What would a next Labor Government do with Australian vocational education and training: read this book

November 18, 2018

Speculation about changes of governments in Australia even reaches international audiences. So what would a change of national government mean for Australian vocational education and training? I have been monitoring the statements of the Federal Labor Opposition and report below.

Few areas of Australian public policy are more fraught than the recent experience with vocational education and training (VET). For years, commentators have criticised the marketisation/privatisation of Australian VET. They are particularly scathing over the failings of the (now defunct) VET FEE-HELP program, which may have cost Australian taxpayers up to $7.5 billion. Even the economically dry Productivity Commission described that program as “a well-documented example of how policy can fail if governments do not ensure proper policy design along with suitable regulatory oversight.”

The failures have been compounded by consistent ability of VET funding to keep up with other education funding, as the Mitchell Institute has shown: funding has gone backwards in the last ten years, especially notable compared to funding increases in university (53% up), schools and pre-schools.

The results of funding scarcity and VET brand “trashing” continues to have a “long tail” impact: Australia’s lack of a national VET policy means that not-for-profit community providers have continued to lose out.  The recent VET FEE-HELP reforms, while necessary and welcome, are not sufficient. Despite numerous well-publicised private for-profit VET college failures, it’s not over yet: On 9th November, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) instituted Federal Court proceedings against Productivity Partners Pty Ltd, trading as Captain Cook College, alleging “systemic unconscionable conduct in breach of the Australian Consumer Law” going back to 2015, and impacting 5,500 students.

So how is VET shaping up in the Federal sphere? If you are looking to work out the Federal Labor policy on VET, the easiest way is to read the speeches of Shadow Skills Minister Senator Doug Cameron.

An interesting theme runs through Senator Cameron’s speeches: his most quoted source is Dr Phillip Toner, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. Senator Cameron has quoted Dr Toner three times this year: in his speech at a Federal VET Policy Forum in Melbourne on 16 July, at ACPET’s national conference in Canberra in August and at the AEU National TAFE Council meeting in Melbourne in April.

So what does Dr Toner advocate? The best way is to read his chapter, entitled “A Tale of Mandarins and Lemons: Creating the Market for Vocational Education and Training”, published in a recent book that he co-edited with Damien Cahill, Wrong Way: How Privatisation & Economic Reform Backfired (Black Books).

Toner’s article is 1 of 19 case studies of how “marketisation” has failed Australia. The other chapters deal with early childhood education, private health insurance, prisons, aged care, employment services, public sector engineering, electricity reform, labour market policy, financial deregulation, housing, the National Broadband Network, monetary policy, productivity, inequality, free trade agreements and foreign investment.

In other words, it’s the most complete handbook of what Australian governments have done to deregulate and to send services out to the “market”.

It’s not pretty reading. Here’s how Toner commences his chapter (p.59):

The creation of a ‘training market’ for public and privately funded vocational education and training (VET) is one of the most transparent failures of neoliberal public policy over the last three decades. There is a direct line connecting the early neoliberal economic arguments and pedagogy formulated by VET mandarins – those who designed and managed the VET system in the early 1990s – to its subsequent implementation. The VET market is an exemplar of the great damage inflicted when a naïve , idealised neoliberal conception of how markets work becomes the basis for public policy. Serious quality problems in the VET market arose from a misconceived analysis of both the economics of the private training market, and from the actual level of demand for quality training in large parts of the labour market. Further, the pedagogical system known as competency based training (CBT), instituted to develop competition between registered training organisations (RTOs) and flexibility in all aspects of training content and delivery has actually led to diminished quality of training and malfeasance among many RTOs, employers and students.

After an analysis of why VET matters in Australia, Toner examines the creation of the Australian training market, which has been modelled on the UK experience. He points out that TAFE (83%) and not-for-profit adult and community education providers (15%) delivered almost all publicly funded VET as late as 1996, but this fell to 49% and 6% (respectively) by 2016. The number of RTOs increased from 400 in 1995 to 1931 in 2016, the majority of them private for-profit providers.

Toner discusses the scale of the quality problem (“significant”), and examines the specific economic and pedagogical conditions in the training market that explain the scale and scope of poor quality and malfeasance. Minimal investment is needed, inadequate standards for teaching qualification and teaching resources and the low barriers for RTOs to enter are all exploited by opportunistic providers.

Toner concludes (p. 78) that:

The training market has followed the classic trajectory of neoliberal public policy: ebullient expectations quickly followed by disappointment leading to incessant and expensive – through largely futile – bureaucratic tinkering resulting in intensified regulation and altered incentives…. The time remaining to effect a rescue of the public VET system is rapidly diminishing

Further reading

“Social Service Futures: Marketization and regulation of vocational education and training”, by Professor Valerie Braithwaite, The Power to Persuade, 23 May 2016.

