VET student numbers are falling. Why?

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A recent article by Linda Simon in John Menadue’s ‘Pearls and Irritations’ highlighted the falls in government-funded student numbers in TAFE. She examined why this might be so using the most recent NCVER data released in 2018.

But maybe the problem is wider and longer standing than that as the NCVER’s timeseries data from 1981 until the present shows. Recent work by Victoria’s Mitchell Institute, which was highlighted in an earlier article also suggests that if the drop in student numbers continues, “VET would become a residual sector.”

What Simon says

She reports that:

 “The recent figures (2016/17) show that the number of students enrolled in 1874 government funded training institutions (which include community as well as TAFE) fell by 5.9% compared to the previous year, dropping numbers to 1.2 million.”

However, the NCVER data show that the equivalent fall for private providers was just over 8%.

So, what does Simon put this down to? She suggests the falls are due to cuts to funding, higher up-front student fees, the lack of accessible courses and locations, competition with universities and a falling confidence in the VET brand as a result of the range of scandals that have plagued the sector in recent years. She also suggests that poor public policy and the move to a marketised approach have also played their parts. She concludes that:

“A change to … public policy and a reinvestment of funding in TAFE, would go a long way towards encouraging students to enrol in TAFE, and would help to prevent the skills problems that are looming.”

The NCVER data tells other stories too

The majority of government-funded students were in TAFE or other government providers (52%), but around 40% were studying with private providers and nearly 6% in community education. The rest (2%) were studying at more than one type of provider. The rises and falls in student numbers between 2016 and 2017 are also interesting. In 2017, the balance between males and females is fairly close with males making up 51% of government funded students, while females make up the remaining 49%.

NSW showed the largest fall in student numbers, and only the ACT showed growth in 2017. The largest falls in numbers of participating students between 2016 and 2017 were in older age groups: 25-44 (a 7.4% decrease) and 45-64 (11%). Female student numbers fell by around 4%, as did the numbers of those with a disability (4.2%) and studying part-time (6.4%). Males dominate certificate level programs, with around 81% of them studying at this level, compared with 68% of female students. The reverse is true for higher level qualifications though, with females making up just over 17% of female students studying at diploma level or higher compared with only about 7% for males.

Turning back time

In 1981, there were just under 700,000 students in publicly funded VET. Numbers first hit over the million mark in 1992 and first reached the present (2017) level of 1.2 million in 1993. Numbers steadily increased to a peak of 1.7 million in 2002, and then declined again to around the 1.2 million mark in 2003-04 only to rise and fall again between 2011 and 2014. The key question is, what will be the trends, or the ebbs and flows in the numbers of government funded students in the future? Will VET become a residual sector or not?

VET student numbers are falling. Why? | VDC