Compliance or Quality: The dilemma plaguing vocational education providers

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In Australia, if you want to be awarded a certificate under the Nationally Recognised Training scheme, you need to enrol in course delivered by an RTO (Recognised Training Organisation). To be an RTO, the institution will have to undergo periodic audits by ASQA (Australian Skills Quality Authority), the national regulator for vocational education and training.

The reason ASQA came about was to weed out fraudulent and poor quality institutions,  thereby protecting the public and upholding standards of quality in education. It ensures that different institutions are following the same curriculum and standards when it comes to specific qualifications. So in a way, there is a place and a purpose for ASQA. However, when does too much of a good thing become a problem?

The main way ASQA performs its role is through audits. They audit the institution’s ability to comply with regulations, paperwork and standards set out for the courses they conduct as an RTO. Some of these audits are announced and some of them aren’t, meaning that institution must be always on their toes. If you have ever gone through an audit, it can better be described a bureaucratic challenge. It requires copious amounts of time organising paperwork, records and other documents needed to prove compliance. Ultimately, the objective of ASQA and its audits is to make sure that institutions are providing quality education, but in practice this is exactly what they are keeping these same institutions from doing. The pendulum has now swung to the other extreme and institutions now have to dedicate a disproportionate amount of time and energy to prepare for these audits. This involves time and energy from all involved, especially teachers and directors. Time spent on audits is time not being dedicated to students. How so? Firstly, audits require energy and time and ends up draining teacher’s energy for the classroom. Secondly, time spent in audits is time not spent on preparing for lessons and other coursework. Thirdly, this time could be better spent helping students in need. Finally, the time used in audits could be used to look for better ways of teaching.

The rigour and frequency of these audits now mean that the main focus for teachers in RTOs is to pass audits rather than provide quality teaching and education for students. The very thing that ASQA is trying to protect is what it is destroying. When a teacher’s main goal is to pass an audit rather than provide quality education it means it is time to reassess what role compliance plays in providing quality education.

The proof? Many reputable organisations are now opting out of being RTOs so that their staff can focus their energy on teaching, which is what they are qualified and enthusiastic to do in the first place. This is a big decision because, it is still the case that if a student doesn’t have a Nationally Recognised Training certificate their training will not be recognised by their respective industry. (i.e. a remedial masseuse can’t register so that his or her clients can get health fund rebates). It has a significant impact on a professional’s ability to do and market their work. It is a self-perpetuating regulatory and bureaucratic nightmare. So it is a big call for an organisation to choose not to provide their students with recognised training. What is interesting is that students are still enrolling in these institutions because they get that education is far more than just a number and a logo on a certificate.

I had my own experience in an RTO, which after one day, I dropped out of a course because all the teacher spoke of was paperwork and audits and that is not what why I signed up.

So as ASQA’s thirst for compliance increases through increased number of rigorous audits, one will have to make the choice between compliance or quality as both no longer go hand in hand.

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