ASQA defends its role

The chief commissioner of the Australian Skills Quality Authority answers criticism that his organisation is keeping a low profile. By John Mitchell.
These are extraordinary times for VET nationally. The relentless stories about dodgy providers in Victoria over the last few years were topped on May 1 with the unexpected announcement in the Victorian budget that state TAFE’s historical funding for “full service provision” was being withdrawn.
With one budget decision the rug was pulled from beneath Victorian TAFE, for so long the most highly regarded system in Australia. Clearly, this decision to embrace a “fully open market” in Victoria was not based not on successful trials and sound evidence. It went against key advice of its own Essential Services Commission and it appears that even the Minister for Higher Education and Skills was overruled in the budgetary process.
This Victorian decision raises questions about the transparency of decision-making regarding VET, nationally. Is it now a farce to continue to call VET “industry led”? Do the state treasuries now run VET? Do government officials not have to base their decisions about VET on hard evidence?
What will be the next pillar of VET to receive this type of evidence-free decision making? How about political interference with the national regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA)? Just as the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Authority (TEQSA) is a respected pillar of the post-Bradley higher education sector, commonsense says that it is important for the national VET system that ASQA, which opened its doors last July, find its feet and function effectively. Is ASQA vulnerable to bureaucratic tampering?
Curiously, over the past nine months TEQSA has developed a high media profile while ASQA has remained low profile. Given ASQA’s low profile and the politically charged treatment of Victorian TAFE, it seemed fair to confront the head of ASQA with some blunt questions. Four lines of questions were put to ASQA’s chief commissioner Chris Robinson by Campus Review. The first questions asked whether ASQA was a shrinking violet? Given that TEQSA seems to be taking an ideas leadership role in the higher education sector, do you intend to raise the profile of ASQA, or do you intend to keep the profile low key? Will ASQA follow the same path as TEQSA and provide ideas leadership around the big issues such as VET standards and quality?
Robinson responded with facts and figures to debunk the myth that ASQA was a poor imitation of TEQSA. A key fact is that TEQSA has a role to draft standards and engage with the higher education sector about those standards, but in VET the role of setting standards and issuing discussion papers lies not with ASQA but with the national skills standards council (NSSC).
“We [ASQA] implement the standards they set; it’s not our role to do it,” said Robinson. And he expects the NSSC approach to modifying standards will be totally transparent: “They’re going to undertake a review of those standards shortly and [I understand] there’ll be a discussion paper published and we will all be able to put in submissions. It will be quite a visible exercise within the sector.”
Robinson tabled statistics which dispute the concept of ASQA being inactive. “We started out with 2100 of the 4900 RTOs and over the first nine months of our operation we’ve had over 3000 applications and we’ve made over 2000 regulatory decisions already. Nearly 150 of those decisions were to either refuse application for registration or reregistration, or to refuse an application to extend [the scope of] courses. That’s involved a hell of a lot of direct dialogue with the sector.
“100,000 different people used the ASQA website in the first nine months. We’ve made 23,000 responses to hotline calls and over 10,000 emails have been sent out. We’ve run workshops all around the country and we’re running more because they were sold out. So we’ve had a very big direct engagement strategy with the sector.”
A second line of questions invited Robinson to respond to recent public criticisms of ASQA by Skills Victoria and the Australian Council for Private Education and Training (ACPET). Robinson said that behind the scenes ASQA was working collaboratively with the Victorian government and its regulator, and that most of the controversies in Victoria had nothing to do with regulators: the controversies involved the providers potentially breaching their contract with the government. “The regulators don’t have any role in those [contractual] processes.”
In response to criticism from ACPET about ASQA moving too slowly, Robinson acknowledged that “there is an inevitable tension between a regulator and providers. There’s been concerns about the time it’s taken to process some of the applications [for registration], but we received over 600 applications on the first day, from the previous regulators. That caused a large backlog and we’ve been dealing with it. It certainly has led to delays longer than I would have liked.”
A third line of questions for Robinson focused on whether ASQA was already a lame duck. It was put to him that Western Australia and Victoria have so far not embraced ASQA and there are suggestions that Queensland might follow their lead, so where does this leave ASQA? In limbo, waiting? In doubt? At risk?
Robinson was not rattled and pointed instead to the substantial number of providers ASQA now regulates, in comparison with TEQSA’s 200 or so higher education providers: “We started our work last July with 2100 of the 4900 RTOs and we assumed responsibility for another 400 in March when Tasmania and South Australia came across. And it could be another 1400 or so in Queensland.” At this stage, he said, “I have no reason to believe” Queensland will not come on board with ASQA.
A fourth line of questions invited Robinson to respond to the view that quality is at risk across the VET sector, because of the profiteering approach of some providers. He said that ASQA is well aware of widespread concerns about quality and currently is auditing, or about to audit, 500 registered training organisations, many of which are in Victoria.
“They’re the ones that we’ve got some concerns about. There’s a lot of work going on at the moment to look at those providers. Formally I’ve written to the [Victorian] minister asking for notification of any they have a concern about and we’ve been acting on the ones they’ve told us about, so basically we’re in that space.”
All of Robinson’s responses were transparent and evidence-based, and normally his answers would be reassuring, but confidence in the behaviour of public officials with regard to VET is shaken, following the Victorian budget. Are there some unknown policy makers out there, waiting their chance to pervert ASQA’s public mission? Robinson says no.
“There has been no political or bureaucratic interference in the workings of ASQA. The National VET Regulator Act 2011 makes it clear that regulatory decisions are made by ASQA commissioners quite independently from government. The support from the federal Minister Chris Evans for having more rigorous national regulation of VET could not have been stronger, as is his position in supporting ASQA’s independence from the political system.” Hopefully this position will hold true, indefinitely.
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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