VET reforms impose barriers for disadvantaged youth: report

Higher Education reporter

Market reform has blunted vocational education and training as a second chance avenue for NSW’s most disadvantaged young people, a new report claims.

The report, by a trio of non-government groups, has found that red tape, fee hikes and funding cuts that accompanied the state’s Smart and Skilled scheme have put training out of reach for many young people.

It says vital support and outreach programs have been curtailed, while a focus on online training — ostensibly to make VET more widely available — is ill-suited to people struggling with their literacy and confidence.

Meanwhile, tight rules have prevented school dropouts from resuming studies at TAFE, and “fee-free scholarships” — introduced in lieu of previously widespread concessions and exemptions — have proven inadequate.

The report has been released today by peak group Youth Action, charity Mission Australia and youth and aged care service provider Uniting. It analyses feedback from a survey of 50 NSW youth organisations, schools and colleges and in-depth interviews with 13 young people, as well as a 2015 VET inquiry by a NSW Legislative Council committee.

“We were hearing from young people and youth services that young people just weren’t looking at VET options, so we wanted to figure out why,” said Youth Action CEO Katie Acheson.

“Smart and Skilled was trying to increase the numbers (of disadvantaged young students) and it hasn’t done that. There’s a lot more red tape and the eligibility criteria are quite complex. Even youth service workers are having trouble navigating the system.”

The report says the money allocated for fee-free scholarships only averages $240 a year for each student — “far less than what these courses actually cost” — and while 50,000 are available each year, less than half were accessed in the scheme’s first 12 months.

The authors blame “restrictive or confusing eligibility criteria”, with individuals only entitled to two scholarships, and ineligible if they resit courses or switch into higher qualifications.

Students also face barriers to entry because loans to cover their fees are only available for diplomas, even though fees for lower-level qualifications have risen sharply. These certificate courses are more appropriate for many disadvantaged young people, the report says.

It says mechanisms to encourage training in rural and remote areas have proven “insufficient”, while funding cuts have “impacted adversely” on counselling, disability services and tutorial assistance. They have also forced cuts to pre-vocational and introductory courses that provided a “critical pathway” for early school leavers.

Smart and Skilled rules have also undermined VET as a safety net for school dropouts. Most students aged under 17 can only enrol at VET colleges if they can produce a NSW Record of School Achievement, or “RoSA”, at Year 10 level.

“This means VET no longer provides an alternative pathway for young people who find it difficult to cope in the school environment,” the report says.

Ms Acheson said the TAFE pathway for disaffected school students had been “key to Australia’s alternate education”. She said such avenues should be “as accessible as possible”, and many of the problems exposed in the report could be fixed by “simple tweaks” such as “increasing communication and making sure the information is accessible”.

“We desperately need these young people to be getting into VET,” she said. “In recent years, really complex policy impetus and a lot of tick boxes have made it harder for people to get in.”

She said organisations in other states, all of which have introduced their own market reforms, were reporting similar problems.

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