It is a word that is used easily and widely. It is a word that we readily understand, but I do not believe that quality is something that actually exists in VET, but I do believe it should.
Because what quality is to you may well be very different to what quality is to me. And that is for one simple reason: we do not all want the same things. Let’s look at an example, starting with some students.
Timmy and Tammy both want to do the same qualification. Let’s just call it ‘the Qual”. They both enrolled with ABC Training to do the Qual.
Timmy was confident he was competent and was keen to get the piece of paper as quickly as possible. He found some of the assessments to be “unnecessary” for someone who had his experience and believed that RPL was meant to be a shortcut. It ended up taking him longer than he wanted.
Thinking back, what Timmy wanted most was a short course. Doing it thoroughly was not as important to him as getting it done quickly. For Timmy, quality was something that he could get done in a period of time that suited him. Timmy did not believe he got a quality program. It took too long, and he had to do more than he wanted to do.
Now, the other student is Tammy. Like Timmy, Tammy was also confident she was competent and was keen to get the piece of paper as quickly as possible. She found some of the assessment challenging – not because it was hard, but because it highlighted to her some gaps in what she knew and how she had been doing things. That gave rise to further learning.
Thinking back, Tammy had certain things that she wanted. She wanted to engage in a process of professional reflection to gain confidence in herself. She would not think a short course would be a quality one because getting it done fast was not her main aim.
It is something we hear frequently and something that, following the regulatory action of recent years, is not surprising. The regulator seeks an environment where there are more quality providers. Their risk-based model of regulatory action is intended to focus their resources on those providers who are in some way of lower quality, with those providers being charged for the additional regulatory scrutiny deemed necessary for them.
The benchmark for quality is, however, unclear.
Regulation is based on the Standards for RTOs, but the definition of quality application of those Standards does not appear to exist. Instead, reliance on metrics of compliance, such as complaints history, determines whether regulatory activity occurs.
Recent changes in the handling of complaints is an example where unclear definitions of quality can magnify the challenge for providers.
Let’s think back to Timmy, above. Yes, he got the piece of paper, but it took him much longer than he wanted it to. He was having a conversation with a colleague, Tommy, over lunch one day. Timmy was lamenting how long it took him to get the Qual, and Tommy just sat back and laughed. Tommy had done the same Qual with XYZ Training and in even less time, less hassle, and at less cost. Timmy was enraged, wrote a scathing 1-star review on a popular rating site (the same one where Tommy had left a 5-star review raving about his quality experience), and complained to ASQA. (Tammy was intending to leave a review about ABC but never got around to it.)
Over a couple of years, a number of other ‘Timmys’ did the same thing.
The number of complaints that had been recorded about ABC Training reached a point where the Regulator became concerned. Clearly, enough mud had been thrown for some to stick; ABC Training was scrutinised and required at their own cost to defend their requirement that students participate in a program of learning that exceeded their own preferences.
Meanwhile, XYZ Training continues to flourish – the lack of complaints to the Regulator and repeated favourable reviews helps them to keep doing what they do, enjoying high margins and the comfort of reduced scrutiny.
Tommy continues to recommend XYZ to his colleagues, and Timmy continues to warn people about ABC Training. Tommy’s skills are not as good as what his employer would expect from the Qual, but because that seems to be normal among staff, the employer puts it down to the qualification being poor quality.
Tammy seems to have better knowledge and skills, but although she has the same Qual, her attitude is different from the others and so her boss puts her additional skills and knowledge down to Tammy’s own attitude and aptitude. After all, most people who hold the same Qual don’t have the same ability as she does; she is a quality employee, but the employer does not link that to being a quality graduate.
Over time, the employer tires of wearing the cost of poor graduates, and the cost of retraining them. If the qualification cannot provide the necessary level of vocational preparation, then it is not a quality qualification.
They move the Qualification from the Essential to Desirable Requirements.
Tammy is getting a bit disillusioned. She is surrounded by colleagues who possess the same piece of paper, and who earn the same income as she does. Most were done at places like XYZ Training. Yet, every day she experiences the deficiency of skills and knowledge among them. She receives an email from a colleague who knew she graduated from ABC Training. Apparently, they are on the news. They have gone into administration after being sanctioned by the Regulator due to the number of complaints, despite their Training & Assessment Strategies clearly aligning with the Volume of Learning Indicators. Their manager makes an appearance and simply says that they just tried to do the right thing; they could have gone through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal but just did not have the money. The person interviewing her makes her out to be dodgy. A representative from the Regulator appears briefly and asserts that they will not tolerate poor quality providers.
Meanwhile, XYZ Training posts a record profit and is purchased by a private equity firm who see it as a quality investment
My Year 11 Biology teacher once said:
If you cannot say it, you do not know it.
Of course, at age 16 I disagreed.
Now, some decades later and thinking about Quality in VET, I find myself thinking that Ms Dangerfield was spot on.
If we cannot collectively say what Quality is – and is not – in VET, what it looks like and what it doesn’t look like, then I fear that we will continue undermining anything that might otherwise contribute to the very outcomes that we would agree are desirable.
Published 17 February 2020
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Amy Weeks is an employee at Fortress Learning