A small victory

As a social democrat in an era of market liberal dominance, I’m only rarely on the winning side of policy disputes (privatisation, where lots of privatising governments have been defeated, has been the big exception). But the Turnbull government’s decision to put an end to the worst of the rorts in for-profit vocational training is certainly a big win. Three main changes were announced
* First, for-profit providers will have to demonstrate in advance that they are capable of doing the job for which they are paid. Given the appalling record of the industry as a whole on measures like graduation rates, it seems likely that most firms will fail this test
* Second, courses are being restricted to those that have some possibility of leading to employment
* Third, fees are being capped in a three-tier scheme ($5k, $10k, and $15k) depending on the type of course and the cost of provision. That should wipe out more of the shonky providers.

I’ve been going on about this since 2012. Others like Leesa Wheelahan at Melbourne Uni have been on the case even longer. We copped plenty of flak for our pains (‘flat earther‘ was one of the kinder terms), but have now been vindicated. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the advocates of market-oriented reform will listen next time around.

Still, a win is a win. The big question now is whether the damage to the public TAFE system can be undone in time to prevent a future skills crisis.

22 thoughts on “A small victory

  1. The government should forgive the student debt of those who got scammed. It’s not a huge amount in the scheme of things, the political goodwill would be huge, it’s an easily isolated special case so there would be no credible flow-on claims to other student debt, and this is debt that is unlikely to be paid back any time soon, if at all, in any case.

    And it would be the right thing to do.

  2. The fees paid for education could be a different type of money and used for accounting and monitoring. A person gets a loan in this money and it can be paid to an educational organisation. There is a limit on the amount any person can get depending on the course. Who gets into the courses is determined by criteria based on whether the person is likely to benefit from the course.

    When the person pays taxes then the tax they pay cancels out their loan. The taxes are those related to employment. This way society can monitor progress, students get a free education according to their ability to benefit from the course. The statistics are useful for students in selecting courses, and it can extend to all forms of education. It is not too hard to imagine how it can extend across national boundaries with mutual agreements. Also when overseas students stay in Australia then Australia should pay for the student’s previous education.

  3. providers will have to demonstrate in advance that they are capable of doing the job for which they are paid. Given the appalling record of the industry as a whole on measures like graduation rates, it seems likely that most firms will fail this test

    You are joking, aren’t you, ProfQ ? Perhaps you’d like to read the article titled “$1.6m without proof of care kids” in today’s The Australian and tell me what kind of tests “providers” will be called on to pass. We are dealing with a completely and totally dysfunctional Public Service from what I can see, but somehow it will be able to sort out shonky providers from real ones ? All of a sudden the pubserves will be able to do something they’ve never done before ?

    I am appreciative of the battle you’ve fought to get this far, ProfQ, but the vast ocean of reality lies all unexplored before us.

    The big question now is whether the damage to the public TAFE system can be undone in time to prevent a future skills crisis.

    And the big answer is no, because we were alraedy experiencing a skills hortage even before we decided to make it total. Oh, how wonderful it is that we have 457s to save us from complete collapse.

  4. @Ikonoclast

    Already happening. The ACCC is onto them. From an ACCC media release

    “We allege AIPE marketed its courses to some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in the Australian community, including consumers from low socio-economic backgrounds and consumers with intellectual disabilities. Further, for these online courses, some people were enrolled who had limited reading and writing skills, could not use a computer, and were not able to use email. We allege that AIPE failed to take adequate steps to ensure that it was not taking advantage of these vulnerable consumers.”

  5. I would add two extra conditions. External assessment, and the provider only gets paid for students who pass.

    Does anyone know if students who incurred HECS style debts in courses with shonky providers will be getting those debts cancelled? Given the appalling failure of oversight, its the least the government can do.

  6. @GrueBleen

    “A completely and totally dysfunctional Public Service” is what we get after decades of neoliberal funding cuts and attacks on the Public Service. Public Services and administration are the arms or limbs of government. Cut off or impair the limbs and the government can do little. This of course was the intention of neoliberalism and managerialism. The intention was to make the government unable to administer or deliver services except for the subset of services that rich capitalists like and use for themselves: the Tax Office to tax the poor and middle, the police and army to defend the privileges and safety of the rich and the parts of government that give subsidies and services to the very well off.

