Vocational education and training’s death dive has continued unabated, with new statistics showing that the number of government-funded students fell nearly 7 per cent last year.
A little more than one million students were enrolled with government-funded colleges in the first nine months of 2017, down more than 70,000 compared with the equivalent period during the previous year.
The figures, released by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, capture enrolments funded by the commonwealth, state and territory governments at TAFEs and other government, community and private providers. They exclude fee-for-service activities at TAFEs and elsewhere.
The data suggests that a temporary spike in student numbers, primarily caused by NSW enrolling thousands of students in short courses, has now run its course.
An NCVER report six months ago revealed an unexpected increase in overall student numbers, but it was due to an upsurge in “skill sets” — training units that comprise parts of recognised courses but do not constitute qualifications in their own right.
TAFE NSW managing director Jon Black has promoted this form of training as a means of meeting employers’ desires for narrowly focused skills. The new report shows that NSW had more than 44,000 skill set students last year, more than 10 times the other states and territories combined.
Despite this, overall enrolments are now at a lower level than in 2016, before the surge in these “other recognised programs”.
The latest figures have emerged as calls to arrest flatlining VET funding reach fever pitch. Business groups and vice-chancellors have branded the state of VET as the biggest issue confronting tertiary education, while the Productivity Commission’s five-year review concluded that the system was “in a mess”.
The commission’s latest Report on Government Services found that government appropriations for VET had fallen by $400 million in 2016 alone.
Yesterday some good news emerged in the federal government’s second report into the VET Student Loans program, which replaced the failed VET FEE-HELP scheme.
The report covers the second six months of VSL’s operation. It shows that more than 35,000 students received loans to cover diploma tuition fees between July and December last year, up from about 25,000 between January and June.
The report says that among colleges able to report completions, 82 per cent of subjects on average were finished successfully. Most students have not been in the program long enough for meaningful course completion rates to be collated.
The results are an improvement on the 65 per cent subject completion rate reported in the last year of VET FEE-HELP. However, while VSL allocations rose to $114m in the second half of last year — up from $78m in the program’s first six months — this is a mere fraction of the $2.9 billion shelled out through VET FEE-HELP at its much-rorted peak.
Meanwhile, divided opinions have emerged about the federal government’s proposed fix for VET funding. A Liberal-dominated Senate committee last week recommended passage of legislation to bankroll the $1.5bn Skilling Australians Fund with only minimal changes.
In “additional comments” at the end of the report, Labor senators slammed the “lack of guaranteed and stable funding” for the SAF, and recommended six changes to the legislation.
The NCVER report shows that TAFEs are the majority providers of government-funded VET, training almost 58 per cent of subsidised students in the first nine months of last year.
In 2015, after open-market funding schemes had been opened in states across Australia, TAFEs’ market share of government-funded training dropped to 47 per cent.
However, amalgamations driven by funding cuts had reduced the number of TAFE institutes from 53 in 2015 to 40 by last year. Private colleges have also suffered losses, with the number of subsidised colleges dropping from 1503 in 2015 to 1476 last year.