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Certificates, security and trust in the VET sector

edited August 2015 in onCourse discussions
A recent missive by ASQA has highlighted some problems with trust in the RTO sector. The VET system as a whole was designed to create trust. Trust that when a potential employee comes to a job interview with a Certificate IV in Foo, that they have undertaken training in Foo to a minimum standard. Employers have learnt how different types of certificate correlate to knowledge they need staff to have.

But the VET system hasn't solved all problems of trust. ASQA still struggle with RTOs rorting the system for what funding they can extract from it, rather than competing on the quality of training they can deliver. And programmes like Smart & Skilled with funding completely out of whack with commercial reality has made the problem worse.

But this recent letter from ASQA demonstrates another struggle with trust. How can employers trust that the certificate they are looking at is real?

For the most part, employers they don't care as much about the validity of a qualification as they do about the employees ability to demonstrate the skills they require. Typically VET qualifications might help a candidate get an interview, but the employer will conduct their own assessment of whether the candidate is qualified during both the interview process and their early stages of employment. And when it really does matter as a question of safety, other organisations have stepped in to fill the gap.

Nothing is more telling than the High Risk Work industry. In NSW, WorkCover issues its own photo ids for accreditation and they also have their own list of approved RTOs. WorkCover trusts neither the ASQA accreditation process as being sufficient to guarantee quality, nor the ability of RTOs to issue unforgeable id cards. And they solved some real problems very nicely. A builder can learn to recognise a single common photo id card for the entire state. RTOs don't need the cost of building sophisticated anti-forgery systems and collect 100 points of id. Rather they focus on delivering quality training. And builders don't need know which of thousands of RTOs they can trust... they instead only need to trust WorkCover issued cards.

Similar schemes are in place in most states in Australia.

Part of the problem is the large number of RTOs. It is impossible for an employer to be familiar with them all. And impossible to ask RTOs to each put in place duplicate systems for checking id, printing tamper-proof photo cards. Imagine if Australia had bank notes which were printed with different designs from each of 5000 different organisations. There would be chaos and certainly very little trust in the currency.

The problem isn't that RTOs are doing a crap job of issuing certificates. It is that the problem of validity is almost impossible to solve. As an employer I couldn't be sure a degree from a major university was authentic, without phoning the uni to check. However ASQA's recommendations amount to little more than printing certificates on nice paper with pretty colours. Unless I know what a real certificate looks like, they don't help. A forger is more likely to find a certificate template on the internet and put words and logos on it, than they are to break into the RTO at night and steal their letterhead.

It is no good asking every RTO to have a separate online verification service because an employer cannot keep track of 5000 websites, 5000 different services and which ones are legitimate. And if you can't trust the piece of paper, why would you trust the barcode on that piece of paper points to a legitimate online verification service? I might trust but would I trust

Of course ASQA could have been part of the solution rather than telling RTOs it is all their fault and their problem to fix. But imagine if the USI had actually been designed well, rather than being yet another layer of red tape. Imagine if AVETMISS had been a national single point of data collection, perhaps updated in real time using a modern API. Imagine if employers could enter the student's details, their USI and RTO into ASQA's own website to verify a qualification. Universities in the UK managed to achieve it.

What is needed to work on this problem is:

* a national data collection that doesn't sometimes go through state training authorities
* an API to allow that data to be collected and submitted in near real time
* rethinking the purpose of the USI, and in particular the requirement that the number is a secret and cannot be printed on certificates. The USI isn't a password and shouldn't be treated as one.
* recognition that ASQA can have a role to provide services to the VET sector rather than just being a stick to whack them with

Where to from here? We work with a large number of RTOs across a range of industries and have had conversations about certification that have ranged from automatic emailing of certificate PDFs to students, to providing re-print services to students via the skillsOnCourse portal and building an onCourse RTO verification service for potential employers. Some of these ideas conflict with the ASQA suggestions, but meet a real life business need.

We're still kicking around ideas at our end, but we'd love to hear from you - how can we best serve you in solving this problem for your RTO?


  • Ari. I think that the crux of the matter is summed when you say that there are too many RTOs. In my now many years working in adult education, I have never seen the emphasis on so called VET qualifications so high and perhaps the quality of the outcomes so low. Indeed, the supply of RTOs to the market far outstrips the demand for qualifications and artificial incentives that stimulate the market such as VET Fee HELP and Smart and Skilled have exacerbated the problem. Clearly, rorting will continue as long as the incentive to rort outweighs the threat of punishment. i.e.. get in quick, make lots of cash and get out. I can't see how validating certificates will fix a system that has grown well past its intent and purpose.

  • sigh This is really an ASQA issue. The whole purpose of the USI is to centralise the recording of qualifications. It makes sense that any verification system stems from that data and, to ensure credibility, a verification system should be developed by ASQA that is made available to employers and the public. Even if they gave API access for RTOs to develop their own solutions, or if RTOs developed solutions themselves based on their own data, does this really solve anything? Just because a website "confirms" that a certificate authenticity request is legitimate, it doesn't make it any more authentic that a piece of paper - it merely transfers the potential for fraud from paper to digital. The fundamental issue here is authenticity of the verification source, and that can only be fully achieved if there is one known place to verify qualification data. ASQA needs to take responsibility and provide a publicly accessible authentication mechanism, otherwise the USI is a meaningless data repository to store information for a student that they already know.

  • I don't agree that the number of RTOs is too high. But certainly the effect of a VET system is to lower the average quality of delivery. Wait, did I get that the wrong way around? No...

    By setting a minimum standard and a semi-monopoly on being allowed to deliver VET, a capitalistic system tends to move toward lowest cost delivery that just barely meets the standard. There is little room in the market to explain how your delivery is so much better than the minimum, because that's drowned out in the noise of "but the minimum is good enough" that ASQA and other players in the VET sector are broadcasting.

    Look at what's happening right now in the taxi industry. The government set up a cartel that you could buy your way into at great cost. Yes, there were minimum standards, but what a minimum! And people are sick of it. They want a better product, and finally Uber has come along not just with a better product but also with the marketing ability to describe why it is better. Taxi companies yell "our quality is government guaranteed and it is good enough!". Uber are just smiling.

    VET is a little different and it is harder to explain why your delivery is worth more. Is it the free biscuits or better tutor? In many courses students just don't care. They aren't interested in learning about the Responsible Service of Alcohol, just getting a piece of paper.

    But for longer and more sophisticated courses, how do you get out the message that your Cert IV in Business Management is worth more on a resume than the one from Courses'R'Us? And how do you do it over the official noise claiming all courses are equally good because ASQA audits ensure it.

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