Disheartened, disillusioned and downright angry
25 November 2015 | An RTO operator, who wishes to remain anonymous (fair enough), laments that the reputable “sprats”, such as herself, are being caught up in the net intended to catch the “sharks” in the VET ocean.
I’m writing this article because I need to vent.
The vocational education and training sector is so backwards sometimes and it just doesn’t need to be this way.
Everyone’s quite familiar now with the tales of rorting and depredation on the part of some providers but this is a multi-faceted story so let me put it from another side.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to pass the blame or excuse the rorters: it’s exquisite karma and the rorters deserve everything that is seemingly coming their way.
I just want the way this sector operates to improve, across the board and not just in a piecemeal, reactive way. And I want to start loving what I do again. Because if we are not passionate, how are we ever going to make our students passionate?
My first experience of the reactive nature of the sector occurred relatively early on. But I thought it might be a one off, I put my head down and bum up and worked extra jobs to gather the capital and expertise to strike out on my own as a training provider.
As part of my plan, I quit my job and went and did a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) to help me when I established my own Registered Training Organisation (RTO). On completing my MBA, I knuckled down and spent a year setting up my RTO, doing everything myself from scratch. Policies and procedures, materials, resources, everything.
I got approved as an RTO. Then I spent the next 2 years doing small fee for service courses to survive. This was not where I wanted to be. The courses I actually wanted to deliver, which I thought would make a positive difference and which I feel feel passionate about, are hard to sell fee for service. It’s just the reality that employers and employees (and potential employees) need assistance to cover their costs. It’s the underlying rationale of public funding of VET: a skilled and capable workforce is a public good.
After two years, the required waiting period, I successfully applied for a government funding contract. It was amazing and I thought “Now, I can finally do what I’m really good at and make that difference”.
But no: just a few weeks after receiving my contract, the government cut the funding to both the courses on my RTO’s scope of registration and they were no longer feasible to run. And this with NO prior warning.
You might think that if students and employers really wanted these courses they would pay for them now and you wouldn’t need funding.
Here’s the reality check. Employers and students still really need the training, but now they go to a large provider which has numerous courses on scope which they can adapt to suit that market. They game the system and overnight go from “specialising” in Widget Management training (which has been defunded) to Bodgie Communication which has been funded.
Bodgie Communication may not actually be a course that’s appropriate for the needs of most learners and may not add much value to the stock of skills in the economy. But the way the system works now makes gaming the only business option. That is, the reason some RTOs provide inappropriate courses is around funding: because the government won’t fund or keep funding stable in many of the courses that really need – and merit – support.
Governments in Australia extol the virtues of small business – for their contributions to employment and innovation, for example – but in the training industry “small” is starting to be an impossible feat. It’s getting to the point that an RTO can only survive if it has an extremely large scope and doesn’t specialise, as that gives it the flexibility to game the system to survive constant funding and regulatory changes.
Returning for a moment to rorting in the VET system (and I accept that gaming isn’t necessarily rorting but all rorting will involve gaming), what we have seen in recent times is the proliferation of “sharks” in the VET ocean – alpha predators, who are big mean and nasty. Governments are casting a net – not before time, either – to at least rein them in. But the VET “sprats” – smaller reputable providers – are emerging as “collateral damage”, caught in the net intended to capture the sharks and subject to an ever increasing burden of regulation which, in context, is unnecessary. By and large, the sprats aren’t the problem authorities are trying to net.
Consider this: what other business operators are required by regulatory authorities to have a 3 year financial plan, yet these same authorities doesn’t tell these business operators until potentially 31 December of a year whether they will have funding for the next year. How can plan on that basis, how can you hire full time staff, lease or even buy suitable premises if you don’t even know if you will have a business next year?
My RTO is audited numerous times each year, but not once have the auditors ever asked to see us training. I have offered that opportunity, but they have never taken me up on it. Apparently that’s not important! It’s all about our documentation and the paper trail.
We have to provide so much evidence and documentation that it’s necessary to pay training staff for an extra 2 hours each session.
Actually I had an audit in mid-November. Well really it was called a performance review to determine if my RTO will be awarded a contract to provide government subsidised training next year. I was told I could not get a copy of the report and would receive no feedback. Each time my RTO gets audited, it’s necessary to demonstrate “continuous improvement” in all aspects of our administration and activity, but how can we improve if communication is not a two way street? Communication subjects are core units in most qualifications, and generally always emphasise feedback and two-way communication. We get audited on these, yet the government authorities auditing us don’t follow any such principles. No suggestions for improvements, only what you have done wrong.
What other industry has to document, save and file records of every meeting or phone call or email they have that justifies any business decision they have made. I am an industry specialist and sometimes I know exactly what electives my clients may need. But unless I’ve documented an industry consultation and meetings with all stakeholders, apparently my experience means nothing.
I now have to save literally every email I send and receive, which number hundreds a week. But then I have the conundrum: where do I save it? Do I save it in an industry consultation file, do I save it in the clients file? Do I save it in the continuous improvement file? Or do I save it everywhere. Then to top it off I need to document each improvement I make in a register. Imagine you had to write down every item you ate, the time you ate it, who recommended you eat it, why food is good for you………. every time you eat anything. That is what my life is becoming like!
I love training and I love my industry and I got into the business because I thought I could make a real difference, be innovative and deliver real outcomes that help the student and the business. But it seems I was somewhat deluded. I think my RTO is amazing at what it does but I’m so bogged down in paper work, I need to hire others to train, and purchase resources that meet compliance requirements but are bloody boring to train and assess.
I was invited to a meeting the other day at a government department to ask for our feedback on a short course we deliver. It is a licensed course that also provides a nationally recognised unit of competency.
The people running the meeting asking for our advice on the delivery of the course did not even know what a unit of competency was and that they are designed by an industry skills body. They didn’t ask the industry skills body about the course and when I asked if they can work with us to deliver both a licensed course and a unit of competency, they said ‘that’s not really our concern’. Seriously, this is what we are dealing with.
The regulatory regime in Australia is slow and cumbersome, expensive to providers, highly interventionist, and neither transparent not consistent. It certainly fails to adhere to the principles of the ideal regulatory model, which emphasise proportionality, necessity and risk management. And it grows ever more cumbersome. Whenever a new issue emerges, the invariable response of authorities is to bolt a new bit onto the machine, so that the machine is beginning to resemble something designed by William Heath Robinson, the English cartoonist and illustrator Wikipedia describes as “best known for drawings of ridiculously complicated machines for achieving simple objectives”.
The federal government has a stated policy of eliminating the burden of unnecessary regulation on the sector. As former Commonwealth Skills Minister Ian Macfarlane observed in announcing sweeping deregulation measures last year, “ASQA should be a regulator not a bookkeeper”, requiring RTOs to “jump through endless hoops”. He said ASQA’s regulatory role will focus on dealing with “rogue operators” and providing education and guidance to ensure “voluntary compliance” with VET standards by RTOs. Current education minister Simon Birmingham has confirmed the government’s commitment to cracking down on rogue operators and shoddy practice.
But more than good intentions are needed. There needs to be a mindset change: from seeming paranoia to equanimity, from adversarial to collaborative approaches, positive sanctions as well as negative sanctions.