Much of the focus on the educational impact of the coronavirus is falling on schools and universities, but the vocational education and training (VET) sector is also quietly suffering through many of the same problems.

And just like in universities, the crisis is revealing bigger faults in the system.

VET is ‘not equipped’ for this

“The way we’ve designed the system isn’t equipped for what potentially comes over the next few years,” Peter Hurley, policy fellow at education policy think tank the Mitchell Institute told Crikey. “It just doesn’t take into account the possible permutations of the post-COVID-19 world.”

Part of the problem, according to the experts Crikey spoke to, was the decentralised system of regulation and funding under which providers operate.

“The approach to VET in Australia is very fractured,” Hurley said. “There are thousands of different rules and different funding levels for the same course applying from one state to another.”

According to Professor Erica Smith, who trains VET teachers at Federation University, the system has stymied both the industry’s ability to advocate for itself, and its ability to formulate a quick, cohesive response to the crisis.

Funding for VET is also at its lowest level in more than a decade. This is one of many factors having a big impact on the ability of VET providers to adapt.

Learning online learning

Like universities, VET providers have been scrambling to put their material online. Smith told Crikey the process wasn’t as developed in the TAFE sector as it was for universities.

“The difficulty in moving it online is symptomatic of a wider distrust — online learning hasn’t been all that popular in VET for a lot of reasons,” she said.

“A lot of TAFEs don’t have the resources, and often the teachers themselves don’t have the education that prepares you for this kind of pedagogical shift.”

On top of this, a national organisation which helped advise the industry on online learning (the Flexible Learning Advisory Group) was dissolved in 2014. “There’s not the infrastructure, the learning or the research to make this change easily,” Smith said.

She said that, in the absence of that national infrastructure, providers are rushing to purchase online learning tools which might see “further incursion of the private sector into TAFEs”.

Of course, the other problem is many elements of trades simply don’t translate to online learning. Andrew Shea, CEO of the Master Builders Association, told Crikey that while construction has been thus far insulated from the process, the industry would be keep “a very close eye” on how long the lockdown would continue.

“In some cases that’s going to require a realistic conversations between employers and apprentices about flexible responses — whether that’s postponement, or possibly moving certain elements online,” he said. “But there are core parts of construction that simply can’t be assessed online.”

Last in, first out

This crisis has the potential to wipe out a generation of apprenticeships as businesses shut down and people are unable to complete their training.

“Apprenticeships are incredibly sensitive to wider changes in employment,” Hurley said. “For example, during the 1992 recession there was a 5% increase in unemployment which resulted in a 25% drop in apprenticeship numbers.”

“There’s a pipeline effect: changes in the number of new apprentices take between six months and a year-and-a-half to flow through into total apprentice numbers. [This] means that a decline in new apprentices can be felt for many years to come.”

International issues

In 2019, there were more than 283,000 international student enrolments in VET.

International students are exempt from federal coronavirus assistance — though state governments like Victoria have stepped in — and those who cannot support themselves were helpfully reminded by the prime minster that “there is the alternative for them to return to their home countries”.

Hurley says this is also a consideration. “It’s not as major as it is for unis, but obviously, it’s a hugely important revenue stream for TAFEs.”

What happens now?

“Certainly VET needs more money pumped into the system,” Hurley said, pointing to a number of anomalies between funding arrangements for university and VET.

“And we need to look at maintaining current numbers of apprentices. Firstly that can be done by offering more incentives to businesses to take on apprentices.” Another option is intermediate labour market programs

“They’ve traditionally been used as a bridge to employment for the long-term unemployed, [but] they can help keep apprentices in work while the job market is weak,” he said.