For a second week running Australia’s vocational education system attracted bad press, but also the injection of some fresh ideas on how to reform the troubled sector. The fallout from the release of the Australian government’s review into initial teacher training was also front and centre of the news, and the NSW election moved just a little closer still with the announcement of more school policies from both the Labor and Coalition parties.
Daniel Carr, Centre for New Public Education
No reprieve for VET
For a second week in a row the troubles of the vocational education and training (VET) sector dominated education news. New modelling from The Grattan Institute showed that 40 percent of all government loans to VET students are never repaid, a rate significantly above the 21 percent of unrecoverable loans to university students. As Grattan’s Higher Education Program Director Andrew Norton quipped:
“If you’re looking at a loan system that doesn’t recover 40 per cent of what it lends, then it ends up looking more like a grant system.”
This poured fuel on concerns over shonky providers that had built throughout the last week of the Senate Inquiry into the VET sector. By Wednesday, a bill to extend the executive powers of Assistant Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham to quickly alter VET regulations was tabled in the Australian parliament. As Minister Birmingham explained:
“Currently, making new standards to address quality issues can take up to 12 months. This can leave students unfairly exposed to poor quality training, or training that employers have raised concerns about, in the meantime.”
The bill, if passed, will also introduce new disclosure and transparency requirements for VET providers, tighten course marketing rules and beef up the powers of the national regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority. Minister Birmingham also wrote to Australia’s 5,000 registered VET providers to express some of his concerns over dodgy marketing and a lack of clarity over course fees and loan arrangements.
It was therefore quite the week for the Mitchell Institute to release a new report into the financing of Australia’s VET sector. Launched on Wednesday night by the Business Council of Australia’s Jennifer Westacott, the report argues for the introduction of an ‘entitlement’ to tertiary education that would have to be earned by completing year 12 with a minimum English score, undertaking additional preparatory study or by meeting other criteria.
No consensus on teacher training
This week the post-teacher training review rumblings continued, with The Australian devoting several stories and opinion articles across the week to issues raised by the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group’s (TEMAG) report. Appearing before the Senate, Chief Scientist Ian Chubb argued that the lack of strong maths and science knowledge in teaching students was putting Australia in a parlous state of affairs and must be remedied soon.
Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership chair, John Hattie, opined that ATAR cut-offs were quixotic policy as only a minority of students in teaching courses come straight from high-school. Speaking at an Australian Education Union conference, Hattie did acknowledge that low-ATAR entry scores sent the message that “if you’re dumb, you can be a teacher”, but that this lacked an easy fix:
“If there were a minimum ATAR, what would happen in the next minute is that [hardly] anyone would take ATARs. All those (university) business models would take them into first year on the basis of their wallets, and in the second year convert them across to teacher education. So it would have solved nothing.”
Meanwhile, TEMAG Chair Greg Craven, pushed back against claims his review made the wrong call on ATAR-minimums with a characteristically abrupt op-ed.
NSW election update
The NSW Labor Party has attempted to outbid NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli’s promise to build a new inner-city high school by 2020, claiming they will get the school built two years earlier. The Coalition has budgeted for the $60 million cost of the new school with the proceeds of state electricity asset sales, a policy being taken to the election on 28 March.
Minister Piccoli this week announced $120 million in capital funding for NSW secondary schools to receive ‘facelifts’ in order to improve presentation to the community. A further $28 million is planned for teacher professional development and the retraining of 320 teachers as science and maths specialists.
The state’s Catholic system launched a campaign of its own. Citing a decision to cap capital funding to Catholic schools three years ago, the sector claims this will leave it unable to respond to growing enrolment demand over the coming years.