UPDATED 4 APRIL 2020
The updates made to this article since its original publication focus mainly on the State/Territory funding now available for additional skills training and the impact of the government’s decision not to provide temporary financial support to international students.
As Australia grapples with the impact of COVID-19 and the closure of businesses in the tourism and hospitality sector, we need to be realistic about, and committed to, meeting the needs of unemployed workers as a priority. The government’s stimulus measures to date are welcomed and some will make a positive impact on people’s lives as they deal with both unemployment and business closures on a previously unimaginable scale.
To date though none of the measures announced by the Commonwealth government specifically targets the need to keep unemployed people who may be trapped in their homes for weeks (maybe months) engaged and with some prospect of restarting their careers when the virus is contained.
Four State/Territory governments have made funding available to help people who are out of work as a result of the coronavirus. They are:
- Queensland– $500 million in funding is available for unemployed workers to reskill, find other jobs with a similar skill requirement and transition to new occupations
- South Australia– $650 million for a Jobs Rescue Package and some of the funding will be used to help reskill unemployed people. Queries and submissions seeking Government assistance can be lodged at: email@example.com
- Tasmania – Rapid Response Skills Initiativewhich provides $6.3 million in additional funding to allow individuals to access up to $3,000 for skills and licences to help them gain a new role.
- ACT– increasing subsidies for apprenticeships and traineeships and other VET students to access nationally recognised training in areas linked to skills needs across a range of industries. No application is required – Skills Canberra will automatically provide additional funding to RTOs under contract. No details are available on the quantum of the funding increase.
Education is a counter-cyclical industry – typically when unemployment is high people enrol in courses because:
- sadly they don’t have anything else to do, and
- they hope that new skills will help them get a job in the future.
That means that with some targeted support from governments, Australian VET and higher education providers will be able to keep their operations open and may in fact enrol additional students (albeit online) in the months ahead.
But we’re not at the stage of targeted assistance yet and we need to be.
Firstly we need to be following the example of the Singapore government which has pumped significant additional funding into their Skills Future Credit scheme. The scheme gives each Singaporean a $500 credit to use to learn a new skill for their current role or a new role. The aim is to prepare Singaporeans for the changing world of work. Now as the Singapore government grapples with the coronavirus and the resulting an economic downturn – they have significantly expanded the Skills Future Credits funding.
This is such a sensible measure and Australia needs something similar here for all the people out of work and needing to reskill.
In addition to help existing learners continue with their studies and ease cashflow problems for providers as they pivot to online learning the Commonwealth and States and Territory governments (where relevant) should:
- Support students by:
- removing the loan administration fees on VET Student Loans and FEE HELP loans
- putting a stay on landlords being able to remove students (domestic and international) for non-payment of rents if they lose their jobs as a result of the coronavirus – the government has signalled it intends to take this step
- providing temporary financial support to international students who lose their jobs during the crisis – the government has ruled this out, and
- implementing the government’s commitment to expand the Tuition Protection Service to cover all students irrespective of how they fund their studies – the government is looking at additional tuition assurance arrangements to ensure all students are covered.
- Support providers by:
- temporarily amending the ESOS National Code to allow for 100% online delivery during this crisis
- incentivising enrolment – in VET through the adoption of a scheme like the Singaporean government’s Skills Future Credits (plus additional funding made available through State government funding arrangements as it appears the ACT government has moved to do) and in higher education allowing learners to enrol in short study programs backed by FEE-HELP loans on a unit by unit basis
- providing temporary relief from sector levies collected for the VET Student Loans and FEE-HELP loans schemes, the Tuition Protection Scheme, ASQA and TEQSA regulatory activities
- delaying the move to full-cost recovery for ASQA and TEQSA
- temporarily staying the repayment requirements on 2019 FEE-HELP over-allocations and allow these to be repaid in future years
- allowing VSL-approved providers the opportunity to add accredited courses to scope where there is identified industry demand
- extending the re-registration period of all providers which fall due in 2020 (this measure will ease the pressure on providers and free up resources within ASQA and TEQSA allowing them to focus their attention on online audits of online delivery – see below)
I expect the EdTech sector to go ‘gangbusters’ in the months ahead as many traditional providers move into online education by necessity and look for the support they need to assist them, their staff and their students with remote learning. It is notable that there are different approaches to going online with training and different levels of interactivity and quality. Perhaps the easiest way to transition is to engage in a social learning model initially where students need to be contributing to discussion forums, finding videos and sharing, coming online for webinars, etc. For those who are new to online delivery there is much less development work involved in this, and a provider can get up and running with their online courses much faster. This can be running while the provider is then creating and setting up more structured materials – and the learners may even be able to assist them with that by sharing the resources they are finding and their questions.
