vocational education and training

Why the markets can never teach us how to care for the aged

In the lead up to the Federal election, aged care has emerged as a major point of difference between the two major parties

This focus on aged care is long overdue but behind the headlines lies another serious policy failure. Aged care workers are prepared for their jobs by vocational education and training courses. Described as the neglected middle child of education, the vocational education and training sector has endured waves of market-based reforms that have weakened public training institutions and hollowed out qualifications. The quality of education is important in all industry areas but in sectors such as aged care, the stakes are so much higher. 

The urgent need to improve aged care is core to Labor’s election campaign. In his budget reply speech, Anthony Albanese promised to implement the findings of the Royal Commission, including mandating the 24/7 presence of a registered nurse in residential aged care facilities, improving food, and increasing accountability for aged care providers. Labor also advocates a wage increase for aged care workers, and promises to fund any increase resulting from the work value case before the Fair Work Commission 

Aged Care is not comfortable territory for the Coalition Government. The performance Richard Colbeck, The Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care has been roundly criticised. The Royal Commission was scathing about the inadequate monitoring and preparation for the pandemic.  A study presented to the Royal Commission, found poor quality care to be concentrated in the for-profit sector.

Aged care was covered in Josh Frydenberg’s pre-election budget speech but not as a core theme. Frydenberg recommitted the Government to the five year aged care plan announced outlined last year, supplemented with the some additional new funding. 

The Morrison Government is more circumspect when it comes to wage increases. While it has indicated that it will support the Fair Work Commission’s ruling it has made no commitment to providing the required additional funding. 

A sector in crisis 

The Royal Commission has documented in forensic detail the crisis in the aged care. This includes the appalling level of care and horrific abuse suffered by many residents of aged care facilities. It has also highlighted the difficulty of gaining access to the home-based services that could allow people to remain independent for as long as possible.  

The Royal Commission also focused on the aged care workforce. It linked the conditions of care to inadequate staffing level, poor quality training, and conditions of employment of aged care workers, which is characterised by precarity. 

Identifying this connection is vital. There has been a tendency to pit recipient and providers of care against each other. Championing the rights of workers can be seen to undermine the rights of the people in their care (and vice versa).   

The intersection between the interests of recipients and providers of aged care was brought into stark relief by the pandemic. Without secure employment, aged care workers were moving between residential facilities. Without sick leave, workers were compelled to work even if they were unwell. Pandemic pay and restrictions were introduced as temporary measures to reduce the risk, but the model of insecure employment remains intact. 

To address the abuse, the neglect, the injustice experienced by elderly people there must be consideration of the capacity and conditions of employment of the aged care workforce. This requires examining the foundational ideas underpinning aged care. 

Undervalued work

As a first step, we must confront a manifestly inadequate social settlement around care work, both paid and unpaid. Powerful fantasies of autonomy lie at the heart of the liberal political ideas that underpin our institutions. This obscures reality that we all rely on the care and support of others throughout our lives. 

Care is devalued and care work is gendered, classed, racialised and internationalised. The increasingly transnational nature of care work has been disrupted but not eradicated by the pandemic. Under these conditions, the provision of care work involves multiple levels of oppression. One clear manifestation of the way care work is undervalued is the way it is dismissed as unskilled and poorly paid

Marketisation of care and education 

The serious failures in aged care are forged at the intersection of market-based reforms in human services and education. 

Marketisation has been presented as the only way to achieve high quality, responsive and efficient services. This is not the result of inevitable evolution in service delivery but the consequence of a deliberate policy choice. The narratives supporting marketisation deflects attention from the foundational ideas informing these reforms and from alternative approaches

Over the past two decades, person-centred approaches have been introduced in aged care. Placing the goals and aspirations of older people at the centre of the design and provision of services is an urgent matter of justice. How it has been achieved, however, is the subject of debate.  

In Australia, and elsewhere, the goal of person-centred care has been realised through forms of marketisation. Independence, autonomy and dignity have been reframed as individual consumer choice

At the same time, marketisation has transformed the vocational education and training sector, which provides qualifications (mostly at Certificate III level) for aged care workers. The reform of Australian vocational education has resulted in the introduction of a narrow form of competency based training, demand-driven funding, and the allocation of government funding to for-profit training providers. 

The quality of the courses preparing aged care workers have been found to be extremely variable.  To be valued, qualifications need to be trusted. As a bare minimum, we need confidence that graduates have developed the knowledge, skills and attributes specified for their qualification. 

The promise of marketisation was that competition and choice would produce more efficient and innovative training that responded to the needs of employers and students. Instead, a ‘tick and flick’ approach to training emerged, one that is incompatible with the development of the knowledge and attributes that lie at the heart of effective practice. 

There have also been extraordinary opportunities for rent-seeking

Markets are not neutral. The introduction of elements of marketisation has a profound impact, reshaping our institutions and the services they provide.  A process of commodification transforms care and education from relational to transactional exchanges. This is reinforced by Human Capital Theory, which continues to influence education in Australia and internationally. The result is a narrow understanding of education in terms of an investment to increase an individual’s value in the labour market

The transformation of the Australian vocational education and training sector has been described as one of the clearest failures of neoliberal public policy. The work to repair the damage continues  with a clear need for systemic reform. 

The development of transactional qualifications to prepare workers for poorly designed transactional jobs has a terrible human cost. One of the challenges is the marketisation and commodification encourage approaches that set interests of providers and recipients of aged care in competition. 

Beyond the marketplace 

 A society is not just if people are not able to receive the care they need. Justice cannot be achieved if the people providing that care experience considerable hardship because of a failure to recognise and value their work. 

If we are to address the tragic conditions in aged care we must, as a nation, provide adequate funding but we need to go further and address the structural conditions and flawed underpinning assumptions. 

The complexity of the relationship between the provider and recipients of care and support needs to be better understood. Transactional approaches have not transformed the conditions documented by the Royal Commission. They have introduced new forms of oppression and an exploitative social settlement around care. The flawed assumptions underpinning Australian training markets create a much riskier environment for the most disadvantaged and produce poor quality education. In the area of aged care, the consequences of inadequate qualifications are particularly damaging.   

We need a ways of understanding care that can accommodate the needs and wishes of people requiring care without sacrificing aged care workers’ conditions of employment. We need a form of vocational education and training can prepare people for work, for changes in jobs and industries, and for social citizenship. 

This blog post draws on the article: Leahy, M. (2022). Person-centred qualifications: vocational education and training for the aged care and disability services sectors in Australia. Journal of Education and Work, 35(2), 181-194. https://doi.org/10.1080/13639080.2021.2018409 

Mary Leahy us a researcher at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. She has an extensive background in research and policy development, focussing on access to education and employment. Her research examines educational and employment pathways, vocational education, trade union education, gender and the philosophical underpinnings of social and economic policy. Mary is the Lead Chief Investigator on an ARC Linkage project examining the history of the Trade Union Training Authority.

VET FEE-HELP as a driver of ethical dilemmas for vocational education teachers

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.


sonalSonal 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.