RTOs of the Near Future – Part 1
I’ve been working in the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector for more than 14 years in a Director role, and more recently, for the last 10 years as the CEO at Education Institute – an RTO specialising in employee training and organisational development. While I am definitely still in love with our VET industry, I also fear that many more public TAFEs and private RTOs perhaps are not quite well equipped to withstand the fast-changing nature of the VET space, and more generally, the demands from our Australian economy.
What do I mean by that?
I’m not one to judge or rant about all the things that are not ideal within our sector; today I am simply going to focus on some basic solutions to the real challenges that we experience today and well into the future. The goal of this article is to share some insight into some of the lessons I’ve learnt over the years in vocational education and some of the strategies we have been implementing to overcome the challenges that lie before our feet.
I think everyone can agree that the band-aid method of trying to fix a problem will not work, and yet many VET organisations in our industry continue to use this method! Experience tells us that the best approach to achieve genuine improvement is to find the core root problems, which a lot of the times seem to stem from the beginning of any process. While I am happy to see that we are leaning towards stronger regulations and legislation, I feel that our industry has a huge opportunity to raise its standards and expectations of approving any new RTO licenses.
The fact that an individual – who may very well be an exceptional trainer and assessor but only holds a Certificate IV in TAE and equivalent level certificate in the course that they plan to train in - does that really warrant the industry to allow him or her to open a licensed RTO that could potentially access government funding, either directly or indirectly, within a short amount of time? Many of us can certainly think of a few examples when the operators seem to have very little interest in whether the students have a good learning experience or if they can handle and digest the course content. That’s not to mention whether these students will actually be able to join the workforce with usable skills after graduation.
I get it - this point has been well debated and worked on over the years. Nevertheless, what are we actually doing to stop those who are purely interested in profiting through delivering sub-standard training? We are all very aware of, and often lament about, the dodgy training providers that are severely damaging our industry reputation, isn't time that we should create mechanisms to stop ill-intentioned providers from entering into the VET market?
With the new VET reform underway, there are many questions that demand urgent answers from all of us. However, regardless of the changes that inevitably will come, it appears that focusing on delivering quality and running a high performance team is the only way for VET organisations to stay in business.
We operate in a people-based sector and the RTOs of the future will continue to attract and create exceptionally valuable professionals. While technology is also a huge key to our outlook, it's the people in our operations that will actually drive innovation and high performance productivity. Without the high capability and skill set which we all need to operate through in an ever-changing sector such as VET, in my opinion, sustainability is frankly impossible. It’s the people factor that underpins the operations of the whole sector. They are our most important asset, setting one VET organisation apart from the next. In this ever-changing business environment, we need passionate, flexible, and quick-thinking doers in order to succeed. Capability building is no longer a case of “why?” but “how can we afford not to?”.
RTO owners and managers stand before an extraordinary test: making their organisations stronger in a sustainable way. In a market of great volatility and uncertainty such as this, industry leaders – whoever they are – are not guaranteed to stay at the top for very long, and finding a real and enduring competitive advantage is hard to achieve. How do you secure success? The answer is clear: we need the right people with the right skills supported by the right structure, processes, and tools.
One of the current challenges I see is that our VET operational qualifications are not standardised across the sector and / or mandatory. Just because someone has completed a high level qualification in another field, does this really qualify them to operate in a senior role responsible for making decisions within a licensed RTO, which will inevitably affect a student experience and ultimately the effectiveness (or impact) that said student has on the Australian economy?
We have now entered into an aging population phase and it's rapidly rising. This ultimately means that for the Australian economy to even maintain a level of sustainability into the future, our training providers have to become the vital backbone to ensuring there are enough new qualified professionals entering the workforce. As a generalised statement, if we're not investing into ensuring that our staffs are well qualified, skilled, and capable of delivering a high standard, high performance RTO; then I feel our Australian economy at large is also at risk because they are both tightly linked.
The concept of combative rivalry really needs to stay in the sporting arena and not the Vocational Education and Training sector. I've always found it strange that training providers aiming for the same students don't actually work together and collaborate through partnerships. One of the core reasons why public and private RTOs find it so difficult to sustain high performance standards is because, on average, most training providers are not filling their classrooms. And, well, when training providers are not filling classrooms, they're forced to cut out other aspects out of their business, which diminishes the possibility of maintaining a high operational performance standard.
