This study investigates the relationship between VET course durations and training quality and outcomes. Feedback from discussions with training practitioners, representatives of industry and government, and relevant Skills Service Organisations reveals that for many there is a tension between a desire to respect the non-time-based principles of a competency-based training system, and for durations to be specified and of adequate length to enable trainers the time to effectively cover required content, and students adequate time for learning and practice. Although course durations on their own are not felt to guarantee quality outcomes, they are felt to be a key factor when suitably aligned to the level and size of the qualification, and the demands of the intended occupation. The statistical analysis of subject results in four different areas showed higher proportions of subject withdrawals at RTOs with the highest median course durations. This in turn resulted in lower shares with a pass in courses of longer median durations.
About the research
The connection between course durations, training quality and outcomes is of great interest to regulators, providers, industry stakeholders and the students themselves. In 2017, the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) undertook a strategic review of the issues related to unduly short training, recommending ‘that training package developers be able to respond to industry-specific risks by setting mandatory requirements, including an amount of training’(ASQA 2017, p.114).
The ASQA review also noted that terms such as ‘amount of training’, ‘duration and volume of learning’ are often used inconsistently. Discussions with stakeholders during this research similarly revealed that the terms are sometimes used interchangeably.
This research focused on the following qualifications: Certificate III and Diploma in Early Childhood Education and Care; Certificate III in Individual Support; Certificate IV in Disability; and Certificate II and III in Security Operations. The research was conducted in two parts: a qualitative analysis through consultations with providers, regulators and industry stakeholders to investigate how course durations affect the quality of training, and a quantitative analysis of course durations and how they affect subject outcomes.
For the quantitative analysis, duration is calculated as the length of time between a student starting and finishing training activity within a course, based on graduates who have not been granted recognition of prior learning (RPL) to complete a qualification. The resultant figure was then used to divide registered training organisations (RTOs) into two groups — those with the lowest graduate course durations and those with the highest.
- The consultations highlighted some unease between the desire to specify minimum course durations to ensure that providers act appropriately and the desire to uphold and apply the fundamental features of competency-based training (generally perceived to be not time-based). This tension may always exist however in a system aiming to be flexible enough to meet the skill needs of different students and industry sectors, but rigorous enough to ensure that providers meet the quality standards required.
- The common view among study participants is that a high-quality training experience is not solely determined by the length of the course. Nevertheless, courses considered to be an appropriate or adequate length are those perceived as providing sufficient time for teachers to ensure that students can acquire the theoretical knowledge and practical skills to attain and demonstrate competency, and for assessors to conduct rigorous, reliable and valid assessments of student performance. These are deemed to be the key factors in producing high-quality outcomes.
- Quality is also perceived to be mediated by student and teacher ability and talent, as well as availability of and accessibility to required resources. These include: up-to-date and useful learning resources, equipment and materials; functioning online technologies (where permitted for training); and valuable practical experiences, via suitable work placements or realistic simulations (in the case of security qualifications).
- Any specification or guidance on ‘course durations’, ‘amount of training’ or ‘volume of learning’ for qualifications should be based on the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) level; the complexity of competencies and knowledge that are to be achieved; and the amount of content to be covered. It should also take account of the prior experience and knowledge of individual students.
- The statistical analysis finds that, across qualifications, typical graduate course durations for providers (as indicated by the median) vary across a range of course durations.
- In terms of how course durations affect outcomes, the only clear observation was a consistent pattern of higher proportions of withdrawals at courses with the highest median durations. This in turn resulted in lower pass rates for courses with longer durations. For some qualifications the differences are more marked than others.
- Regardless of course duration or the level of occupational licensing regulation applied in some jurisdictions, very high pass rates are observed for Certificate II and III qualifications in Security Operations by comparison with the average pass rates of other qualifications at the same AQF level.
