Mitchell Institute | 21 May 2014
The National Commission of Audit’s recommendations for vocational education and training – proposing that responsibility for VET revert to the states – represent a missed opportunity for overdue reform says Peter Noonan, professor of tertiary education policy at Victoria University. He says the commonwealth’s interests in VET are stronger than ever before, not weaker, and the commission’s recommendations for VET should be set aside .
For all it has achieved, the VET system now needs genuine ¬renewal. The current federal-state shared funding model has run its course.
Governance arrangements are complex and opaque. There is duplication in programs and ¬administration. Longstanding debates about quality remain unresolved. VET qualification completion rates are too low.
The commission identifies some of these weaknesses but misses the opportunity to propose sensible reform options to address them. Instead, in poorly evidenced logic, it recommends that the commonwealth wind back its -involvement in the sector by transferring VET policy and funding responsibility to the states, and abolishing all commonwealth VET programs.
And, strangely enough, despite the recommendation for the commonwealth to vacate the field, the commission also reckons the states should still be required to continue specific reforms set by the commonwealth.
It all points to a limited and partial analysis and understanding of VET and the commonwealth’s role in it. Its assertion that under the Constitution the commonwealth has no responsibility for VET is inaccurate, and taken to its logical conclusion would require that higher education also be handed back to the states.
The commission’s description of the role of VET is at best mysterious, and at worst plain wrong. Initially, and inaccurately, the commission’s report describes VET as an “integral part of the higher education system”. It then adds confusion by stating that while the other education sectors have more clearly defined roles (schools by age and the universities by qualification) VET provides for the other educational needs of the community and industry.
A simple check would show that the VET sector and universities have clearly defined responsibilities for specific qualifications as well as overlapping responsibilities for diplomas and advanced diplomas.
VET qualifications are national in character — this is an important point of differentiation from the other sectors.
Basic research would have shown the commission that it is simplistic to define the roles of the VET and school systems on the basis of age. There is substantial and growing delivery of VET in the schools system and thousands of school-age students enrol ¬directly in VET.
These are not semantic points. An authoritative report must ¬accurately describe the role and characteristics of any sector it subjects to analysis. If it fails this basic expectation, how can government — and other parties — have faith in its recommendations? Faith is dented further as the commission’s report goes on, ¬apparently consciously, to diminish the commonwealth’s role in VET.
The commission includes commonwealth funding allocated through the states as, in effect, state expenditure. It passes over the central role of commonwealth governments, both Coalition and Labor, in driving national VET growth and reform. It fails to ¬appreciate the benefits flowing from the national VET policy framework that is mutually agreed by the commonwealth and the states. The report frames a flimsy case for handing VET policy and funding to the states. It reveals a startling misunderstanding of what this would mean in practice, and of the consequences.
The commission’s case even fails to apply the logic of its own framework for commonwealth-state relations. That framework proposes that policy oversight for national issues should go to the commonwealth with responsibility for regional and local issues predominantly going to state and territory governments.
Successive governments, industry peak bodies, economists, and bodies such as the Productivity Commission have long understood that VET makes a powerful contribution to the labour market, productivity, competitiveness, and workforce participation. These are national priorities that also have regional and local dimensions.
The previous National Commission of Audit in 1996 recognised this, arguing that the commonwealth had a continuing role and responsibility in VET and in higher education due to its interest in the composition of the national labour force and the productivity enhancements associated with post-school education.
The commonwealth’s interests in VET are now stronger, not weaker. Labour markets have become even more national and international. Australia’s productivity and workforce participation challenges have intensified.
The commission’s recommendations for VET should be set aside.
In other ministerial and whole-of-government reviews the commonwealth is giving serious examination to VET reform and the role of the federation in critical national issues. Fortunately, these reform processes can grasp the ¬opportunity missed by the commission