When ANU College of Asia and the Pacific Professor Valerie Braithwaite was asked to write a report on the law overseeing vocational education, she didn’t start by poring over legislative language. Instead, she went out to talk to training organisations, government officials and key stakeholders about challenges facing the sector.
“I spent a lot of time listening, just listening, to their stories,” she said. “We asked for public submissions as well.”
All that input helped Braithwaite develop 23 recommendations that were made in her 2018 report to the minister on federal oversight of the vocational education and training (VET) sector. Subsequently, the government voiced support for most of her recommendations.
Vocational education plays a major role in Australia with more than four million students enrolled in VET schools in 2016 – nearly a quarter of all working-age adults. Training is provided by a patchwork of private organisations, Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutes and universities.
Several years ago, the sector went through turmoil after the government expanded and deregulated federal loans to private education providers. This led to scandals of students with high tuition costs and inadequate training, as well as rorting of government subsidies by a group of dodgy private operators.
Braithwaite’s review focused on whether the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) had enough authority to carry out its job of overseeing the VET sector. Braithwaite found that it did, and that ASQA had increased actions to cancel registrations or reject applications for questionable training organisations.
But she also reported that ASQA was not getting the right kinds of data fast enough or holding sufficient conversations with registered training organisations, peak bodies and other stakeholders to confront problems before they turned into major issues.
“One of the purposes of the review was to say that there are a lot of ways to solve your problems in this sector by having better communications and greater commitments to best practices,” she said. “It’s a real change in regulatory philosophy that I was trying to introduce in that report.”
Braithwaite was chosen by the government to review ASQA in large part because of her experience in 2013 helping to lead a review of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, the regulator of Australia’s higher education providers. She has not only researched and written extensively about tertiary and vocational education, but also child-protection services, tax compliance and workplace safety.
One major thread that runs through her research is a push towards responsive regulation, which aims to foster a culture of cooperation and dialogue between regulated businesses or organisations and regulators, while having capacity to accelerate sanctions and prosecute, should cooperation fail.
Conventional regulation usually involves regulators establishing rules and then working to determine whether individuals or organisations have met those rules. The problem with this method is that it incentivies organisations to barely clear the bar or even work to lower the bar, Braithwaite said.
Instead, regulators should work towards convincing those it oversees of the value of quality, Braithwaite said. If successful in the VET sector, then training organisations not providing quality education would fall behind, and regulators could concentrate their attention on those laggards.
“The regulator needs to be there and prosecute poor behaviour,” she said. “But it’s not all the job of the regulator to keep the standards high.”
That’s why Braithwaite named the title of the report: “All eyes on quality: Review of the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act 2011.”
The report recommends establishing an ombudsman for tertiary education to handle student problems with training organisations rather than the current fragmented arrangements for dispute resolutions.
When VET students have trouble with their schools, they often are overwhelmed by other problems in their lives that usually include money, family or health issues, Braithwaite said. At that point, students don’t have the time or capacity to figure out which part of the complaints resolution archipelago will respond to their problem, leaving many to give up and forgo help, she said.
Other recommendations include raising registration requirements of registered training organisations, improving data collection and sharing, and raising the standards and capabilities of teachers. The review found no major deficits with ASQA’s functions and powers, but highlighted that the regulator should focus on continuous improvements in the provision of training and not just meeting minimum quality standards.
“Deepening the quality of regulatory conversations in ways that sharpen and refine existing tools is the imperative rather than creating a wide range of new formal powers,” Braithwaite said in the report.
Research funded by: Australian Department of Education and Training
Related research: Professor Valerie Braithwaite
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