Mandated work placements will of course remain a problem in a fully online model of delivery – but we won’t be inside and online forever. With goodwill on all sides (and appropriate quality checks) providers can restructure their courses to push the work placement component to the end of the course, and over the next few months they and their learners can focus on all of the other elements they need to learn before moving into a workplacement.
Looking at the impact on the independent VET and higher education sector, the hardest hit providers($) are currently the English language schools which have continuous enrolments throughout the year. Their courses are shorter and they rely on the working holiday and tourist visa holders as much as students for their enrolment numbers. With no-one now able to enter the country their enrolments are in freefall.
Other CRICOS providers are also going to be hit following the government’s announcement overnight and confirmed in this media release today that the government will not provide support to international students beyond allowing them access to their superannuation savings if they have lost their jobs. If this sum is not sufficient to meet their living costs, the government’s advice is that they should return home. The media release states that “Temporary visa holders who are unable to support themselves under these arrangements over the next six months are strongly encouraged to return home. For these individuals it’s time to go home, and they should make arrangements as quickly as possible.” If this decision remains unchanged it will decimate the international education sector, particularly independent providers.
For independent providers focussed on domestic students – I see them fitting into one of 5 types:
- those operating on a fee-for-service basis – if you’re already online and successful then you are likely to grow your business in the months ahead
- smaller fee-for-service providers which are currently doing a lot of face-to-face deliverywill suffer unless they can successfully pivot to online delivery. Some will take advantage of the Job Keeper payments and the regulatory option offered by ASQA to ‘hibernate’ their businesses and many will re-emerge after the crisis.
- larger fee-for-service providers with contracts with major employers will also benefit from the Job Keeper payments and the option to hibernate their businesses if the employers they work with do not provide funding to keep the training happening
- enterprise RTOs – their future will be governed by the fate of the business they are a part of. I expect all or most will survive the crisis, and
- providers with government funding contracts, VET Student Loans or FEE-HELP approval should mostly be fine if governments provide a bit of flexibility to allow them time to shift to online delivery and if there is some additional funding made available through the various measures I’ve outlined above.
Complicating all of the above is VET in Schools delivery. VETiS providers will need to work particularly closely with schools if/when they close – to ensure students have the support they need to continue as much of their learning as they possibly can.
The universities and TAFE Institutes have the obvious benefits of substantial public funding and for the TAFEs of public ownership. Their challenges with their domestic students are transitioning typically large, legacy systems into accessible online delivery that meets student needs. For the universities which rely heavily on international student revenue the impact of the government’s decision not to provide financial support to international students will be devastating.
And for those providers who continue to offer education during the crisis – then what?
We owe it to the country to get the regulation right this time. We need both ASQA and TEQSA to step up and engage with online learning like they never have before. All providers wanting to remain open in the months ahead will need to switch to online delivery. The regulators need to do the same – and have their auditors remote logging in to provider’s systems to observe and monitor the learning which is taking place. The challenge is that amongst the auditor panel (particularly the VET auditors) there is a lack of deep educational knowledge. If you haven’t ever taught before it can be hard to tell if a teacher is “bringing to life the magic between the teacher and the student” as Megan Aitken from TAFE NSW Digital put it recently.
In the current ASQA reforms there is an intention to establish an advisory council for providers to provide input into the work that ASQA undertakes and its strategic direction. Given the circumstances it would seem timely for both TEQSA and ASQA to establish adhoc provider advisory councils comprising high quality online providers who are prepared to help educate the audit teams on what to be looking out for in an online audit environment.