The review report, released in December 2020, did not find “evidence of a vocational education and training (VET) system in crisis.”

However, it proposes that Governments need to “continue to support the development of a more efficient and competitive VET market through informed user choice and a focus on quality.”

The report: its key points

Following the release of an issues paper in late 2019 and interim report in June 2020, the final report and an overview can be found on the Productivity Commission’s website. In addition, readers can access the submissions and brief comments made to them here. Both the issues paper and interim report were highlighted in VDC News items last year, and the links above enable you to access those articles.

A lot has happened since the review began: COVID, of course, but also the National Skills Commission (NSC) and National Careers Institute (NCI) were established, a draft reform roadmap for VET was released, and in August 2020 “all governments signed a Heads of Agreement for Skills Reform setting out high-level directions for a new National Skills Agreement.” Finally, we are in the midst of the Skills Reform consultations we highlighted in the last issue and which will go on well into 2021.

The Commission seems to have softened its line on market-based approaches as a panacea for the sector and as a way of improving efficiency, as have Governments. Ultimately, however, the Commission favours contestability and promoting student choice. What we do know about student choice, particularly at the local level, is that it is not as broad as one would think, as work by Justin Brown at ACER found in Victoria.

The Commission’s report calls for better curated information for students on career opportunities, the performance of training providers, course quality and prices. They also call for a ‘’ramping up in efforts to improve VET quality.” They see this being done through “faster changes to training packages, developing an evidence-based VET workforce strategy, and a phased introduction of independent assessment.”

Certainly, there is a move towards the development of a VET workforce strategy as we highlighted in the last issue of VDC News, and there is also a mood to take a hard look at training packages, their development approach and quality.

The Productivity Commission propose that the National Skills Commission work hard at setting and simplifying course subsidies and that “governments should expand VET Student Loans (VSL) to more Diploma and above courses and to most Certificate IV courses.” Certainly, funding VET programs has been an issue for some time and was also an issue highlighted in the recent Macklin Review report. In addition, they suggest “applying more contestability and transparency to the public funding of TAFEs, enhancing the operational autonomy of public providers” and “enabling State and Territory funding to follow students enrolled with an interstate provider.”

Apprenticeships are not forgotten either, with suggestions that reforms to them are best focused on “improving completion rates by better screening and matching of prospective apprentices, making pathways more flexible and providing the same subsidy for non-apprenticeship pathways as for traditional pathways [and finally] adjusting the timing of employer incentives to provide more support when the risk of cancellation is greatest.”

One issue, however, is that the reasons for non-completions are often actually focused on employer issues, and so one thing that might be advocated is looking at, and improving, the attributes of employers so that they make the apprenticeship experience the best it can be. Bardon, in a 2012 paper, summarised the key attributes of good apprentices and employers. He suggested that the best employers paid above award wages, offered a long-term apprenticeship program with a supportive culture and good career prospects. These employers were also involved in VET in schools, clear about their skill requirements and had both exemplary OHS and strong HR systems. These are among the attributes needed by employers to enhance completions.

Finally, the Commission proposes “a coordinated national strategy to improve school education, ‘second chance’ learning in the VET sector and other adult education services to reduce the large number of Australians with low language, literacy, numeracy and digital literacy skills. In addition, some of the key obstacles to lifelong learning need to be addressed, they suggest. This requires “improvements in foundation skills, better credit pathways, an expansion of VSL and a trial of a new financing instrument for mature-age Australians reskilling and upskilling.”