“Marketisation of VET: The New South Wales response 1990s–2017”, by Robin Shreeve and Joanna Palser, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne, 16 July 2018.

“New figures quantify the extent of the TAFE disaster”, by Professor Leesa Wheelahan, 23 June 2018.

Competition Policy and Human Services: Where Theory Meets Practice, by Rhonda L Smith & Alexandra Merrett, commissioned and edited by the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) and CHOICE, September 2018.

(This article originally appeared on the website of Community Colleges Australia on 12 November 2018.)

(image above: cover of Wrong Way: How Privatisation and Economic Reform Backfired, Black Books, 2018)

Advertisements

Australian sunset series-1

August 19, 2018

Australian sunsets in winter – especially dry and windy winter days – can be stunning. Here’s a selection.


Tackling inequality in Australia through improving education for marginalised learners

April 13, 2018

Australia’s Public Education Foundation has released a major report that examines the price of educational inequality in Australia’s schools.

What Price the Gap? Education and Inequality in Australia, by the Foundation’s Executive Director David Hetherington examines educational inequality and its cost to Australia. The report estimates that over the six years from 2009 to 2015, “growing inequality cost Australia around $20.3 billion, equivalent to 1.2% of GDP,” and that, “the longer-term cost to Australia is even bigger, because the gap was widening prior to 2009.”

The report states that in the years immediately after the financial crisis, educational inequality “has transformed into a defining national debate.”

“Taken together, the assembled evidence points to several firm conclusions about educational inequality in Australia:

  • Inequality is found in access to teachers, access to resources, access to curriculum and test performance;
  • Inequality for new student cohorts is worsening over time;
  • Inequality increases as students move through their school years;
  • Socioeconomic status and parental education are the main drivers for educational inequality, while Australia performs relatively well on gender and migrant status which are problematic in other countries; and
  • Inequality exists within sectors, as well as between them, with the public sector arguably more unequal due to its more representative coverage.”

My comment:

There is no doubt that equality and educational access – especially to Australia’s most marginalised populations and communities – is now a high priority national issue. Australia’s community education sector already makes a substantial contribution to reducing inequality. In a country riven by growing class divides, adult and community education providers specialise in reaching the most vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals. For instance, in New South Wales almost 70% of government-funded VET activity is directed to the bottom 40 percent of individuals experiencing disadvantage. The report states that “economic inequality reinforces educational inequality”. Australia’s community education providers are in an excellent position to help counter that cycle for adults and school leavers.

The Public Education Foundation Paper

Other selected quotes from the report (complete report – PDF – available here):

“The question of inequality has permeated recent public debate in Australia. From stagnating wages to CEO salaries, from retiring boomers to renting millennials, the widening gaps in our society have come under intense scrutiny. With each passing year, the inequality drumbeat grows louder. What began as a distant ripple from Athens and Zuccotti Park in the years immediately after the financial crisis has transformed into a defining national debate. Australia was sheltered by the commodities boom from the worst distributional effects of neoliberalism, but as that boom has faded, the growing gap between haves and have-nots has become starker.

“There have been many analyses of the causes of this gap, which range from a less equitable tax system to the decline of the union movement. One which has been less explored is the relationship between education and economic inequality – whether changes in our education system have contributed to the growing wealth and income divide. Given that education is acknowledged as the critical determinant of future earning potential (Quiggin, 1999), it’s reasonable to ask how changes in education achievement may be affecting inequality.

“Another feature of Australian education is that inequality widens as children move through their school years. This trend is particularly pronounced amongst children whose parents have low educational achievement. Students of parents with no post-secondary education lag students of parents with a degree by ten months in Year 3. By Year 9, this gap has grown to thirty months.

“A final important point on educational inequality in Australia is that it is entrenched within sectors as well as across them. Much commentary around educational divides in Australia focuses on public versus private schools. However, the empirical evidence shows clearly that it is the socioeconomic background rather than school sector that affects results. Once socio-economic background is accounted for, there is essentially no difference in performance between public and non-government schools. So yes, educational inequality flows through to economic inequality. But there’s another dynamic at play here too.

“The causation also works in reverse: economic inequality reinforces educational inequality. They operate in a mutually reinforcing cycle.

“The first goal of education with regards to inequality should be to narrow the gap between top and bottom performing students by lifting the ones at the bottom up, without suppressing those at the top. It is well established that higher educational performance creates economic benefits and conversely that falling performance incurs economic costs.”

The full Public Education Foundation issues paper is available (PDF) here.

