Tom Karmel, the former MD of NCVER, now a Board member of the MacKenzie Research Institute at Holmesglen TAFE provides his reflections on the Productivity Commission’s review of the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development.

Tom argues that while the sector may not be in crisis it faces a range of issues and is headed for marginalisation. He goes on to explain why.

The key points of the Productivity Commission’s report

VDC News readers will remember that we summarised this report in an article back in February this year. However, you can access the report itself and an overview here. Using the key points the Productivity Commission itself highlighted, Tom critiques these points and sees them as a mixed bag. Some he supports, but for others he is more sceptical. For example, Tom says:

“I am a great believer in competition as a driver of choice and efficiency, but it works much better in some markets than others. Education is a rather peculiar market for a number of reasons.”

First, he points out that the quality of a training course can only really be judged after having done it, and he is not so sure about the information available on course quality and career opportunities and choice either given the generally poor fit between courses undertaken and students’ subsequent jobs so, “good luck in getting reliable information on course quality and performance of training providers.” Government funding levels and fees can also distort the market, he suggests.

The Productivity Commission also called for faster changes to training packages, but providers are well aware of the significant administrative impost this brings in terms of keeping things up to date and remaining ‘compliant’ in the eyes of the regulators. Tom suggests an alternative: “giving institutions and teachers more authority may be a more flexible approach.” But goes on to point out that probably “this would not be countenanced in an industry led system where providers and teachers hold little sway.” He does, however, agree with the idea of assessment being independent as, in his eyes this – if done sensibly “would provide a huge lift in credibility for the sector.”

Tom also touches on issues related to how governments might get a better return for their investment in VET. “Contestability and transparency to public funding” is one area where he is concerned about weakening the public provider, TAFE, but he strongly supports them gaining increased operational autonomy. He is also supportive of expanding the VET Student Loans scheme but cautions that this has to be carefully done to avoid a repeat of VET Fee HELP.

Finally, he looks at the Commission’s proposals for reforming the apprenticeship system. He sees moves to improve completion rates as a good idea, but also points out that the problems may be more employer than training provider related. Other changes he suggests are potentially interesting, for example the use of non-apprenticeship pathways where realistic work experience can be provided. This approach may be worth a look in his view.

The paper also reflects on what the Productivity Commission had to say about improving school education, ‘second-chance’ learning and other adult education services and addressing obstacles to lifelong learning.

Tom’s reflections

The final part of the paper gets a bit more interesting and radical. He suggests that there are a range of issues that have emerged which affect the nature and quality of VET, including the triumph of training over a solid and more general vocational education; the marginalisation of VET’s educators; the unevenness of qualifications, especially for those at the same AQF level and the limited autonomy of VET providers both large and small and when faced with regulatory and funding pressures and the constraints of very prescriptive training packages. He also suggests that alternatives to apprenticeships should be considered, although he admits they have a lot going for them.

Channelling Martin Luther King, his dream would be to put education back into VET, advocate for the professionalisation of VET teaching, address the incoherence and unevenness of qualifications, introduce independent assessment, strengthen TAFEs (and some large private providers) to allow them to become vocational universities and create alternative models to supplement apprenticeships.

Thus, on the whole, Tom believes that “the Productivity Commission has largely wasted an opportunity to shake up VET.”