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Dissecting the growth of vocational education and training in Victoria

The announcement of an Enterprise Migration Agreement providing for the recruitment of temporary overseas workers for the Roy Hill project in the Pilbara has fuelled debate about the supply of skilled workers for industry, and to what extent Australia needs to import skills rather than ‘grow our own’.

Amid this debate, the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) has released preliminary Students and Courses data for 2011. The full publication (due in July) provides data on the numbers of students, subject enrolments, hours of delivery and qualifications in Australia’s public vocational education and training (VET) system.

The preliminary data reveals some interesting results for one state in particular: Victoria.

Victoria’s training system and training budget
The training system in Victoria is an experiment in market-driven resource allocation. This is set to continue with the Victorian state budget (released on 1 May 2012) announcing $290 million worth of cuts to TAFE over three years, and the loss to TAFE of ‘full service provider’ funding from 2013. (Full service provider funding is paid to TAFE institutes in recognition of the broader support services they provide to their communities.) The Victorian Budget Overview states that funding rates for some courses will increase while others will decrease ‘reflecting the need to achieve more sustainable outcomes’.

The budget measures extend the Victorian government’s fully-contestable funding system for vocational education and training that has created a boom in private provision since 2009. Between 2009 and 2010 there was 2 per cent growth in students at ‘TAFE and other government providers’ compared with 76 per cent growth in students of ‘other registered providers’.

In April 2012 the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development released Refocusing Vocational Training in Victoria, which stated that ‘The growth in government-funded VET activity has reached unsustainable levels’.

What is ‘unsustainable’ growth?
Between 2009 and 2011 the total number of VET students in Australia grew by 176,000, from 1.70 million students to 1.88 million. But Victoria accounted for well over half of that growth (58 per cent), with an additional 103,000 students joining the state system.

In the past year all other states and territories recorded close to zero growth in student numbers (in Tasmania they fell by 4 per cent), while Victoria experienced a 15 per cent increase.

Amid zero-growth states and territories, Victoria stands out

This picture is echoed in new Apprentices and Trainees data that shows that in the twelve months to December 2011 commencements in Victoria rose by 13 per cent. Excluding Victoria’s result, Australian apprentice and trainee commencements fell by 3 per cent overall. Of perhaps greater concern, all of the growth in commencements - both in Victoria and nationally - is occurring in ‘non-trades’ rather than ‘trades’.

Victoria’s growth stands out when you compare it to states like Western Australia and Queensland that are reportedly experiencing high demand for skills but recording minimal growth.

The opening up of the training market in Victoria combined with the rapid rise in student numbers has raised questions about the level and quality of courses being taken up. Preliminary Students and Courses data provides a first glimpse at the answers to these questions.

Are the new students earning recognised qualifications?
Yes. The growth in Victoria over the past two years has all occurred in Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) qualifications. Between 2008 and 2011 the number of students enrolled in AQF qualifications has consistently risen while the number in courses that do not lead to a recognised qualification has consistently fallen.

Is all the growth occurring in low level courses?
No. The vast majority of new students are studying at Certificate III, Certificate IV or Diploma level – the middle level qualifications of vocational education and training. As noted above, however, all of the growth is occurring outside of the traditional trades.

128,000 new AQF students from 2009 to 2011: at what level? (Pie chart showing Certificate III, Followed by Certificate IV and then Diploma with smaller amounts for Certifcate I and II)

Are enrolments in certain courses out of control?
Alarming growth in the number of people studying fitness instructor courses in Victoria since 2008 (report here) contributed to debate about whether public funding is being wasted on qualifications that are not needed. New data on subject and field of education enrolments won’t be available until later this year.

What do we know about quality?
Student satisfaction, employer satisfaction and graduate employment rates are some of the outcomes measures used to evaluate the quality of vocational education and training. Unfortunately, we will have to wait a bit longer to see what clues these measures provide about Victoria’s open-market, high-growth strategy for VET.