Released in April 2018, a paper produced by Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute has modeled and analysed participation in tertiary education using a scenario approach.

Authored by Peter Noonan and Sarah Pilcher, it examines actual or projected student enrolments and actual or estimated participation rates in publicly funded tertiary education in Australia. It covers Certificate III–IV and Diplomas and Advanced Diplomas offered in VET, and Associate Degrees and Degrees and other undergraduate programs offered in higher education.

What the data tell us

Higher education showed steady growth in participation as student enrolments grew between 2009 and 2016. However, growth slowed from 2014. In contrast, there was a significant rise in VET participation levels from 2008–2012, followed by a sharp decline since 2012. The large spike in VET student enrolments from 2010 to 2012 was mainly confined to two jurisdictions, of which Victoria was one. It was associated not only with large funding increases and the introduction of a ‘market-based’ model, but also by the entry of a large number of private providers into the market and a measure of inappropriate enrolment practices and other rorting. The data also showed that:

“VET student enrolments would need to increase significantly just to maintain 2016 participation levels and even more for VET participation levels to increase.”

Other factors are at play too

The continuing reductions in VET funding for the delivery of publicly funded VET by state and territory governments described in an earlier paper by Noonan are a key influencer of likely VET participation rates. In higher education, though, the present paper suggests that there needs to be continued growth in higher education student enrolments just to maintain participation levels, and even higher levels of growth to increase higher education participation rates. However, participation rates would fall significantly:

“if the demand-driven system was abolished and higher education student enrolments were capped – as some commentators had proposed.”

VET participation levels are also affected by the demand for higher education places and their take up.

The scenarios for VET

Under one of the scenarios proposed “VET student enrolments would fall to 243,370 by 2031, assuming the ongoing decline in student enrolments is not reversed. In effect, VET would become a residual sector.”

In another scenario “VET student enrolments would need to increase from 841,098 in 2016 to 990,005 by 2031, a significant reversal from the current trend.” But the data show that VET enrolments have fallen annually since 2012. They are now close to 2008 levels and, “therefore, participation levels in VET are lower now than they were a decade ago.” Thus, the authors suggest that:

“governments will need to act quickly and decisively to arrest the continuing decline in public investment in VET and the ongoing decline in publicly funded student enrolments.”

In conclusion the authors propose that:

“A primary objective of that [sustainable and long-term funding framework for VET and higher education] … must be to ensure that participation in tertiary education in Australia grows rather than declines, and with better balance in participation between the higher education and VET sectors.”

The most urgent priority they identify is addressing declining levels of public investment in VET and associated cost shifting to students.