Karen and I attended the ASQA Training Provider Briefing in Sydney the other day. Frankly we found the session to be uninspiring. But even more concerning, the tone of the session, as set by the Chief Commissioner, was defensive. His comments were also negative when referring to recent recommendations for change in the sector. At a time when there is so much talk about quality and a call for ASQA to do more to promote a partnership approach to regulation, this is very disappointing!

ASQA’s Chief Commissioner started with a clear definition of their purpose which is ‘To provide nationally consistent, risk-based regulation of vocational education and training (VET) that contributes to an informed, quality VET sector that meets Australia’s needs’ and then went on to talk at a high level about the regulatory activity undertaken from 1 July 2018 to 31 March 2019. This information was also disappointing as it lacked the depth of detail that we have become used to in recent years. Last year for example, the presenters used a helpful case study approach to explain the issues of concern around assessment etc. I know the Chief Commissioner is not an educator (he actually stated that ASQA personnel are not educators during the session) but when addressing a room full of educators, it would be wise to consider ways to effectively engage with the audience and deliver value for those attending the session!

Sprinkled through the presentation this year were references to recent reviews of the VET sector; to the findings and recommendations. It was clear to us that the Chief Commissioner is not happy with some of the findings and recommendations. We all want to protect our patch and he is right to defend the work that ASQA has been doing, but his resistance or disapproval at some of the findings was palpable! The Chief Commissioner referred to myths about ASQA that were identified in the Joyce review. He reported that the ‘myths’ were most probably the result of unhappy RTOs unloading their grudge against the regulator. But there are two sides to every story. So a categorical statement from the Chief Commissioner that claims of inconsistent auditing and a focus on minor administrative no-compliances ‘do not happen’ was not wise. Why? Because many of us have seen these ‘myths’ actually happen over the years. The uneasy relationship between regulator and provider will not be soothed by making such bold claims in a forum of providers.

As we wrote in our blog in April, two of the key points of focus of the two recent reviews of the sector is quality assurance and how ASQA can work more closely with the sector. If you remember, we were skeptical about the ability of a very distant regulator to change their ways to work in partnership with providers. We were hoping that we would hear from ASQA about strategies to shift to a more supportive approach i.e. to encourage a proactive continuous improvement approach to compliance management in RTOs. But we fear that our skepticism was warranted.

What we saw on the slides was this:

ASQA is working to promote a partnership approach to regulation focusing on:

  • raising providers’ awareness of opportunities for continuous performance improvement
  • motivating providers to strive to meet compliance requirements
  • providing pathways for providers to develop quality practice.

The Chief Commissioner also showed slides that outlined how ASQA have been bench-marking national and regulatory practice to determine what action they could be taking to support quality across the sector. The findings of bench-marking exercises were that:

  • there is support for risk-based regulation,
  • education and information are valued and
  • that more recognition and support is required for quality practices.

But it seems that ASQA are still perplexed about what to do because the key findings, as reported during the briefing were just statements about what they are already doing i.e. focusing on areas that present the highest risks to the sector and subjecting quality providers to less regulatory intervention and lower costs.

What Were the Real Messages of the Session?

Despite the words on the slides, what was said during the Chief Commissioner’s hour-long presentation and the question time that followed showed ASQA’s real attitude towards the review recommendations.

  • At least 4 times during his presentation the Chief Commissioner mentioned that ASQA’s job was to audit RTOs against a set of minimum standards not quality standards.
  • At least 3 times in his presentation the Chief Commissioner spoke about requests from RTOs for assistance to navigate the Standards. His response was quite astonishing and narrow in focus. He said that if ASQA was to start ‘telling’ RTOs what to do, the advice would be based on what RTOs have done in the past, and thus would limit RTOs moving into the future because old information was being provided. This would mean that ASQA may be preventing RTOs from being innovative!’ Really?
  • The Chief Commissioner also mentioned that it would be very difficult to partner with providers to improve quality in the future when ASQA moved to a full cost recovery model. He clearly cast doubt on the possibility of providing support with achieving quality outcomes.

Our Concerns

The Problem With Risk-Based Auditing

ASQA are busy telling us all that their current risk-based auditing approach is important in their efforts to promote a partnership approach to regulation but in reality, how can it be? Whilst we have no problem with the regulator gathering intelligence to build risk profiles on providers, the shift from application driven to risk driven audit schedules means that they have less interaction with RTOs than ever before. So how can that promote partnership?

