Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on VET

By Daniella Trimboli, Melinda Lees, Zhihui Zhang Research report 25 May 2023 978-1-922801-12-8


This research explores the key impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on various aspects of VET and examines how students and training providers have responded in a rapidly changing and uncertain environment.


About the research

When the COVID-19 virus was declared a worldwide pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in March 2020, no one could have anticipated the extent to which it would impact on all aspects of Australian society, including the vocational education and training (VET) sector — nor for how long. The VET sector has always prioritised practical experience and face-to-face engagement between learners and trainers, an underpinning characteristic of the sector that has been affected at every level throughout the pandemic. In 2023, it is now clear that while the fundamental structure of VET has remained intact, COVID-19 has significantly reorganised the business practices of training providers and its impacts on the sector will be long-lasting.

This research assembles a range of quantitative and qualitative data to map the key impacts of the pandemic on VET students and providers. Student enrolments, outcomes, and satisfaction data from 2020 through to the end of 2021 are compared with pre-pandemic data (2019). Augmenting these data are qualitative findings from consultations with peak body representatives and interviews with training providers from across Australia.

Key messages

  • The COVID-19 pandemic brought particular challenges to the VET sector, affecting mandatory work placements (MWPs), student enrolments and engagement, and staff wellbeing and retention. Students in disadvantaged cohorts were most severely impacted, as were students and training providers located in the states or territories where infection numbers were high and public health mandates proportionately more intense.
  • The impacts on training provider financial viability as a consequence of reduced student enrolments and completions were substantial, with training providers reporting a decline in these areas in the early stages of the pandemic, some recovery in late 2020 and into 2021, and either stabilisation or further decline in 2022.
  • Training providers reported several operational changes in response to the pandemic, the most significant being the transition to blended delivery modes, changes to hygiene practices, and new approaches associated with flexible work arrangements, communication strategies, and wrap-around services, such as mental health and wellbeing programs. These offer lessons for both alleviating pain points and highlighting areas of opportunity arising from the pandemic.

Executive summary

Both documented and anecdotal reports of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on some aspects of the vocational education and training (VET) sector and specific student cohorts are widely available (Avis et al. 2021; Community Colleges Australia 2022; Pennington 2022; Pilcher & Hurley 2020; Skiba 2020; TAFE Directors Australia 2020). The aim of this project is to identify the impacts the pandemic has had on various aspects of VET and to examine how the sector has responded to the resultant, rapidly changing and uncertain, environment. This report collates and, in some cases, updates existing data to identify trends and develop a summary of the overall impacts on the VET sector.

The methodology for this project involved a comparative analysis of 2019, 2020 and 2021 total VET activity (TVA) data on enrolments and completions, as well as an analysis of data from the National Apprentice and Trainee Collection, National Student Outcomes Survey, and the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY). An analysis of regulatory data to compare the number of registered training organisations (RTOs) operating in the sector over the past three years was also undertaken. Qualitative methods, in the form of semi-structured interviews with peak bodies and training providers, supplemented the quantitative data analyses. These findings were further supported by a summary of the results of NCVER’s late-2020 interviews (NCVER 2020) on the pandemic’s impact on mandatory work placements (MWPs) and key findings from two recent NCVER reports on online learning (Hume & Griffin 2021, 2022).

Longley and Clarke (2022) argued that many of the challenges facing the Australian VET system were exacerbated rather than caused by COVID-19, a point largely confirmed by our research findings. Inflexible mandatory work placements; access barriers for learners (including the digital divide); delays in developing training that accommodates shifting industry demands; and difficulties in engaging young people in further education and training were all challenges for VET that predated COVID-19 but which became more pronounced once it had arrived.

Tertiary education at large was disrupted by the introduction of public health restrictions that required students and staff to remain off site, necessitating remote delivery of services (Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training 2020; Erlam et al. 2021; Tertiary Education and Quality Standards Agency [TEQSA] 2022). However, given that practical, hands-on training is an integral part of VET, it follows that the VET sector more acutely experienced the impacts of social distancing, travel restrictions, and the need to rapidly adapt to anticipated changes in labour markets (OECD 2020).

