Insights Blog

VET has too many qualifications and is too complex

VET has too many qualifications and is too complex

13 June 2012, by Assoc Prof Leesa Wheelahan

Leesa Wheelahan is Associate Professor at the LH Martin Institute. She has published widely on lifelong learning, tertiary education policy, student equity, recognition of prior learning, credit-transfer and student articulation between the sectors of post-compulsory education and training, cross-sectoral relations between the VET and higher education sectors, and the role of theoretical knowledge in curriculum.

Her new book: 'Why knowledge matters in curriculum: a social realist argument', Routledge, is now available.


The Australian vocational education and training system is too complex, too expensive and yet too easy to for VET providers to enter. It has too many qualifications that take a lot of money to develop for too few students.

There are currently 170 registered higher education providers in Australia, and 4900 ‘active’ VET registered training organisations. In 2010, the biggest 100 VET providers (that is, 2% of all providers) delivered 86% of teaching, while only 61 VET providers had 1000 or more equivalent full-time students.

In 2012-13 the Australian government allocated almost $19.5 million to the higher education regulator – the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Authority, while it allocated almost $32.8 million to the VET regulator – the Australian Skills Quality Authority.

Each year, the Australian government spends millions of dollars to support 11 industry skills councils to develop qualifications for their industries. Qualifications are part of a ‘training package’ for that industry and providers are required to offer only approved training package qualifications unless there isn’t one in the appropriate area. In 2010, 70% of VET students undertook training package qualifications compared to 66% in 2009.

In 2010, there were at least 1416 training package qualifications offered by VET providers. The median number of equivalent full-time students in these qualifications was 34. That is, half of these qualifications had fewer than 34 equivalent full-time students, and half had more than 34. This is not the median number of equivalent full-time students in each qualification in each VET provider; it is the median number in each qualification in Australia. In universities, each qualification needs to have at least 25 equivalent full-time students, or management will come hunting.

Some 13% of training package qualifications had no student in 2010, while 56% had fewer than 50 equivalent full-time students. In contrast, 14% of qualifications had more than 500 equivalent full-time students, showing it is possible to get at least some economies of scale.

There is obviously something very wrong. We have an expensive edifice that doesn’t work and declining confidence in qualifications. Quality is a problem which hasn’t been solved by the establishment of ASQA and is unlikely to be fixed for as long as ASQA persists with the flawed framework which it inherited. Millions are spent creating qualifications that aren’t used effectively which are delivered by thousands of small providers that teach few students. Moreover, it is some small private providers that have ruined Australia’s reputation amongst international students, and are well on the way to ruining VET’s reputation with domestic students.

Australia needs a new approach to developing and accrediting qualifications. An alternative would be to allow each provider to develop its own qualifications and require them to be accredited by a qualifications authority. This is the model used in higher education to accredit qualifications offered by non-self accrediting higher education institutions.

This would very quickly reduce the number of VET providers by a couple of thousand. Only providers that are serious and have the necessary resources and capacity would develop their own qualifications. It would create a market in qualifications, rather than a market for the price charged for qualifications, which only drives down fees and quality. This approach should suit serious private providers and TAFE institutes because it would give them the opportunity to distinguish themselves in the market and escape from restrictive training packages. Our research on other countries shows that when institutions develop their own qualifications, staff have a much greater investment and sense of ownership of those qualifications.

Qualifications would still be nationally portable because they would be developed using simplified core national standards and based on a national assessment framework in which core components are either assessed externally or externally moderated. Local accreditation committees would include industry representatives, similar to the role professional bodies play in accrediting professional qualifications in higher education. This would give industry far more input into qualifications than is currently the case, because it would influence the structure and design of the qualification, curriculum, syllabus, assessment and requirements for teaching staff. Representatives from schools and higher education would also be included to support the development of pathways.

Economies of scale would be achieved because providers would only develop and accredit qualifications that attracted sufficient numbers of students to make their investment worthwhile. Consistency would be maintained and proliferation of different types of qualifications would be avoided by a national assessment framework and simplified standards, just as it is in nursing or engineering. There will be some areas where it will be impossible to have economies of scale (such as the Certificate III in Sawdoctoring) and alternative arrangements will be needed, just as they are in higher education in similar circumstances. However, the system should not be organised around these small number of cases.

Increasing the cost of entry by providers (as this approach would do) is needed because we need to improve the quality of providers and their qualifications. The point of VET is not to spend millions creating an infrastructure that supports thousands of small providers that contribute minimally to VET, but to create a high quality VET system with qualifications that are trusted.

More information about the median full year training equivalents in each industry skills council is on the LH Martin Institute website.

Table 1

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June 27th, 2012 at 3:24pm
Julie Wallis
More common sense from Leesa Wheelahan, providing more evidence of the failure of Training Packages: full of qualifications that are never delivered.
When will we be rid of these politically conservative, socially stifling giant tomes which are failing all stakeholders? If innovation has an enemy it's the Training Package.
June 27th, 2012 at 7:45pm
Mark Burford
Spot on in every respect. A healthy market with a manageable mix of public and private providers (one of the biggest mistakes made was to let many providers enter the market with too low barriers to entry) and spirited choice among options is needed. Training packages are an expensive near monopoly that obscures quality and choice. There are huge efficiencies to be gained by harmonization between the regulators - dare I suggest one regulator for tertiary Ed?
June 27th, 2012 at 8:51pm
Rob Fearnside
I am currently working in the accreditation agency in Hong Kong (which serves both VET and Higher Education) where individual operators create their own qualifications using competencies created by Industry Councils. There are fewer qualifications and less operators in the VET sector which combines both public and private operators.
July 5th, 2012 at 10:36am
Chris Butler
Sorry Leesa you are badly informed. The data you have quoted is not accurate in any way. The data does not include any provision of training services that does not attract government funding. NCVER only publishes data of funded positions. You only receive data from Public providers. There are four provider groups, public, private, commuity and the largest being Enterprise. May I suggest you view and look further into your topic.

I do agree with some of your criticism but you do not have the whole picture.
July 7th, 2012 at 2:31pm
Gavin Moodie
@ Chris Butler

1 The data includes privately funded vocational education offered by Tafe institutes, and so is more comprehensive than you claim.

2 There is no reliable data on the size of private providers, so it is not possible to say how many students they enrol nor even the relative size of different private providers.

3 The article is mostly about the waste of public resources and so it is appropriate to concentrate on publicly funded vocational education. There is no criticism of businesses spending whatever they like on qualifications with tiny enrolments.

4 Even if privately funded vocational education doubled the full year training equivalents in each qualification, the median enrolment in training package qualifications would be 68 full year training equivalents - in all of Australia. That would still be far to0 small to be efficient and warrants a review of the policy that results in such inefficiency.
August 20th, 2012 at 11:50am
Certificate IV in Training and Assessment
While I agree that Australia’s Vocational Education and Training system has some faults, it is also very important in creating a skilled nation and addressing the current unemployment crisis. Over a third of young Australian participated in Vocational Education and Training in 2011 and this figure is constantly growing!
January 28th, 2015 at 1:48pm
John Henningham
I agree that colleges developing their own qualifications is an excellent way to ensure ownership, commitment and continuous industry interaction. When founding Jschool Journalism College in 2001 after decades in the university sector I faced the challenge of developing an accredited course, the Diploma of Journalism, that met academic and professional requirements as well as the needs of students seeking useful vocational education and training. It is a huge commitment and cost to develop a course and to maintain accreditation through regular updates and external audits, but very satisfying to achieve positive industry response and employment outcomes.
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