Companies and training organisations are creating their own skills accreditations and bypassing the normal process for registering qualifications because the regulator is too slow to respond to changing technology, according to Steven Joyce, whose review of vocational education has just been released by the government.
Bypass qualifications have become part of the skills sector and involve micro-credentials that businesses and students are opting for because it gives them quick access to training and jobs.
In an exclusive interview with The Australian Financial Review, Mr Joyce said the process of creating and updating skills qualifications was slow, did not inspire confidence and resulted in qualifications that were out of date.
The Australian Industry and Skills Committee (AISC) is meant to take advice from industry and produce updated qualifications that are signed off by the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA).
“The problem is it takes a very long time to update a qualification. You have a very narrow funnel through which everything must go. Sectors queue up to get qualifications updated.”
“The problem is it takes a very long time to update a qualification.
— Steven Joyce chair of the training review
“The department of education says the process is down to a year long. But most people in industry say it takes years.”
As a result, when the minerals industry in Western Australia needed its own autonomous vehicle qualification Rio Tinto worked with the South Metropolitan TAFE in Perth and WA government to develop the qualification.
Box Hill Institute in Victoria had partnered with industry in 2017 to accredit a national cyber security qualification in a similar way.
“Effectively industry sets up an accredited course and over time seeks to have it turned into a national qualification.
“When a system is under stress people tend not to use it. That means we need to change the system.”
‘The level of variation is difficult to fathom’
Mr Joyce said the qualifications the process be decentralised and industry and government should take responsibility for their own qualifications and take control of their own training packages.
Mr Joyce’s Expert Review of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training System was commissioned by the Morrison government late last year in the wake of data showing declining enrolments and lower spending on skills and training. Findings of the Joyce review were published on Budget night.
One of the recommendations, a National Skills Commission, was announced on Budget night in a package of reforms for the training sector.
Mr Joyce said he hoped the commission would eliminate another of his concerns: “Tick-and-flick” providers.
The Australian training system was based on recognising people’s competency, not just the number of hours or years they had studied for.
But this meant students could be assessed as competent when they had barely done any work. In some instances what should be years of study were knocked over in a handful of weekend classes.
“Some providers take shortcuts and assess a person as skilled when all the person has done is read the work book and tick some boxes.
“Some providers assess a person as skilled when all the person has done is read the work book and tick some boxes.”
— Steven Joyce, chair of the skills review
“There needs to be a benchmark number of hours to provide a qualification. Someone has to establish the average time it takes to learn a particular skill.”
Mr Joyce recommended benchmark hours be set by ASQA, initially just for “high-risk” qualifications but eventually for all courses.
He agreed the Australian training system was characterised by flexibility, which was generally a good thing. But this meant it was hard to be sure providers were doing their jobs properly and students were genuinely qualified.
Another shortcoming was inconsistency of funding and pricing.
Not only did the states, territories and Commonwealth have different rates for courses and subsidies, but there were also variations right down to individual TAFEs and private providers.
It was difficult to justify any of this to students. It stopped smaller would-be trainers entering the market and it discouraged the sector from adopting a national approach.
“If I’m a provider in Victoria and I’m being asked to offer a course in New South Wales the costs should be the same. But they’re not. The level of variation is difficult to fathom.”
A diploma of nursing in Western Australia attracted a subsidy of $19,963 but only $8218 in Queensland.
When the complicated fee-help system was added to this there was no surprise intending students were discouraged from going into training. Especially when it was relatively easy to go to university and there was more money on offer to study there.
Mr Joyce said it wasn’t his role to argue how the Federation should work but he recommended the Commonwealth set subsidy rates for all courses leaving the states and territories to allocate the money to training organisations on a competitive basis.
Work with stakeholders
He said it would be up to the proposed National Skills Commission to assess demand and set rates for which it would need to develop a reputation for trust and authority “similar to that of the Australian Bureau of Statistics”.
“Right now in the skill sector everything is either national or state or regional. The National Skills Commission has to work with all the stakeholders. There is nothing like this apparent at the moment. There is nothing which is integrated.”
The states and the Commonwealth would sign up to a new national agreement with the NSC at its centre and this would replace existing training agreements with the states including the Skilling Australians Fund, which is meant to be the cornerstone of the Coalition’s training policy.
Mr Joyce told the Financial Review he didn’t think the National Skills Commission was the only solution to the problems of the training sector. That would come from improving qualification development, benchmarking hours, simplifying funding and matching it better to skills..
He said schools needed to do more to offer students different pathways instead of always steering them to university. More data would be helpful. Students would make better choices if someone actually showed them how much they would earn in certain jobs, how long it would take to skill-up and how much it would cost to get the qualification.
“You have to give young people unimpeachable data on what they’ll earn once they qualify. Young people are thinking about three or four career options when they are at school. You have to give them clearer and simpler information about the choices.”
He acknowledged his report landed right before an election and there was the possibility of a change of government.
“This is not a political report. This is a report on how you get a sector to work. That is something for everyone to like. There is an opportunity in the skills sector regardless of the political cycle. There is an opportunity to do something significant.”