Internationally, the pandemic gave rise to other challenges for the VET sector, including the lack of teacher and trainer competence in multi-modal delivery; the need to reorganise learning environments; disrupted transitions from school to VET and from VET to work; and socio-psychological impacts on learners (Association of Colleges 2021; European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training 2020; German Office for International Cooperation in Vocational Education and Training 2022; Hoftijzer et al. 2020). These challenges also held true for Australia (Clarke 2022; Crawford 2020; Pilcher & Hurley 2020; Vector Consulting 2021) and were evidenced in this research, although, for the training providers we interviewed, the upheavals in the learning environment, together with staff capability and student engagement difficulties, were most frequently mentioned.

Apprentices and trainees were particularly affected by the pandemic-related restrictions (Hall 2021), with more than one in five Australian apprentices and trainees reporting that the on-job-training component of their study had been delayed by COVID-19 in 2020 (NCVER 2022a). While these figures later rebounded strongly, suspensions in apprentice and trainee contracts increased by over 650% in March and April 2020 and by nearly 300% in May, by comparison with 2019 figures (Hall 2021). Additionally, there were significant declines in new apprentice and trainee contract commencements in the first months of the pandemic; namely, in April and May 2020. The industries hardest hit by suspensions included Arts and recreation services; Accommodation and food services; Transport, postal and warehousing; Retail trade; and Agriculture, forestry and fishing (Hall 2021). Furthermore, 6.7% of people who completed training in 2019 were temporarily stood down in 2020 due to COVID-19, and 34% had their work hours reduced. Young women aged 18 to 24 years old represented the highest proportion of employees stood down or who experienced a decrease in working hours (White 2021).

Our comparison of the 2019 quantitative data with those of 2020 and 2021, cross-analysed with the qualitative interview data, illustrates the various ways in which students were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia. Student enrolments declined sharply in the early stages of the pandemic, before bouncing back in late 2020 and into 2021. Providers indicated that students’ reasons for returning to VET tended to be different from their pre-COVID motivations; for example, enrolling in training they deemed would lead to more secure employment; being inspired to embark on a new career path; and/or wanting to make the most of government incentives targeted at specific industries. The training providers who participated in the interviews noted, however, that for particular student cohorts — Indigenous students, those from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, rural and remote students, and international students — disengagement from VET was higher than for other students, and they also took longer to return to training. Encouragingly, satisfaction with various aspects of the training, as well as employment outcomes, remained relatively positive for most students.

The interviews with training providers highlighted the substantial impact the pandemic had on their operational practices, affecting business practices at four key levels — financial, operational, people, and infrastructure — although the extent of the impacts varied according to the type of provider and their location. For example, training providers located in New South Wales and Victoria were more severely impacted than providers in Western Australia or the Northern Territory due to higher infection rates in the former. In addition, community education and private training providers interviewed were, overall, more affected than TAFE (technical and further education) institutes and government enterprise providers. This difference can be attributed, in part, to the disadvantaged student cohorts the former were often servicing, and/or the comparatively lower level of wrap-around services available to support them and their staff.

Funding support from the Commonwealth and state and territory governments was viewed positively by most of the participating training providers, and it is clear that the various support packages assisted the VET sector to adapt to the turbulent pandemic environment. Governments significantly increased their investment in VET during the pandemic, with the largest increase in expenditure dedicated to employer assistance, through wage subsidies for apprentices and trainees under the Australian Government’s Australian Apprenticeships Incentives Program. This investment continued into 2021: support for employers totalled $3.7 billion in 2021, up by 155.7% when compared with 2020 (NCVER 2022b). The training providers interviewed for this research most frequently cited the national JobTrainer program (July 2020 — December 2022), which provided significant additional funding for skills training — made up of matched contributions from the Commonwealth and state and territory governments — as the key funding support program they accessed. In addition to these VET-specific funding interventions, training providers were very appreciative of the support provided through the Commonwealth Government’s JobKeeper program (March 2020 — March 2021), which enabled non-public providers to remain viable during the peak of the pandemic.

