No Regulation or Bad Regulation - has ASQA failed as a VET Regulator?

September 10, 2019

 

We are starting this article by quoting the now very famous speech of MP   Laming in the Australian Parliament: I rise after a nationwide investigation into the performance of ASQA ... This is not just a domestic issue; this is about brand Australia ... This aggressive and adversarial conduct is an enormous concern".

The full speech available here:

 

https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Hansard/Hansard_Display?bid=chamber/hansardr/c53753a5-4ecd-4871-a577-d7549f791ed2/&sid=0253 

 

It is  of great concern when the chair of a federal parliamentary committee launches an extraordinary attack on the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA), claiming “its audit activity is being misused to damage and, ultimately, wipe out some private training colleges and that the regulatory body is not currently focused on outcomes but rather administrative processes and  although these are an extremely important part of any RTO’s system, the idea of what the VET sector is all about quality training focusing on the student, leaves people asking the question, what happened?

 

Unrealistic expectations of the VET regulator 

 

This is one of the most common issues, we have been told by industry representatives, training providers and other stakeholders. Even the Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman (ASBFEO) has discussed this in one of the recent events organised by Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia (ITECA) “From my perspective that’s not good enough”.

Courtesy: ASBFEO. 

 

Auditors unreasonable demands and expectations at the time of the audi

 

Professional judgement is a complex issue in audit and its process is influenced by a number of critical factors. However, auditors must avoid unprofessional and unethical conduct during the audits. 

 

Auditors must conduct audits to review the systems and processes according to a set agenda and framework.   One of the most common feedback from the private sector is unprofessional and unethical behaviour from the auditors. The manner in which some of these officers interact with training organisation representatives has been explained as simply “bullying or harassment”. One of the RTO representatives commented on ASQA auditors demands and expectations as: 

 

“The auditor was putting unnecessary demands and pressure on me,  asking me to print everything in hard copy when it was given to her as a softcopy on a USB. She kept on pressuring that she wants to see the hard-copy documents in 1 to 2 minutes until I had to step up and say, “It takes me 2-3 minutes for me to go to my desk from the board room and then another 2-3 minute to print the document, how can I provide you with the requested copies in 1-2 minutes” 

 

Chasing an ever-changing goal post 

 

Training organisations are currently chasing an ever-changing goal post.

 

The State, Territory and Commonwealth Governments have collectively made 465 major reforms in the VET sector in the past 21 years. More information is available here https://www.voced.edu.au/vet-knowledge-bank-timeline-australian-vet-policy-initiatives 

 

This means one major reform every fortnight, every year, for more than two decades. This figure does not include changes made in the International Education Sector. 

 

How this is affecting Australian businesses providing training and education to students? How many more reforms or changes should the VET sector expect? Every time a regulatory framework changes, there is talk about reducing the red tape and getting a better, quality, effective training system in place. 

Are these changes causing more reputation damage to the VET brand? Who has made these policy decisions and how many of the decision makers have actually been employed or worked in the vocational education and training sector? How can organisations deliver quality if they do not get the required time to effectively implement and consolidate? 

 

Approving organisations only to close them down later 

 

A number of training organisations that were recently approved by Australian Skills Quality Authority are currently going through audits.  The audits are called when they are applying to add courses to their scope or are post-initial audits. The problem is not that they are going through audits within the 12 month period, the concern is that the majority of these are being shut down by ASQA on the use of assessment materials, marketing practices, training and assessment strategies etc and other documents that ASQA reviewed and approved 12 months earlier or less. 

 

Where is the consistency? What kind of regulatory body does this? 

 

“We have never cancelled or suspended an RTO for administrivia” says Mark Paterson AO, Chief Commissioner of ASQA. How does Mark Paterson reconcile this with overturning 50% of the cancellation decisions when he reviews them (generally within 6 months of the original decision). 

 

A solicitor has openly in a public forum questioned the practice: 

 

“The overwhelming number of adverse decisions following audits are currently being signed by the Chief Commissioner or 2 Commissioners thereby depriving RTOs from applying for further reconsideration/reassessment internally.  This might explain, in part, why there has been such a drastic increase in cancellation decisions based on what many RTOs (and their advisers) consider to be less than serious non-compliances.  

 

The interesting question is why almost all adverse decisions (that we are seeing at least) are being signed by the Chief Commissioner or 2 Commissioners directly following an audit.  There could be a reasonable explanation for this. However, the effect of this approach is that fewer RTOs are able to achieve compliance through internal reassessments/reconsiderations and therefore their registrations are cancelled upon signature of the Chief Commissioner or 2 Commissioners.

 

Engagement of the auditors 

 

Unfortunately, the regulatory body has moved away from recruiting officers that have a background in the education sector or even relevant industry experience to be able to effectively audit training organisations. 

Questions have to be asked with regards to how auditors are selected and engaged by ASQA. 

ASQA hire Lead Regulatory Officers to lead and supervise audit teams; make recommendations about RTOs compliance; make recommendations for Commissioners. Successful applicants are not required to hold legislated mandatory qualifications.

 

 

What process does ASQA use to put regulatory staff through their qualifications? According to AQF guidelines, Certificate IV and Diploma require a minimum of 1.5 years/1800 hours, up to 4 years in total/4800 hours to complete. So, does that mean that ASQA staff receive 4 years of training before they are in a position to recommend the shutting down of Australian companies? Who issues the qualifications?

 

 

When Mark Paterson AO commented on the first-ever strategic review as Chief Commissioner "a review of issues relating to unduly short training" did anyone review ASQA’s own recruitment practices or compliance with the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) and other relevant guidelines? 

 

Question regarding independence of ASQA’s Governance, Policy and Quality team

 

How many complaints against ASQA, its conduct and officers have been lodged since 2011? How many decisions were investigated and what actions were taken against the officers who conducted malpractice and were in conflict of interest situations?

 

There seems to be a significant disconnect between the lived experience of training providers and the messages that come out of ASQA and its auditors and officers. Where is the breakdown occurring? Who audits the auditors and officers?

 

Outcomes of the expert reports

 

Professor Valerie Braithwaite’s review of Vocational Education and Training Sector

 

The National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act (the NVETR Act) of 2011 was requested to be reviewed by Canberra-based academic Valerie Braithwaite in 2017. This act "underpins the operations and activities of the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA)." The report was submitted on January 2018 with 23 recommendations to the Government.

 

It is accessible here: All eyes on quality: Review of the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act 2011 report