In mid-2017 ASQA completed a review that looked at the issues created by unduly short training.

NCVER recently released one of its latest reports, entitled: “Do course durations matter to training quality and outcomes?” which took another look at this issue.

What ASQA reported

ASQA’s 2017 review found that “concern about unduly short training is widespread and longstanding” because high quality providers are facing increased pressure to either reduce quality or leave the market as they cannot compete with providers offering unduly short and inadequate training programs. There is also:

“significant risk that in many cases learners are not gaining the competencies specified in VET qualifications, leading to loss of confidence in vocational education and training as well as long-term costs to industry, individuals, the community and governments.”

However, regulating duration “is complex and confusing”. Moreover, while competency-based training systems are, by their nature, flexible about the time taken for individuals to acquire competence, “there are still circumstances in which mandating duration is considered a necessary means of regulating quality.” In the end, ASQA recommended “that training package developers be able to respond to industry-specific risks by setting mandatory requirements, including an amount of training.”

What NCVER’s report has found

This new report by Josie Misko and Patrick Korbel consulted with RTOs, peak industry bodies, regulators, and Skills Service Organisations. Their research focused on a number of critical qualifications that have been ‘called out’ in the past: the Certificate III and Diploma in Early Childhood Education and Care; the Certificate III in Individual Support; the Certificate IV in Disability; and the Certificates II and III in Security Operations. It looked at the length of time between a student starting and finishing the course’s training activity within a course, but it only looked at graduates who have not been granted recognition of prior learning (RPL) to complete a qualification.

One of the clearest findings was a consistent pattern of higher withdrawal rates from courses with the highest median durations. In addition, subject pass rates were also higher for shorted duration courses. Interesting! But NCVER, like ASQA, found that evaluating the effects of course durations on educational achievement or practical performance of students is no easy task.

The issue, NCVER’s researchers found, is far more nuanced – with:

“Other crucial aspects includ[ing] understanding teacher excellence in training delivery, the extent to which students have mastered the skill and knowledge to the required standards, the relevance of the qualification to both students and industry, and the extent to which the training delivers the desired employment and or further training outcomes for the students.”

Durations can therefore be affected by the individual attributes and capacity of the students, trainers and assessors, and workplace mentors. NCVER also found that “the availability of the required support, equipment and materials and the opportunities for work placements, as well as the volume of content to be covered” also affected durations. So, variation in duration is not necessarily a problem; it depends on circumstances.

There are a couple of other messages as well. First, RTOs that offer short programs may face difficulties in having their qualifications accepted by other providers or in the market place. But there is also a tension here, and that is when employers in some growth industries feel they need to have quick access to trained personnel to meet workforce demands or regulatory requirements. This leads to pressure being applied to have workers trained in shorter time frames.

Second, course durations, or ‘amount of training’, need to take account of the AQF level of the qualification, the volume of content to be covered, the complexity of the competencies, and the type of knowledge to be achieved. However, NCVER found “strong support” for maintaining the mandatory work placements in qualifications in Early Childhood Education and Care and Individual Support and Disability.

Finally, while provider type (public or private) was a factor, Misko and Korbel found that:

“median durations were slightly shorter at private training providers (shorter by 2 months compared with TAFE institutes) for the Diploma of Early Childhood Education and Care, but longer for the Certificate III in Early Childhood Education and Care (longer by 1 month compared with TAFE institutes).”

So, really, the ‘devil is in the detail’. To make sense of a complex picture the researchers argue that they “require more information about the actual student experience in the training program” in order to make any definitive comment on the link between duration and withdrawals and ultimately, course quality.