The current focus on the poor performing RTOs may also have negative impacts on the approach to auditing in the long run. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of RTOs who are not actually performing well because they don’t know any better. These RTOs would benefit from more frequent surveillance, particularly if it was offered in a supportive partnership style relationship. These poorly informed RTOs can remain under the risk radar and can be left to go about their business without knowing that they are compromising on the quality of their training and assessment. In fact, we have worked with many RTOs who are very proud of their efforts and who have great connections with their industry and their students. But in many cases, they provide limited learning opportunities for students and their assessments are non-compliant. For example: they do not assess skills or meet unit requirements and their marketing and enrollment processes are poorly thought through. In some cases they may not see the regulator for 7- 8 years and when they receive a letter to tell them that their registration is to continue without an audit, they heave a sigh of relief and tell everyone that they have ‘made it’ through the registration process. What happens then? Everyone relaxes for a few years and quality is unlikely to improve.

Of course, we know that an RTO can be audited at any time and we certainly make this clear to RTO owners in our education programs, blogs and books, but the old reactive approach to compliance management is difficult to change. We fear that the RTOs who are just left alone will become complacent and perpetuate poor practice that will ultimately impact student outcomes over time. They may be happy at not having to pay fees for audits but are they forming a partnership for quality? Not at all.

Perception Is More Powerful Than Reality

During the session the Chief Commissioner spoke about the many calls that ASQA receive each year asking for information. Are you one of those people who call them? Or, do you hesitate before calling? We find that RTOs are fearful of asking the regulator a question in case the request leads to some kind of investigation. I have had to ask ASQA questions on behalf of clients on a number of occasions because of this fear. This perception is of course made worse with the risk profiling because you just never know what information they have on file!! This lack of trust is not conducive to building partnerships. RTOs need role models; they need education and they need support along the way without fear of retribution.

Support Is Not Just Telling

Whilst we understand the desire of the regulator to remain independent so that their audits can be objective and Standards driven, telling RTOs what to do (as mentioned by the Chief Commissioner) is not the only way to provide support!! From experience in other education sectors we have observed that other regulators actively support educational providers to prepare for accreditation processes. Mentoring or coaching, information sessions etc can go a long way towards building trust!

ASQA Is In the Business Of Regulation Not Education

This was actually another statement made by the Chief Commissioner during the session. We do understand this but this is an education sector. Is it too much to expect that someone in ASQA should understand educational principles and be given the task of designing effective interactions between the regulator and providers? Is it not important to provide a good role model to providers? We remember VETAB (in NSW) offering a range of education programs for providers to help them get established. Is it not just a duty of care to the sector to provide some assistance?

Suggestions for Proactive Partnerships

The Case Management Approach

Why not establish a ‘Case Management’ section of ASQA so that RTOs who are coming up for renewal and who will have to undergo an audit, can be supported as they prepare for the event? Is it not in everyone’s interest to assist RTOs to prepare for audit? Auditing should not be about tricking people and if a Case Manager, who is not involved in the actual audit can be of assistance to a provider to ensure that they comply with the Standards for RTOs 2015, won’t the audit experience be a smoother one for everyone involved?

How can ASQA work more effectively with providers?

We suspect that changes will only be possible if the mandate of ASQA is changed in legislation. The purpose of ASQA presented earlier separates the regulator from the sector. All they have to do is provide the ‘regulation’, the ‘informed, quality VET sector’ is clearly not ASQA’s responsibility. So, the Chief Commissioner is within his rights to baulk at the notion of becoming more involved with quality. But the questions asked in the recent reviews are around the success of the current approach and suggest areas of concern. It is not helpful for anyone in the sector if the regulator becomes defensive and resistant to change. The regulator cannot change the legislation but it was made quite clear during the session that they have influence. Perhaps it is time for providers to become more vocal about what they need in the sector and from their regulator. Remember, there are at least two important players here…..

What Did You Take Away From the Briefings?

As the heading of this post suggests- this is our take on the recent ASQA briefings? Perhaps you heard something different or more positive? We would love to hear from you. What would you like ASQA to be doing in the future? Do you think it is possible to forge quality partnerships between regulator and provider? Let us know your thoughts.

How Can We Help You To Become Focussed on Quality and Not Just on Compliance?

We always advocate the proactive and continuous improvement approach to quality and compliance management. If you are interested in this please contact us and we will help you turn your RTO practices around, if that is what you need.

In the meantime, why not read our book: The Essential Guide to Building a Successful RTO. It will provide you with a guide on how to be proactive, plan and implement quality training and assessment systems and build an effective RTO team.

Gillian and Karen

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