Is Over-Regulation of The VET Sector Killing Our Children’s Futures?

Is Over-Regulation of The VET Sector Killing Our Children’s Futures?

Author: Sarah Cordiner

The Vocational Education and Training [VET] sector has seen a much-needed and dramatic advancement in the monitoring, assessment and governance of the quality of training and assessment since it’s national regulator ‘ASQA’ overhauled the Standards for Registered Training Organisations [RTOs] in 2015.  

Prior to this major upgrade to the Standards and more rigorous auditing of RTO compliance, there were endless reports of RTO rorting, funding exploitation, poor practice and most frighteningly, of qualifications being issued to students who were not even competent.

The industry demanded change so that corrupt and unethical providers would be filtered out, and the compliant, student-centred and principled training providers would remain in operation – with the added bonus of the credibility earned from passing such a thorough audit process.  

Whilst this has most certainly been a highly desirable outcome of the increased quality assurance process since 2015, there is growing voice that the regulator has gone ‘too far’ – putting ‘box ticking’ and paperwork before the learning experience, and enforcing restrictions and conditions so inflexible that it’s becoming counterproductive – especially in rural, regional and remote Australia where a degree of flexibility is critical to meet unique operational challenges.  

Having recently completed a tenure as the Executive Director and Head of Campus of a dual sector university (VET and Higher Education) in one of the most remote university campuses in the world; I both support the highly stringent quality assurance process enforced by the regulator, but also see first hand the restrictions that over-stringency could place on RTOs.

I also can see how over-regulation, if taken to the extreme, could result in programs not being offered where they could be and therefore lead to the risk of a loss of future options for our children.  

With a little more flexibility (not a reduction of standards) around conditions of compliance – the educational opportunities available in our VET sector (and remote and regional Australia especially) could be dramatically increased.

How Many RTOs Fail To Meet ASQA Standards?

As part of any Registered Training Organisation’s [RTO] continuing registration, there are extremely strict, highly regulated compliance requirements and governance standards that must be adhered to, to ‘ensure nationally consistent, high-quality training and assessment across the VET sector’.  

These Standards are extremely clear, totally transparent and all registered training providers have the same equal opportunity to plan for meeting these Standards.

According to the regulator ASQA, there are approximately 5,000 RTOs in Australia who are required to meet these increasingly demanding regulations – failure to meet them can see RTOs shut down and this is currently happening at an alarming rate across Australia.    

In 2018 alone, ASQA forcibly cancelled the registration of 259 Registered Training Organisations, applied corrective conditions and/or sanctions on 67 RTOs, rejected the renewal application of 24 registrations and suspended 32.

In just the first 78 days into 2019, ASQA has already closed down 27 RTOs completely and suspended/applied sanctions to 10.  That’s almost one forced RTO closure every 2-3 days!

A Thorough Audit Process For RTOs

The regulator fiercely assesses areas such as the RTOs administration, training and assessment practices, Trainer-Assessor qualifications, student feedback and overall Governance when determining a RTOs compliance.

The 8 major Standards include numerous Clauses and conditions that span across 6 core categories, including:

  1. Marketing and recruitment
  2. Enrolment
  3. Support and progression
  4. Training and assessment
  5. Completion
  6. Regulatory compliance and governance practice

RTOs fail their audit on areas spanning all of the above categories, but public reports predominantly fall in the assessment category – or at least, in what evidence has been retained by the RTO on how the assessment decision was made by the Trainer-Assessor.

Not only are many well-equipped and highly regarded metropolitan RTOs failing to meet these regulations, but meeting them in rural, regional and remote [RRR]  Australia is exponentially more challenging.

In RRR areas, resources are thinner and less reliable, finding adequately qualified and industry-current Trainer-Assessors is almost impossible (often causing reliance on FIFO staff), costs of operations are multiplied (yet funding remains fixed across the country) and due to the wet/dry seasons seen in areas such as the Kimberley, some RRR RTOs have only 8-9 months of the year to deliver what metro counterparts have 12 months to deliver.

Restrictive and inflexible conditions around trainer-assessor qualifications and industry currency prove extremely challenging for any RTO; but even more so in RRR Australia. As such, most RRR RTOs are often required to heavily invest in cripplingly expensive fly-in-fly-out staff, topped-off with their usual inflated overheads and a constantly live recruitment cycle.

As an example, where I live and work in the remote Kimberley region (a region with huge transient workforce turnover); health education providers are forced to compete for qualified Registered Nurses with the government health sector for the most qualified staff – and that is no good for anybody.

If ASQA allowed a little more flexibility around some compliance clauses in RRR areas, remote programs would be more easily staffed locally, allowing greater local contextualisation, and a greater range of program offerings in areas where education would otherwise be inaccessible and unavailable.

Of course, the argument will arise ‘does ‘flexible’ mean ‘poor quality’? (Do share your thoughts in the comments below!)

Deregistered RTOs are Fighting Back

The many ‘victims’ of the tough audit process are claiming that it is unfair and unstandardised.

These RTOs suggest that each auditor conducts the assessment of the RTO very differently from another and therefore that passing audit is more about ‘the luck of the draw’ in terms of who you get as an auditor, rather than whether you are compliant or not.

One of the largest ‘Vet in Schools’ [VETiS] providers in WA was recently forcibly deregistered by ASQA, seeing over 6,000 WA school students from 64 public schools immediately disadvantaged and their educational outcomes at risk.  

This particular provider strongly claims that the assessment of their RTO was limited and inappropriately conducted – and have started an action group for RTOs to address what they deem as unfair regulator practices.  

It is not my place to speculate about any particular RTOs compliance – however, this example of many makes it worth raising conversations about how standardised the regulator’s audit process is, and whether fair decisions are being made or not – as ultimately, it’s the students who suffer when such major decisions are enforced.  

IF unfair registration decisions are being made by the regulator, then action by the industry should be taken to ensure that over-regulation (or indeed unstandardised regulatory assessment practices) is reviewed and corrected.  

Tight regulation is critical for quality assurance, but as with anything, too much can be counter-productive.  

What do you think?

Author: Sarah Cordiner