The Public Education Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to providing life-changing scholarships to students and educators in public education and enhancing the value and reputation of public education.

(I originally placed this post, in a slightly different form, on the website of Community Colleges Australia. I am duplicating it here in order to extend the reach.)


Streep wins Oscar for Iron Lady, credits her Dartmouth experience for understanding the role

March 4, 2012

This post belongs in the “sad but true” category, as it does not reflect all that well on one of my “alma mater” undergraduate universities:  Dartmouth College.

One week ago, Meryl Streep won the Oscar for “Best Actress in a Leading Role” for her stand-out performance in The Iron Lady.  For a couple of months now, a number of news sources have been reporting on how Streep connected her performance in that role to her experience as an exchange student (from Vassar College) at Dartmouth College in the (northern) autumn of 1970 – see The Dartmouth newspaper, The Seattle Times, and the “Simply Streep” fan blog posting from 18 May 2000.

As I revealed on this blog in my review of the film Julie and Julia (6 October 2009), I acted with Meryl Streep in a student-written play – called “The Killer Ape” – at Dartmouth in October 1970 during her exchange period.

A 19 May 2000 interview in The Dartmouth newspaper (reporter Mark Bubriski) provides much of what we understand about Streep and Dartmouth College.  She went to study there because of its reputation for good theatre and the students there “seemed pretty cool”.  She took a playwriting class with Errol Hill, a dance class (in which she was the only woman) and a costume design class (and received all “A’s” in her courses).  She reportedly “does not remember” the plays she acted in while at the College, although the interview notes that she did participate in the “less than memorable” Frost playwriting competition one acts – which she does not remember.  Okay, for the record (including Meryl’s, in case she is keen to collect this sort of thing, which I somehow suspect she is not), here is a copy of the program of part of the Frost competition in that October 1970:

And yes, there’s my name on the program with hers.  Click on the image above to enlarge it.

For those who are interested in this sort of thing (and hey, what Dartmouth or Vassar grad is not?), The Dartmouth interview also notes that Streep returned to live in Norwich, Vermont – near Hanover, New Hampshire, where Dartmouth to be with her boyfriend at the time, who was starting at the Dartmouth Medical School.  She acted with the Green Mountain Guild in Vermont and waited on tables.  The following summer, while continuing to act and wait tables, she applied to the Yale University School of Drama. She received a scholarship to attend and enrolled that fall.  The rest, as they say, is history – or rather, very public history.

Neat, huh?  And the connection to The Iron Lady?  Well, Streep has been quoted saying that as one of 60 female exchange students with 6000 men at Dartmouth in the fall of 1970, she felt the isolation which she could later translate to her role as Margaret Thatcher and get inside the head of the character:  “And so a little bit of my emotional work was done for me.”

Actually, it was 120 female exchange students (as I recall) and only 3000 men, but it probably felt worse to her, so I won’t argue.


Digital inclusion paper on Australian Policy Online

December 8, 2011

My paper on digital inclusion – presented to the Communications Policy and Research conference on 7 November 2011 – has been posted online on the prestigious “Australian Policy Online” (APO) website, which is managed by Australian National University and Swinburne University of Technology.  Click here to go to the APO website page.

My paper has also been highlighted on the website of the New York-based Intelligent Community Forum, which is “dedicated to economic growth in the broadband economy in communities large and small”.  Forum co-founder Robert Bell recently (October 2011) visited Australia and spoke at the Economic Development Conference in Adelaide.  Click here for Bell’s reflections and perspective on the Australian NBN.


Governor General of Australia event

February 10, 2011

Here is a bit of shameless self-promotion.  Yesterday (February 9, 2011) my organisation – the Rural Health Education Foundation (of which I am the CEO) – had an event hosted by the Governor General of Australia (Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce) at Admiralty House, her Sydney residence.  There is a news item on her website this morning:  I am in right-hand photo talking with her and Professor Paul Worley (Dean, School of Medicine, Flinders University, Adelaide).


New film about Anna Halprin

April 25, 2010

The New York Times reports on April 23 that there is a new documentary about the dancer Anna Halprin.  Called “Breath Made Visible”, this 80 minute doco has just opened theatrically at the Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street in Manhattan.

Anna Halprin is the widow of the late Lawrence Halprin, a famous Marin County landscape architect whose passing I reported on December 9, 2009.  I had taken an intensive workshop with Lawrence Halprin (at Sea Ranch and in San Francisco) in November 1977 (and did another one with him in Sydney in 1981 or thereabouts), and I recall from that workshop how much Anna had influenced his work.

The New York Times has a great online trailer, which includes samples of some of the astonishing footage in the well-made documentary.