  7. Congratulations on your persistence. Any “shonky” vocational training providers do not deserve sympathy and/or tolerance. Unfortunately, it was the ALP government, of 2012, that relaxed the funding rules; but that does not absolve the LNP government from their three years of inaction. It is not enough, when in government, to run around yelling out that the sky is falling. The chicken coup won’t reform itself and the current farmers need to do the right things. Well done for putting up with all the chicken refuse from the gainsayers.

  8. @Ikonoclast
    Your #8

    Yeah, well you may be right there, though I’d say the Productivity Commission (previously Tariff Board then Industries Assistance Commission then Industry Commission) quite happily ‘neoliberalised’ itself years ago. But otherwise, no, we really can’t have people like Nugget Coombs in the Pubserve now, can we – that belonged to a long bygone era.

    But the case I instanced, the Pubserves simply failed, repeatedly, to ask for any evidence of the 100 or so kids that were supposedly being ‘minded’ and just kept on paying out our money to a fraudulent operator. That isn’t neoliberal funding cuts or managerialism, that’s just plain old fashioned gross dereliction of duty.

    So, even if we do think the Pubserve has been ideologically gutted, just who or what is going to police the for-profit providers that ProfQ is so sure will no longer get away with gross grifting. Any nominations ? The AFP maybe ?

  9. It’s the cultcha GrueBleen.

    Through social engineering done by the agents of the 1%, the neoliberal ‘philosophy’ – snort – has been forced onto people who in an earlier Australian culture valued things other than aspiring to have more and more stuff. It is a very alluring way to think that by working for more easily measurable things we can solve the human problem of unfulfilled desires.

    There seems to be some actual research on how people respond to their environment and what mediates that response. But to start by defining the terms that are used in this research;

    “Culture describes a collective way of life, or way of doing things. It is the sum of attitudes, values, goals, and practices shared by individuals in a group, organization, or society. Cultures vary over time periods, between countries and geographic regions, and among groups and organizations. Culture reflects the moral and ethical beliefs and standards that speak to how people should behave and interact with others.”

    Seems to me that there could be a relationship between the likelihood of whistleblowing and the vibe in the culture about telling on ones’ ‘betters’. Perhaps the human tendency to be honest and fair will become more popular when there will be more support in the culture for people to come out and tell their small story against the powerful? Lots of things could happen.

    I googled and this:


    and a lot of other information as to how other people are thinking about this problem and how we can change our culture so that people value honesty integrity and are able to stand up to the bullies and those who do the wrong thing, like Brandis.

  10. @Julie Thomas
    Your #11

    Yair, well just about everything is down to either culcha or poisonality, or a mix thereof, I guess.

    Aussie culcha:
    1. Aussies don’t “dob people in”.
    2. Aussies aren’t disloyal to their boss
    3. Especially for ‘enforcement agencies’: don’t rat on your mates (quis custodiet ipsos custodes ?).

    Whether that fits your thoughts about “telling on one’s betters” I don’t know = it just seems more like a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ blanket ban for mine.

    And then: is this the issue I should risk my job and maybe my whole career over ?

    Yep, I’ve been a Federal Pubserve four times (Dept Navy, Dept Army, Dept Health and Dept Employment and Industrial Relations) for a total of about 9 years altogether, and I’ve seen my share of good and bad.

    In this case though (the childcare fraud I mentioned) it didn’t seem as though there was actually any collusion, and it’s kinda hard to prove a “conspiracy” when there’s only a single conspirator. It might have been, though, and who knows, maybe down the track it will emerge the pubserve was complicit, but mainly it just appears like gratuitous dereliction of duty: the duty of diligent supervision – eg requiring some evidence that the childcare operator actually had some real, live children under care – just wasn’t performed.

    So, how do we ensure that ProfQ’s belief that somehow the “providers’ will be “policed” actually happens ?

