Blowing the whistle on dodgy providers

ASQA’s chief commissioner Chris Robinson explains the need for strong regulation. By John Mitchell.
How many current VET providers are shonky operators? Is it one per cent, two per cent or five per cent of the 5,000 or so registered training organisations (RTOs)? And how many ill-prepared applicants want to set up as new training providers?
For the first time, some compelling data about these issues has become available. The data was tabled in a recent interview with Campus Review by Chris Robinson, the chief commissioner of the national VET regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA). And more than 10 per cent is the quick answer to the questions above. A bigger number than most would have expected.
“How big is the problem? I can tell you what we have discovered so far,” said Robinson.
“In the 21 months of ASQA’s operation, from July 1 2011 to March 30 2013, of the 1,150 RTOs applying for re-registration, we completed [processing] 64 per cent of them by the March 31 this year. 736 of those applications have been completed, and of those 81 or 11 per cent were refused registration. That gives you an idea of the numbers that we have found serious enough non-compliance with, to not accept their application for renewal.”
“So the problem is around the ten per cent mark for that random sample of providers that happened to come up for registration in that period. A few of those have gone off to the tribunal and they’ve used the time and that process to become compliant. Around 20 of them became compliant by the time they were due to be heard in the tribunal.”
Robinson provided another set of relevant figures about the proportion of applications for registration that were unsuccessful. Potential dodgy brothers thwarted at the gate. “In that same period from July 2011, we had 532 applications to set up a new RTO and we have completed [processing] just under 70 per cent, or 365, of those applications. And of those 365, we refused 80 of the applications. That is, 21.9 per cent were refused.”
Robinson is not surprised by this data and his professional experience and intuition suggests to him that these results are likely to continue for some time yet. “Everything I know about the VET industry, and from what I’ve discovered in this job, would tell me that the figure of 11 per cent refused re-registration is pretty accurate [reflection of the problem]. I don’t expect that figure will change a lot for a while.”
Reasons for non-compliance
One reason for this figure of 11 per cent is that some RTOs simply don’t understand their own inadequacies, said Robinson: “I think there are quite a few RTOs out there that are struggling to be compliant. And some of them get a terrible shock when you tell them they’re not compliant when they think they’re doing a good job.”
Robinson is also clear in his own mind about the main reason providers are non-compliant. “We find critical non-compliance almost always involves problems in the core business of the RTO’s training and assessment.”
“For instance, quite a lot of RTOs are struggling with assessment. More people need to really understand what competency based assessment means and how to do it properly. The typical problem areas are where people do courses that are far too short to actually give the skills and competencies required and they have strategies that are inappropriate. This is especially the case when the learners are new to the training area.”
“A lot of what I am saying sounds like common sense, but these providers don’t have it. And there are enough of these providers out there to be of concern. That also means most people are doing the right thing and doing a reasonable, if not high quality, job; but there’s a big enough minority to be of real concern.”
Robinson reiterated that many courses are too short; the number of hours of training is inadequate; or, in his words, there is the issue of “the volume of learning”.
“There is a significant problem we find with the poor end of provision where most programs are far too short to deliver the competency required by a learner who is new to the industry. The volume of learning has to be interpreted sensibly so that if someone already has many of the competencies or has considerable experience, that would affect greatly the way their learning program ought to be put together and the volume of learning.
“At the moment there is too much of what I would call minimalist programs. And I’m not saying it is most programs, but there is enough of it out there to be a real worry.”
Dreaming of lighter regulation
Given the scale of such problems in the sector, Robinson is bemused by the thought that many VET providers are dreaming of “light touch” regulation.
“I don’t think this industry is in need of light touch regulation just yet. I think there’s a big enough problem here that needs quite strong regulation. People forget, but it’s really good for the quality providers if the shonky providers are not there because they undercut them all the time and they help lead a race to the bottom.
“The one thing more than anything else that’s going to help quality providers who are trying to do the right thing is for ASQA to be strong and tough on people that aren’t doing the right thing.
“If they had really light touch regulation their dream would turn into a nightmare. But they would have to reduce their costs even more to compete with these people. Would a light touch ever be desirable? I don’t think so.”
Robinson accepts that a primary role for ASQA’s primary is to identify and de-register those 10 per cent of providers who are non-compliant. “Our mission is to work hard on making sure those 10 per centers are either lifting their game considerably or going and doing something else.”
Meanwhile those providers who are willing to meet national standards will have nothing to fear from an ASQA audit or re-registration process.
Robinson finds it amusing that apparently compliant training providers are reported to shudder at the thought of contact with ASQA. “I said at a conference last week that there’s a new phobia in VET: it’s called regulator phobia, and it’s an irrational fear of the national regulator.”
Robinson offered some rational advice to well-intentioned training providers who seek to remain compliant.
“What people should understand is that if they put training and assessment first, and if they go to the trouble of fully understanding what the industry training packages are requiring of them in different areas of training, if they put quality way up the top of their list and if they put meeting their clients’ needs in an appropriate and proper way at the top of their list, they won’t have a lot to fear from the regulator. Getting that message across to providers would be good.”
Robinson would rather ASQA not be the cause of phobias and is hopeful of good outcomes from the review of standards for training providers currently being conducted by the National Skills Standards Council (NSSC), chaired by John Dawkins. ASQA has put a case to NSSC’s standards review to make sure the revised standards are “extremely clearly written and make very clear what is expected of RTOs. That will mean that the auditor’s interpretation becomes less of an issue”.
He strongly supported the general direction set out in the position paper released by Dawkins’ NSSC. “Some of the core elements of the standards that are being proposed in the position paper are about having greater emphasis on the quality of learning delivery and assessment.”
Robinson also supports the NSSC proposal for an accountable education officer and for clearer wording of the standards: “The standards need to be written as standards and not aspirational statements. Some of them are too vague at the moment. We need to make sure they’re written more clearly so that RTOs know exactly what they’re supposed to do.”
“At the end of the day we want the community and employers and students to have real confidence in the VET system. But at the moment there’s still too many programs that are unbelievably short for what they’re supposed to be achieving. And there are too many situations where the assessment is falling short of what’s required.”
The fundamental objective of ASQA is to protect and support a world class VET system, said Robinson. And that means getting rid of poor operators.
“We’ve got a good quality VET system. We’ve got a fabulous VET system in terms of linking training to the skills required for different occupations in different industries. We have a strong post-school training system with lots of adults in Australia participating and there are many features of our system that most countries around the world would envy greatly, but it can be undermined if there are enough people providing a really poor product.”
“That’s what we’re really trying to work on here at ASQA, so that the true nature of the system can shine through.”
Dr John Mitchell is a VET researcher and consultant

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