The consultations with providers, regulators and industry peak bodies identified that course durations are among the key facilitating factors in a high-quality training program. On the other hand, the only clear observation emerging from the statistical analysis of the study’s qualifications of interest was a consistent pattern of higher proportions of withdrawals from courses with the highest median durations.
Evaluating how course durations affect the educational achievement or practical performance of students is not an easy task. Our stakeholder consultations have helped to provide some explanations about how course durations can affect the quality of the student training experience and the development of knowledge and skill, while our statistical analysis has shed some light on the relationship between course duration and subject results. Taken together, they provide us with nuanced picture, one that suggests that ‘time’ in courses is only one aspect of the issue. Other crucial aspects include understanding teacher excellence in training delivery, the extent to which students have mastered the skill and knowledge to the required standards, the relevance of the qualification to both students and industry, and the extent to which the training delivers the desired employment and or further training outcomes for the students. Also important are the indicators of employer and student satisfaction with training and the validity of assessments.
Key lessons from the field
Providers, regulators and industry peak bodies from across the community services and security areas displayed little appetite for accepting the qualifications of registered training organisations (RTOs) that advertise and/or deliver qualifications in extremely short durations, particularly those offered over a weekend. Furthermore, the research identified a widespread tension between the desire for course durations that ensure that RTOs have enough time to cover the required content, as well as to provide adequate opportunities for student learning and practice, and the application of the fundamental philosophy of competency-based training, which is, in theory, not time-based.
There is generally strong support for the notion that course durations — of appropriate length for the qualification concerned — do play a part in achieving high-quality outcomes in our qualifications of interest. Adequate course durations give teachers the time to facilitate the comprehensive learning of the required knowledge and practical skills by students; students to put the learning into practice; and assessors to conduct rigorous assessments that result in valid and reliable judgements of student competency.
Course durations are, however, considered only part of the picture, with some providers giving more prominence to them than others. Other factors play a role in determining whether the durations are sufficient to achieve the desired outcomes. These relate to the individual attributes and capacity of the students, trainers and assessors, and workplace mentors. Also important are the availability of the required support, equipment and materials and the opportunities for work placements, as well as the volume of content to be covered.
A further issue influencing durations is the requirement for employers in some growth industries to have quick access to trained personnel to meet workforce demands or regulatory requirements; that is, having workers trained in shorter time frames.
In relation to the education and caring qualifications of interest to our study, providers and most other stakeholders strongly agree that course durations do, and should, vary according to whether the student is a new entrant to the industry or has previous course-related and industry experience, and whether the student requires extra tuition and time to acquire skills to the required standard. Providers from regional locations also indicated that typically students who live in regional, remote and rural locations will need to undertake their learning via distance learning or e-learning methodologies, which are dependent on access to reliable internet and telephone connections. When accessibility is interrupted, the amount of time that can be used for learning is reduced. Students in these areas are also dependent on the availability of work placements from a more limited number of centres.
In terms of the security qualifications examined, the situation is complicated by the differing licensing requirements across jurisdictions. In some states, for example, the number of hours and days that must be completed are mandated, as are the modes of delivery to be used (namely, face-to-face delivery). In other states, more flexibility is allowed, enabling the use of online learning for some components. However, even in states where course durations are mandated, providers recognise that hours may have to be increased when students require more support. The consultations also uncovered instances where providers exceeded the state regulator’s licensing requirements — for the purposes of not only assisting students who need more time to achieve the competencies, but also to meet their own specific requirements.
The concept of ‘amount of training’ is not always understood as separate from the concept of course duration. Good examples of how ‘amount of training’ can be used are provided by the Australian Security Industry Association (ASIAL), the peak body for the security industry, in its application of the concept of ‘auditable hours’ to ensure that students acquire adequate training for their occupations. The ARTIBUS and Innovation Skills Service Organisation (SSO) has also applied the concept of ‘amount of training’ by specifying the number of times that certain skills need to be demonstrated to prove competency. The Australian Skills Quality Agency (ASQA) has reported industry support for developing and applying concepts like ‘amount of training’ to training package guidance materials to ensure that RTOs do not apply unduly short durations, while SkillsIQ, the SSO developing the early childhood education and care qualifications, also reports some interest from employers on these issues.
