Playing follow-the-leader has pitfalls

The NSW Minister for Education wants to consult widely with his stakeholders before adopting any interstate ideas on VET funding. By John Mitchell.

Over the past three years Victoria has experimented with reforms to its VET system, and now South Australia and Queensland are about to implement similar changes. Going against the flow, NSW recently indicated it will be revitalising its VET system but it will not be jumping on any interstate bandwagon.

NSW’s approach seems all the wiser, given recent indications that the Victorian reforms are producing unexpected negative impacts. The clear aim of NSW policy makers is to achieve desired outcomes for the state, not to experiment.

Late last month the NSW Department of Education and Communities released a discussion paper on the future of VET, Smart and Skilled, but the subtitle of the paper is telling: “making NSW number one”. This theme of positioning NSW as number one is repeated in a statement on the first page of the discussion paper: “In implementing reform we will do what is best for New South Wales”.

Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli, in an interview with Campus Review, emphasised that his state would not simply follow the lead of other states: “we want to make up our own mind,” he said.  In particular, Piccoli is seeking further advice from all interested parties about the advantages and limitations of the student entitlement model for funding VET, a model championed by Victoria. The model involves giving eligible students access to a subsidised training place of their own choice, with an approved training organisation. Piccoli is aware that this individualistic model is an awkward fit with an industry driven sector, so he is inviting debate on the topic.

“The discussion paper is for people in the field to give the government their views about ‘How should student entitlement work?’ and ‘How might it work to actually achieve those goals that we’re trying to achieve for the state?’  It’s being done in Victoria, with mixed results, and it’s about to go in South Australia, and it depends who you ask as to whether it’s a success or a failure, but in NSW we want to make up our own mind about it, based on the feedback we get from this discussion paper.”

As the ultimate policy maker, Piccoli is not grabbing for someone else’s solution of a student entitlement model; he is intent on ensuring that training in NSW remains both affordable and high quality.  “We want to make sure that training remains affordable for students but we also want to make sure that quality is maintained and industry needs are met. It appears that one of the unintended consequences in Victoria is that a lot of training has occurred where there are not necessarily skills shortages,” he said.

“The priority is always to make sure that taxpayers’ money is spent effectively and efficiently and we want to make sure it’s spent on training that’s relevant and the kind of training that’s needed, not a 1000 per cent increase in the number of personal trainers graduating.” Much of the theory about student entitlement was imported to Australia from the UK during Tony Blair’s era, prior to the global financial crisis, when people had more faith in the market. Piccoli is well aware of the theory around entitlement funding but is more interested in whether the model can deliver practical outcomes.

“We’ve got to make sure that the practice meets the theory and there’s a lot of theory around entitlement funding. We want to make sure that the practical outcomes of it actually achieve the government’s objectives,” Piccoli said. Another element of Victorian VET reform, also supported by the Council of Australian Governments, which Piccoli is approaching carefully, is to increase contestability for funding among training providers. His major concerns about contestability are to protect the quality of training and the viability of TAFE, both of which may be at risk in some other states.

“Leaving training up to the open market there can [have]shortcomings, and that will have an impact on quality. We don’t want to jeopardise our quality in NSW.  “Also we want to protect the viability of TAFE; we don’t want to do anything that’s going to jeopardise the viability particularly of regional TAFEs. Victoria has moved a long way down their path of contestability and their regional TAFEs are in financial trouble, and we’re not going to do that in NSW.”

As a resident of the NSW regional centre of Griffith, Piccoli is passionate about the importance of providing people in regional communities with more choices for their education, whether it is provided by TAFE or other quality providers.  “If you’re in Sydney you can be on one side of the city and a training provider can be on the other side; so it’s a half-hour train trip. In regional NSW it’s not that easy because public transport in many cases is simply not available, so we need to make training more available in more locations; we need to think flexibly about that.

“TAFE offers high-quality training in a lot of communities, but not in all of them, so it may be a TAFE solution, or it may be a non-government training provider providing the solution, but wherever we can do it we need to train local people locally.  “Training local people locally is my mantra about dealing with skills shortages in regional NSW.”

While other states seem intent on reducing the role of TAFE and breaking up state-wide TAFE networks in order to create competing institutes, Piccoli again goes against the flow in valuing the role TAFE performs as a state-wide system.  “TAFE NSW is nationally and internationally renowned as a high-quality provider. TAFE in NSW is essentially a state-wide system and I think that’s one of its strengths. A large employer can come to TAFE NSW and know that TAFE has a network of institutes across NSW that can deliver almost anywhere.”

However, Piccoli is open to suggestions about how TAFE NSW can be improved: “like any organisation it can be improved”. One of the reasons for releasing the discussion paper is “to get ideas from students, teachers, employers and industry about how it can be improved. We need to make training relevant, we need to make it affordable and we need to make it accessible, whilst maintaining the quality of the service that TAFE provides.

“But I don’t want to pre-empt the discussion paper about how we can improve those things. That’s the point of the discussion paper.” Instead of imitating the VET reforms of other states and imposing top-down policies, Piccoli is seeking ideas from industry, educators and the public on fundamental issues such as which industries require more training.

“One of the challenges with targeting skills shortages is we are not quite sure where they’re going to be and governments are very poor at judging it, that’s why we want the feedback from industry about where their shortages are.” In drawing on the collective wisdom of stakeholders and by preserving the quality, affordability and accessibility of VET, Piccoli is confident of achieving his overall goal of NSW becoming the number one state “for growth and jobs”.

See the paper at www.training.nsw.gov.au .

Dr John Mitchell is a Sydney-based researcher and consultant who specialises in VET workforce development and strategic leadership. See www.jma.com.au

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