I would love to see more public and private VET organisations come together and eliminate the concept of antagonistic rivalry and start to embrace togetherness. This should not be a “zero-sum” game and there certainly are win-win situations for both sides. Through a togetherness model, there is so much we could share, such as people, policies, processes, systems, technology, resources, development of training resources, shared training facilities and a lot more.
After all, isn't the purpose of the Vocational Education and Training sector all about creating highly skilled and valuable professionals who are going to enrich the Australian workforce and economy? Wouldn't it be better to work under a togetherness model and share our ever-growing operational costs? Wouldn't it be better for a group of RTOs that share the same courses to come together with the best of their minds to develop the ultimate course resources? We could simply share the load of industry consultation, planning, development and maintenance amongst the togetherness groups, as oppose to facilitating 100% of these time-consuming and expensive processes on our own.
Imagine what you could do with all the time you could save by sharing the load! Imagine your students entering into full classes and how that would improve your financial situation.
I challenge you to step out of the traditional mindset with which we have been operating, and really consider this concept. Instead of viewing other organisations only as competitors, look at them as potential collaborators. It doesn’t have to feel like it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.
As they say, competition makes us faster, but collaboration makes us better.
We all understand why the VET industry is highly regulated, however I think we all agree that regulation is also strangling the larger focus on quality education and training outcomes. Up until the last few years, when technology took a huge step forward through true mobile cloud based / Software as a Service (SaaS) technology platforms, we have been forced to continue to invest into employing more people - to simply ensure that we are operating a highly compliant RTO. While I personally am incredibly lucky to have an exceptional team working under me, I am also highly aware of the difficulty it takes to find and hire highly skilled people in this sector. The ongoing task of attracting capable and experienced professionals into your team is time-consuming, expensive, risky, and also distracts part of the business from focusing on more value-adding tasks such as improving the student experience.
While it is indeed crucial to have a skilled workforce that underpins the entire operation of a VET organisation; there comes a time when it's simply not viable to continue plugging in (or band-aiding) the operational gaps with new staff. In our experience, technology has come a long way and we are finding that the right technology can help your RTO to reduce operational waste, human errors, data duplication, and lead-time from enrolment through to issuing a certificate. Doesn’t it make more sense to let your staff focus on what they do best and leave the routine tasks to an automated system?
We forecast that the right operational technology platform will be able to save us at least 30% to 40% of our operational time, which will allow the team to spend more time on higher value adding tasks and projects. At EI, we invest in CirculateRTO, which takes care of our workflow on top of being a mobile-ready learning management system, and I couldn’t be happier. This will move our operational model from a knowledge-driven one to technology-driven, standardising all of our processes so we are not reliant on certain people to facilitate specific tasks. It doubles as a risk management strategy in the case that we come to lose a valuable staff member – after all, when the right technology is embedded, the RTO will not slow down or drop its operational effectiveness.
CirculateRTO works for us, but I know there are other technology solutions out there and no two VET organisations are the same. Some might be using traditional LMS such as Moodle or Blackboard, some rely on business-oriented CRMs, some don’t even have one. Differences also come in the level of capability of your staff, whether your organisation is geared for changes, and student expectations.
Nonetheless, above all, my personal recommendation is that if you earnestly want to be a high performance RTO now and in the future, you should be investing at least some of your focus on finding the right technology that can help you to achieve your goals; as without it you're not going to be able to maintain a sustainable business model while all of your other operational costs continue to increase. I believe that harnessing the power of technology for the vocational education sector is no longer in the “nice-to-have” basket, but rather, in the “must-have” one.
Thanks for your time reading. I am going to continue sharing my insights and observations. If you would like to discuss about anything I have shared, please feel welcome to contact me directly - email@example.com or you can find me on LinkedIn.
- Opinion piece contributed by Nathan Ryu. Nathan is the CEO and founder of Education Institute, a Registered Training Organisation (RTO) delivering nationally recognised qualifications throughout Australia.