Any specification of course durations, or ‘amount of training’, should also take account of the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) level of the qualification, the volume of content to be covered, the complexity of the competencies, and the type of knowledge to be achieved.
There is strong support for maintaining the mandatory work placements for qualifications in Early Childhood Education and Care, and Individual Support and Disability, requiring at least 120 hours (and often more) for certificate III and IV qualifications and 240 hours for diploma qualifications. The Certificate II in Security Operations is the exception, in that this industry does not accept students for work placement or experience; instead, realistic simulations are an essential part of the training.
A review of the Australian Qualifications Framework is currently underway. It remains to be seen whether it raises any issues about the suitability of the current ‘volume of learning’ hours that are attached to different levels and types of qualifications.
Findings from the statistical analysis show that most providers are not delivering the selected courses in the same duration and that they vary across a range of durations. For the Certificate III and Diploma in Early Childhood Education and Care, Certificate III in Individual Support, and Certificate IV in Disability, we observe that:
- The main difference between the RTOs with the lowest and highest median graduate course durations was the proportion of subject withdrawals. Students studying at RTOs with the highest median course durations withdrew from relatively more subjects than students studying at RTOs with the lowest median course durations. This situation is then reflected in the higher proportions of subjects passed by students at RTOs with the lowest median graduate course durations, compared with RTOs with the highest median graduate durations.
- For some qualifications, the differences in subject results achieved between RTOs with the lowest and highest median graduate course durations are large. In the Certificate III in Individual Support, the proportion of student subject withdrawals at RTOs with the highest median graduate course durations is over 10 times that of those at RTOs with the lowest median graduate course durations.
- The higher subject withdrawal rates associated with longer graduate course durations amongst these courses may possibly be attributable to the fact that longer course durations may have a more substantial and sustained effect on work and life commitments than shorter course durations.
- With one exception, subject fail rates were not observed to vary markedly with typical lower and higher durations (as indicated by the median). The exception to those general trends was the Certificate III in Early Childhood Education and Care, where there was a higher proportion of subjects failed by students at RTOs with the lowest median graduate durations.
- Median durations were also analysed by funding source and provider type, although no consistent pattern across the qualifications was noted. By funding source, median durations for domestic fee-for-service-funded training (compared with government-funded training) were slightly shorter for the Diploma of Early Childhood Education and Care (2 months), but longer for the Certificate III in Early Childhood Education and Care (1 month). Similarly, by provider type, median durations were slightly shorter at private training providers (shorter by 2 months compared with TAFE institutes) for the Diploma of Early Childhood Education and Care, but longer for the Certificate III in Early Childhood Education and Care (longer by 1 month compared with TAFE institutes). Median durations across funding sources and provider types were similar for the other qualifications (where there was a sufficient number of graduates to analyse).
Very different patterns to these other qualifications are observed for both the Certificate II and Certificate III in Security Operations:
- Almost all subjects were passed, irrespective of whether students were at RTOs with the lowest median graduate course durations or at those with the highest median durations.
- Across both qualifications, the proportion of subjects passed was at least 97%, compared with 83% across all certificate II level qualifications and 79% across all certificate III level qualifications.
- We observe the same patterns of very high pass rates even in those jurisdictions that are highly regulated (including Western Australia and New South Wales) and which also support high levels of independent assessment.
- Further investigation may explain why such patterns of very high passes occur in the assessment of these qualifications.
Although statistical information on course durations can provide some markers for action and decision-making, it cannot, on its own, tell us very much about the quality of the training delivered or experienced. Although we can speculate that students have withdrawn because they have been able to get a job without the qualification they originally thought necessary, or that work and other life commitments have become a priority, we require more information about the actual student experience in the training program to make any definitive comment on the link between duration and withdrawals and ultimately, course quality.