Three related VET issues have been on my radar recently – leaving me to wonder if Skills Ministers, in their negotiations to finalise the new National Skills Agreement, can thread the needle and solve what appear to be becoming significant hurdles for VET providers needing to keep their content and delivery relevant for the changing world of work?
The issues are:
- Whether current government-funding arrangements for VET are sufficient for the high cost of new equipment and materials that providers need to keep their training current?
- What role industry can and should play in providing access to the latest equipment for training purposes?
- Whether current funding mechanisms are suitable for delivering specialist training to small numbers of people each year in vital occupations?
New equipment and material costs
One of the frequent frustrations leaders in the former Skills Service Organisations and now Jobs and Skills Councils have raised with me in recent years has been the number of training package changes which are given an extended transition date by ASQA. After all – if there are criticisms to be made of how slow the processes are to agree on changes to Training Packages – why would it be a good thing for providers to be given more than 12 months after non-equivalent qualifications are introduced to get them added to scope and students enrolled in them?
The answer of course is that it is not a good thing – but it is understandable if providers have not been funded to purchase the specific new equipment or materials needed to deliver the course.
One senior VET figure recently suggested to me that it costs his TAFE Institute hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy new equipment and materials when new/non-equivalent courses are introduced in a Training Package change. Multiplied by all the RTOs delivering the qualifications in each change and the number of changes being made each year it is quite likely that the sector is facing tens of millions of dollars, or more, in annual costs to keep training current.
And as the pace of workplace change continues to speed up – do we have the appropriate funding/pricing mechanisms to fund this level of change?
It is possible that the work of the Qualification Design Working Group will help reduce the level of change in the sector – but with current VET funding being so variable across jurisdictions – it is likely that a funding solution, as well as a design solution, will be needed. For example, with the Certificate III in Hospitality being funded at just $1,700 by one state government and $7,100 by another – it is hard to see how the providers in the first jurisdiction will have sufficient funds to enable them to easily purchase new equipment and materials when these are needed.
A role for industry?
One approach to tackling this issue is to think about new ways of engaging industry, and while the Jobs and Skills Councils will look to do this at a national level, there are also state-level examples which are worth considering. For example, the new compact agreed between the Tasmanian government and the Tasmania Mining, Manufacturing and Energy Council includes clear roles and responsibilities between the two parties in supporting training for these industries in Tasmania and includes the TMEC funding the cost of expensive equipment which it appears will be used to support training delivery.
Funding small enrolments in specialist courses
A state-based VET-industry leader spoke to me recently about the challenges he faces getting the relevant state government to provide sufficient funding for the delivery of courses which only attract small numbers of enrolments each year. These are occupations which are vital for the Australian economy, but employ only a small number of people. It should be noted that it is not just his assessment that these courses are vital. These are occupations that governments have identified as critical, particularly in a post-COVID environment, and yet their level of funding assumes providers can make them financially viable simply by increasing enrolments to cover costs.
Our conversation when he talked me through the issue went a little like this:
“I can’t get TAFE to add the courses to scope because they tell me they haven’t got enough money for the equipment and can’t get enough enrolments to make it viable. So then I get pressure from the SSO that the qualification should be withdrawn from the Training Package because there aren’t enough RTOs with it on scope.”
“We don’t need very many people with these skills – but we really need these skills. And then when I try and explain that to (the relevant state government agency), they say it’s up to TAFE to work out their enrolments and equipment purchasing decisions.”
The ABC shared a similar story recently, about the difficulties in keeping “endangered” trades alive ie those with a long history which only enrol small numbers of students now but where there is still a demand for these skills.
Surely as a country we can do better than this in terms of:
- funding VET delivery in a way which adequately recognises equipment and material costs,
- identifying and incentivising a role for industry in the purchasing of specialist equipment for some sectors and occupations, and
- funding providers appropriately for specialist courses with very small cohorts?