National regulator prepares to pounce

While controversies rage in Victoria about shonky providers, ASQA is closing in wherever it can. By John Mitchell.
Just a few years back shonky providers were viewed as a temporary aberration in the VET sector, located within and then hopefully eliminated from the international student market.
However, Skills Victoria’s continuing experimentation with opening up the training market has opened the door to doubtful providers within the mainstream of VET, evidenced by a series of scandals played out in the Victorian Parliament and reported in the media.
These providers are associated with practices such as offering students iPads or shopping vouchers to sign up for government-funded training programs, and delivering in, say, 40 hours, programs that normally take six months. Given the media exposure of these practices, the whole of VET is now tainted by association.
Over the past year, federal and state education ministers and other leaders, distressed by these Victorian developments, have voiced their concerns in this column. Adding to concerns are the latest decisions by Skills Victoria to reduce the TAFE budget in order to prop up a market design that encouraged dodgy providers, and offering payment of $1.50 per student hour for some popular programs, a price that will only appeal to providers willing to cut corners.
Meanwhile, Victoria has declined the offer to have the new national regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA), regulate VET providers that only operate in Victoria, preferring that their own Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority (VRQA) continue as regulator. Embarrassingly, VRQA was criticised in late 2010 by the Victorian auditor-general.
In his first major media interview as ASQA’s Chief Commissioner (Campus Review May 14), Chris Robinson explained that regulators such as ASQA or VRQA “don’t have a role” if a shonky provider has broken a contract with the government. Regulators only have a role if it involves the “non-compliance of the RTO” in relation to the national standards.
ASQA cannot move in and stamp out dodgy Victorian providers currently regulated by VRQA, unless invited to do so, but in response to further interview questions from CR, Robinson set out his intention to implement a new era of national VET regulation that will apply to those providers that do fall within the jurisdiction of ASQA.
His pointed messages will be welcomed by those concerned about disreputable providers proliferating beyond Victoria. His first message is that ASQA has unprecedented legal powers for a VET regulator, which will be used, including criminal provisions.
“There’ve been a number of things that haven’t been sufficiently strong with previous state and territory legislation regulating VET, and the new federal act for ASQA does give us greater powers to deal with some of those things,” Robinson said. “There are criminal provisions as well as civil penalties that didn’t exist in previous legislation, and we’ve got very clear powers to direct RTOs and require information from them.”
To date, ASQA has made 2000 regulatory decisions, including refusals to grant registration, and re-registration or extensions of scope on 150 occasions. “We are starting to cut our swath across larger numbers of RTOs and we will be able to do things that will take away the ability of an RTO to keep operating if they’re not up to speed.”
Robinson’s second message is that ASQA has identified a particular cohort of RTOs that have previously been ordered by local regulators to get their houses in order, but haven’t. From now on, they will have 20 days to fix the problems or they will lose their licence.
His third message is that he knows this 20-day limit will be unpopular, but ASQA will not back off. “The reason why some training providers might be a bit nervous, [is] because we’re starting to put more rigour around our processes and decisions, giving people very short amounts of time to sort out something or we will refuse the application. We’re taking a far stronger stance now.”
His fourth message is that private providers are not ASQA’s sole focus: some TAFE institutes may well find the blow torch turned on them. “There’s also not necessarily been enough scrutiny on the TAFE sector in the past. In some jurisdictions they have been treated differently than the private sector.” The prospect of shutting down a TAFE institute in 20 days will be very big news.
His fifth message is that ASQA, following the lead of the Australian Tax Office, will soon commence “strategic industry audits”, to target industries that have drawn complaints about the quality of training providers. ASQA will “roll out a series of strategic audits across the board something like the tax office where I think they examine 7 per cent of tax returns every year. We’ll start to do some sampling in different areas and identify those areas that people have been saying ‘Oh, for years there’s been a problem in this industry or that industry’.”
Robinson gave as an example of a possible target the aged care industry. “We might go out and do some audits of a percentage of all the providers in that industry and then look at the extent to which the things that have been said in the Productivity Commission report, for example, are widespread, and then take regulatory action targeted at addressing those issues.”
His sixth message is that ASQA expects to take five years to bring about an overall improvement to VET, as the size of ASQA’S task is so large, but it will achieve its goal of fundamentally lifting quality across the sector and largely ridding it of dodgy players.
“You can’t expect an immediate and short-term overall improvement in the sector, but I think when we’ve gone a full cycle of five years, which means everyone will have had their registration renewed or not by ASQA over a five-year period, that at the end of that period there will be fewer concerns about this sort of thing then than there are now.”
His final message is that ASQA has quietly prepared itself since its launch last July and is now ready to escalate its deliberate targeting of questionable providers. “We haven’t made a lot of broad pronouncements at this point because we’ve only been partially established, but you’ll hear a lot more from us as we start to rollout nationally more in the next year or so.” Quick translation for shonky providers regulated by ASQA: your days are numbered.
ASQA’s determination to protect VET quality will be some relief for VET people distressed by the damage to the credibility of the whole sector from the ongoing controversies in Victoria. Unfortunately, ASQA’s future successes are unlikely to gain a lot of media coverage.
For the 2010 report on the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority, see http://www.audit.vic.gov.au/reports__publications/reports_by_year/2010-11/20100710_vrqa.aspx
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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