the chance to make these changes and to help them as they do so. We all stand to benefit (not least students and employers) if they can get this right. It is a mammoth task in front of them.