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Fragmentation and photo-ops: the failures of Australian skills policy through COVID

Apprenticeships TAFE Private training providers Vocational education and training Educational evaluation Australia

Strong vocational education and training (VET) systems are vital to the success of dynamic, innovative economies and inclusive labour markets. Australia’s VET system once provided well-established and dependable education-to-jobs pathways, but a combination of policy vandalism and fiscal mismanagement plunged the VET system into a lasting and multidimensional crisis. During the pandemic, the federal government has pursued further VET restructuring through the implementation of several wage and training subsidy programs at the cost of several billion dollars. This has deepened the 'contestable market' experiment unleashed in the 2000s, by subsidising further decentralisation of course content, delivery and student recruitment to unaccountable for-profit training providers. Meanwhile, more TAFE institutes have been closed and enrolments have continued to decline.

There is no evidence the skills pipeline has been either 'protected' or replenished under current government VET policies. Short-form, piecemeal units of study have expanded, while accredited quality training has collapsed by over 500,000 enrolments since 2015. Shockingly, all VET enrolment growth over the last five years has been in non-accredited programs, which have grown by almost 70,000 enrolments since 2015.

Australia’s vocational education system was once the source of well-established and dependable education-to-jobs pathways through apprenticeship and traineeship programs. However, the system underwent dramatic restructuring after 2012, with funding cuts to the TAFE institutes, expanded scope for private training providers, and delivery of large public subsidies through individual students. The subsequent collapse of many private providers, combined with declining capacity in the TAFE system, and scandals involving the misallocation of public subsidies, have deeply damaged once-reliable vocational pathways.

This report presents comprehensive evidence of the continued erosion of Australia’s vocational education system, despite several high-profile announcements of new skills programs made during the COVID pandemic. The report catalogues several indicators of training quantity including plunging enrolments, but also measures of training quality, including growth in training by provider type (e.g., TAFE and private sector), training by remoteness/region and gender, whether training is formally regulated and accredited, and how many apprenticeships have progressed to genuine completion. The report confirms that key VET performance indicators have not only failed to improve in the pandemic era, but in many cases have worsened.

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