Ben Eltham’s cheap education funding shot at Tone and Chrissie

John Brumby: deregulated the VET sector while Premier.

John Brumby: deregulated the VET sector while Premier.

Ben Eltham has posted an article in New Matilda about the financial and regulatory travails of Victorian VET private mega-provider Vocation:

Christopher Pyne’s higher education legislation will channel hundreds of millions of dollars to private providers. When it happened in Victoria’s VET system, the consequences were dire, writes Ben Eltham.

The share price collapse of high-flying private education provider Vocation reminds us of the perils of privatising education.

On its website and Annual Report, Vocation asks us to “be extraordinary”.

… Vocation presents itself as high-quality and respectable. It boasts none other than John Dawkins, the architect of the Hawke government’s university reforms, as the chair of its board.

But the performance of ASX-listed private training provider Vocation in recent weeks has been anything but extraordinary.

The problem with a voucher-based portable funding system for VET is that it creates a situation that makes it very difficult to monitor and ensure quality of service provision.

The students have no particular vested interest in ensuring they are obtaining a quality education because they are not paying for it, and there is no particular market cachet in a qualification from one VET college over any other. It therefore places the complete burden of quality assurance on the relevant government regulator. In this case it appears that they DID pick up the problem with Vocation quite quickly.

If the Abbott government ever gets its proposed university funding reforms through the Senate, the system should not be quite as difficult in quality assurance terms as the Victorian VET system. First, students will be paying 60% of the cost of their own university education, so they will have a very significant vested interest in ensuring that it is a good one. Secondly, there certainly IS a market cachet on a degree from a university perceived as a good one. Thirdly, we already have a sophisticated (if extraordinarily bureaucratic) quality assurance regulator in TEQSA. I presume the Abbott reforms still involve the same role for TEQSA as it fulfils with existing universities.

Accordingly, although I certainly don’t support the Abbott reforms, it seems to me that Ben Eltham’s article is something of a cheap shot. Nevertheless, it provides a good detailed forensic examination of the Vocation saga to date.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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9 Responses to Ben Eltham’s cheap education funding shot at Tone and Chrissie

  1. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Small point, which, like your post, doesn’t reflect a particular axe to grind, but just because someone doesn’t pay money for an education doesn’t mean they don’t have a stake in it. They pay with their time. If they invest their time they will prefer to pick a good over a bad supplier.

  2. I have no idea of the scale of the problem, but there appear to be vocational education students who are trying to satisfy Centrelink activity tests rather than learn anything. It has parallels to the migration oriented colleges for international students that caused issues a few years ago. When neither student nor provider has any great interest in the quality of the education, as their primary objective is something else, then there is a problem.

    But generally I agree with Ken that the analogy with Victoria is a stretched one.

  3. Ken Parish says:

    Ben Eltham answered my question about TEQSA on Twitter:

    @KenParish1 actually, Abbott govt has cut funding to TEQSA and signalled it will loosen quality controls should the higher ed reforms pass— Ben Eltham (@beneltham) November 6, 2014

  4. The changes to TEQSA are not related to the funding reform package. They were triggered by a review commissioned by the previous Labor government, in response to university complaints about excessive bureaucracy.

    At this stage, there is no change to the standards higher education providers are required to meet (although these are being reviewed, again in a process that started before Pyne). However, TEQSA is being focused on its original risk-based approach so that compliance measures are focused on providers without track records, with problematic track records, or those that have negatives on a series of risk indicators. This will ensure on-going scrutiny of providers with or without the Pyne reform package.

    TEQSA is also being focused on standards compliance rather than broader quality exercises.

    I have my doubts about whether financial cuts on the scale suggested for TEQSA are wise, but my concern is more that it will become too slow rather than it will become sloppy.

  5. conrad says:

    I’m not sure TEQSA is particularly good anyway — apart from being a massive bureaucratic exercise, it focuses mainly on inputs and creating a paper trail, versus actual learning. It also stops what might be a good idea in some circumstances (e.g., blended courses consisting of practical stuff run by a TAFE and higher-level stuff run by a university). Because of this, it means university management can do more or less anything they want once they have enough yes-men, and thus quality is not assured at all by it, just that you jump through the right hurdles. Given a lot of these hurdles are entirely degraded now in Aus (e.g., what can qualify for a PhD), these are also often pretty low hurdles.

    The other the reason I worry is because Australia is already at the MacDonald’s end of education for students, and thus it’s hard to see how adding more crappy exploitative low-end providers is really going to solve problems like what to do with the low-end of students. At present, where I work, we’re lucky enough to get these students from feeder colleges, and they ubiquitously have very high marks and are also ubiquitously academically poor. Thus these providers are not doing what they are supposed to. I notice that Macquarie recently culled Navitas sending students into their 2nd year, and I presume this was for the same reason.

  6. Andrew Norton says:

    The issue with the blended courses is with the Australian Qualifications Framework, which I think is also facing change. TEQSA is just the enforcer.

    Universities are self-accrediting within the rules in the Higher Education Standards Framework. What this means is that in practice TEQSA will never look at the actual course content of the vast majority of university courses. They examine a few during the re-registeration process. By contrast, the content of every course at most non-university providers has to be specifically examined and approved.

    We’ve discussed the pathway colleges elsewhere. I think it is fair to say that not many of these students will ever be stars. But we had a fair bit of evidence during the demand driven review that their students do better than would be expected given their original school results. There is an interesting scatterplot reproduced in the demand driven review, showing how non-direct entry students (including TAFE and other options including pathway colleges) on average out-perform direct entry students with higher original ATARs.

    • conrad says:

      The actual provider makes a huge difference. Some of the TAFEs do a fine job, but some of the nameless private pathway colleges are clearly appalling (as presumably MQ realized). It will be interesting to see how the government goes about choosing the good from the bad — does one simply wait until they have had years of bad performance and complaints before they crack down on them? It’s not even clear how they could measure that easily since these students transfer into universities, often at different levels.

      This was a similar problem to the Victorian system. It wasn’t that all providers were bad (no doubt some one were fine), it’s just that it was almost impossible to stop the bad ones, and so they simply cracked down on everyone possible.

  7. Andrew Norton says:

    I don’t know the story behind Macquarie, but we had very positive feedback on the Navitas colleges. I’ve had this confirmed subsequently by a former univeristy contract manager for a Navitas college, who is now a U of M PhD student (and no longer has any PR reason to spin the results). Perhaps Macquarie thought that it could get the profits for itself, or it wants to re-position itself to create a more elite image.

  8. Matt B says:

    The Williams V TEQSA case provides insights into the challenges of regulating at the lower end of the provider spectrum –

    I think one of the issues facing vocation is that it has acquired a range of providers of varying quality rather than being a single integrated operation – given those involved in governance and mangement – I think Vocation will recover from this and get better at wrangling its component parts

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