The government loan scheme that helps eligible vocation education and training (VET) students pay their tuition fees, called the VET FEE-HELP, was extended to courses offered by private providers in 2013. The expansion of the scheme was introduced with the good intention of developing life-long learning and giving opportunities to more students by allowing them to study at a wider choice of institutions.
However, the scheme was abused by some Registered Training Organisations for their financial gain with little consideration of its impact on individuals, and on society. Between the beginning of January 2013 and the end of December 2014, the Australian Skills Quality Authority, which oversees the quality of VET provision across Australia, received 110 complaints with a VET FEE HELP component.
Many complaints have been reported in the mass media, relating accounts of unscrupulous providers who are seen as having abused the scheme through prioritizing its income-generating potential over its educational, training, and equity purposes. In response, there have been a number of formal reviews and reports on the scheme, particularly the ‘post implementation review’, the subsequent discussion paper by the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education in 2012, the review for the Australian Education Union by Yu and Oliver in 2015 and the discussion paper by ACPET this year.
The unethical practices employed by some RTOs in implementing the VET FEE-HELP scheme have raised more wrath and negative publicity raising ethical and moral questions about the initiative.
The ethical dilemmas faced by teachers
This led me to research the dilemmas faced by VET teachers faced with the unethical practices. My study involved eighteen participants who were currently teaching VET courses. Ten of these acknowledged the VET FEE-HELP scheme to be seriously flawed causing ethical dilemmas for them.
The four dilemmas I identified are:
- unethical student recruitment and enrolment practices
- overlooking traditional educational standards
- constraining teacher responsiveness
- manipulating learning assessment.
All four dilemmas were reported by the ten identifying participants as being driven, in part, by the introduction of the VET FEE-HELP scheme. The teachers were experiencing the impact of the scheme – as a part of that contemporary cultural context – as putting them into a state of internal conflict, unable to resolve the demands of imperatives generated by the implementation of the VET FEE-HELP scheme with those of their traditional moral values.
Some of the teachers’ responses are:
VET FEE-HELP is a bit of anomaly, in what that now does. They are supposed to make the candidate aware that it is not a free course.
I mean, how much profit do you need to make, for heaven’s sake? You know, I think people lose sight of the fact that this is education. But some people are using it to furnish themselves with Mercedes Benz, and Maserati’s, I am pretty sure.
The teachers, some of them have become facilitators and they are under pressure to pass candidates. And I have seen it with RTO’s telling the teachers that, well, if you won’t sign them off, I will get someone that will.
I have often found it outrageous that with VET FEE-HELP, an ethical organisation may charge for a Diploma in Management, eight thousand dollars. Some of them will charge twenty-three thousand. How can you have such disparity?
With VET FEE-HELP, we are supposed to get them ready for job. It is not ethical, when they [the RTO] basically, are just picking anyone, long time unemployed or anyone and without assessing the literacy level.
There were severe ethical implications for the teachers who were working in such unethical environments. Their professionalism was being reconstructed and redefined. Importantly, my research exposes the nature and depth of the impact of the VET FEE-HELP scheme on the work of the ten participating teachers. The VET FEE-HELP reforms were seen by them to be driving their employers to expect that they would prioritise non-educational, marketplace and commercial values over educational ones. Their very identities as teachers were being challenged.
Conform or resign
The two options left for teachers were: either to suspend morality and conform to the expectations of the RTO or resign from their jobs. In absence of any ethical training, the teachers adopted the approaches as they deemed fit, sometimes challenging the practices or sometimes giving in to the pressures to maintain their job.
The dilemmas, in the context of the VET FEE-HELP initiative, are grounded in and highlight the dissonance between the expectations of the traditional moral commitments of the participating VET teachers as teachers and the demands of their contemporary workplace culture under the influence of the VET FEE-HELP scheme. On the one hand, the teachers were trying to be true to themselves as professionals, caring for the learning and wellbeing of their students, responsible for their own actions, and mindful of the influence of their decisions and actions on the standing of their profession, and on the welfare of their colleagues. On the other hand, they were faced with demands of the contemporary cultural context that run counter to those values, calling on them to make decisions and act in ways that undermine their traditional moral commitments as teachers.
Most significantly here, it is not just the importance of the VET FEE-HELP scheme in contributing to the dilemmas created by the changing contemporary cultural context of VET teachers’ work, but the fact that the identifying teachers all felt completely ill-prepared to deal with such dilemmas.
The impacts of the scheme on the work of VET teachers have been largely overlooked. My study has opened a window to those impacts, but much more opening of such windows is needed.
Sonal Nakar is a current Ph.D. Scholarship Candidate and a Sessional lecturer in Professional, Vocational and Continuing Education at Griffith University. Sonal conducts research in Vocational Education and Training (VET) and allied areas and has a long standing interest in understanding the ethical dilemmas faced by the vocational trainers in the times of a rapid change. Prior to moving into the tertiary sector Sonal worked in the education and training area, starting as a teacher with the Department of Education and Training, Queensland and then furthering her interest as a trainer in a Training organizations and working in diverse roles as a program designer, trainer and manager.