One of the main impacts of the pandemic on training providers and the Australian VET system was a forced, rapid transition to online delivery. This shift was a particular challenge, given that online delivery of VET is associated with lower qualification completion rates and higher subject withdrawal rates (Griffin & Mihelic 2019). The digital shift was especially challenging for those offering apprenticeships and traineeships with their emphasis on workplace-based learning (Hall 2021). Consequently, quick thinking in relation to course rescheduling and collaboration became crucial for the sector. Hume and Griffin (2021, 2022), in tracking the change in online delivery of VET over the first years of the pandemic, illustrated the enormous investment in digital infrastructure and the human resourcing effort that went into redesigning courses for this mode. For example, between 2019 and 2020, the number of VET subjects delivered online increased by about 24% (Hume & Griffin 2021). This effort is replicated in this report: digital delivery, as well as remote working arrangements for staff, was a primary focus for most of the training providers we interviewed.

The rapid shift to digital delivery indicated how the pandemic might represent an opportunity for the VET sector to innovate and become more resilient (Hume & Griffin 2022). Indeed, while it is true that the pandemic highlighted existing areas of weakness in the sector, it is also true that the pandemic emphasised existing areas of strength and potential. The data, combined with the many stories offered by training providers, illustrate the capacity of the VET sector to quickly tailor training to meet the needs of students and to adapt to local needs. This feature points to the resourcefulness of a sector that made the most of its on-the-ground skills to guide this reinvention at both practical and conceptual levels. While debate continues in the sector on whether the pandemic led to innovation or simply adaptation (O’Dwyer 2021; Community Colleges Australia 2022; NCVER Podcast 2022), many valuable lessons undoubtedly emerged. Certainly, the collaborative problem-solving approaches described by training providers highlight the level of interconnectivity the VET system has at its disposal and flag a useful resource for the future.

Concluding remarks

This report focuses on the key impacts of COVID-19 on VET providers and students from 2020 to 2022. While these impacts were often significant, they were not always negative; moreover, some of the initially detrimental impacts paved the way for positive outcomes, the shift to multi-modal learning perhaps being the hallmark example. The extent of the various impacts on the VET sector has been contingent on a range of additional, often rapidly evolving, factors and thus not always straightforward to quantify or capture. Nonetheless, this research project offers a valuable resource for the VET sector, and COVID-19 research more broadly, by way of its longitudinal methodology. The project provides a unique perspective by exploring the immediate impacts of and responses to the pandemic on VET against longer-term impacts and the sector’s shifting needs over time. While the pandemic’s end date is unknown, the World Health Organisation predicts it will remain a significant factor of everyday life for some time to come, and certainly well into 2023.

For the most part, the training providers interviewed for this study commended the responses and support packages provided to the VET sector by the various levels of government, and it is worthwhile emphasising that student outcomes — including satisfaction with their training — remained relatively positive throughout 2020—21. While the Australian VET sector is clearly underpinned by a strong foundation, substantial challenges were encountered during the pandemic, with the providers interviewed offering a range of suggestions for how they might be best supported as the pandemic continues and as other crises inevitably arise.

The main points of focus emerging from the consultations emphasised: the development of processes to re-engage students in VET, especially young people and those from disadvantaged cohorts; the need for wrap-around services (such as mental health services, digital literacy, and IT support) for staff and students alike; and ways to consolidate the business operations of providers now that the most immediate impacts of the pandemic have receded, revealing gaps in operations. In instances where providers were struggling, they were often attempting to reorganise what had become a fragmented organisational environment, and/or to balance the need to address emerging issues in the short-term with the requirement to maintain compliance and financial security in the long-term.

Looking to the future, the question of how to reconcile the need to be resilient — adaptive, responsive and, in some ways, short-term focused — with the need to be sustainable, that is, having the space to experiment, innovate, and make steady, long-term plans, is a question that will likely remain important for training providers and the VET sector at large for some time.


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