    Maybe we could go down the American route where it’s possible to get paid millions by enforcement agencies – eg the FBI or maybe the IRS:

    “Ever dream of getting rich by blowing the whistle on your boss? People have—most recently Bradley Birkenfeld, the ex-banker whom the IRS paid a record $104 million for ratting out his former banking bosses who had helped U.S. clients to hide money in Swiss accounts.”

    Now that says something about a “culcha”, doesn’t it.

  11. Prof Q. I suspect the Turnbull government’s decision is NOT to put an end to the worst of the rorts in for-profit vocational training – but to change the mix of recipients. The “industry” has become an administrative instrument with little interest in education. I suspect this move will introduce many new forms – but little change for the students’ outcomes. It will be worth checking the political donations of the big RTOs over the coming months!

  12. How many times is a bystander given pause to reflect on these things..”why don’t you just do it right in the first place?”

  13. @GrueBleen

    “So, how do we ensure that ProfQ’s belief that somehow the “providers’ will be “policed” actually happens ?”

    I have answered your question many times.

  14. John

    are there any examples of unqualified success of privatisation – in terms of total cost to the community of some bundle of services and quality of the service offering? My impression is that we usually end of with either lower quality, or at least harder to negotiate, service, and a higher total cost to the community because some profit margin has to be added, so its just cost-shifting plus a margin.

  15. @Robert Banks
    Your #16

    Well you could consider the CBA Bank – that’s been an unqualified success – as clearly demonstrated in the recent Turnbull instigated self-publicity fest – ever since the Commonwealth Bank was privatised. And just think, we got the fabulous RBA as part of the deal.

    Also Qantas which was privatised and absorbed the privatised ANA – the service has never been better, the fares cheaper or the planes more reliable ever since.

    And then there’s electricity – it’s all privatised in South Australia: the generation, transmission, distribution and retail components – and it doesn’t cost much more than electricity elsewhere in Australia. [ http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-25/fact-check-does-privatisation-increase-electricity-prices3f/6329316 ]

    Unqualified successes everywhere you look – especially if you’re blinded by ideology.

  16. Just the tip of the iceberg….

    “A private college accused of student loan rorts, the Australian Institute of Professional Education (AIPE), has collapsed and is in the hands of administrators only days after the federal government announced the closure of the VET FEE-HELP loan scheme used by the college.
    Via hot off the weekend presses AFR Epilogue by Tim Dodd

  17. Congratulations Professor. Many beneficiaries of your hard work will probably never know who they should thank.

  18. Have been a relatively uninformed (in the professionally-involved sense) observer of this private tertiary process unfolding, but also from much earlier than its advent. Way back in time there was, what appeared to be a tiered structure. Ivy walls, then (usually creditable) universities, then CAEs, then TAFEs.
    OK, here’s a notion I’ve had, and someone here will no doubt be able to set me right on some of it. I became a concerned by-stander watching the dismantling (or that’s how it appeared) of CAEs, which, I take it, awarded Graduate Diplomas. A younger friend, in his early 50s, was, I believe, such a graduate, and works as a professional Mech Eng. My observation is that he is no slouch at his job.
    OK, here’s the nub of my questions(s). Was Dawkins (he of the woeful Vocation college travesty) the instigator of this process? Was it brought in in order to institute a user-pays system, or at least to substantially increase fee debt/payments for people such as my friend?
    Does not Dawkins’ subsequent involvement in the Vocation biz give the game away as to the wider motivation for these changes?

    There was a newer University in WA that went broke (its name escapes me), and an academic wrote a paper (or book?) on the financial shakiness that befell some of the also-rans. I heard him talking to G Doogue about it. I subsequently attempted to contact him with a view to him passing comment on the above. He must have, (probably wisely), considered me to be somewhat of a nuisance. I never had a response.

  19. @Paul Henry
    Your #20

    Yes it was Dawkins as Education Minister in the Hawke-Keating government.

    But the CAEs were “dismantled”, they were promoted into being degree awarding “universities” – along with a bunch of Institutes of Technology such as RMIT which actually started out as The Working Men’s College of Melbourne in 1887.

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