Pay after graduation: Helping hand for students

Gayathri | Thursday, October 20, 2016 9:45 AM IST

With a history of successful consumer activism - at 23 he built the website Vodafail - and a very millennial mix of entrepreneurial ambition and social idealism, Brimo was sure there was a better way.  

The Sydney entrepreneur came up with an Australian first which could send a chill wind through the private vocational sector,already reeling from the overhaul announced by federal education minister Simon Birmingham this month.

It's a nationally-recognised training course where students can learn for free, and only pay if they want accreditation at the end. 

'At the moment a lot of students are signing up to vocational education and not completing, but because they've paid upfront, they've lost the money,' says Brimo. 

Completion rates for government-funded VET courses are low at around 38 per cent. But with online courses it is lower still.

'So there are a lot of people who've paid thousands of dollars up front with nothing to show for it,' he says. 

Brimo's company, OpenLearning, which he founded straight out of his software engineering degree at UNSW, has partnered with Hunter TAFE to offer three Certificate IV qualifications in business through the website learn.com.au under the free to learn, pay to certify model. 

It's effectively a pilot scheme, which Hunter TAFE plans to run for 18 months, to gauge student interest.

The courses are not eligible for government fee support (and are cheaper than government-subsidised courses). Hunter TAFE is doing this on its own initiative, and the NSW Skills Minister's office did not wish to comment on the potential of the model. 

Brimo argues the model guarantees quality learning, 'because unless students enjoy it and get something out of it they're not going to complete the course and get certified [and pay]. That's actually quite important because it does align everyone. 

'In the existing system, a lot of private providers might not even want students to complete because they've already been paid for it, and they may not want to do the work required to have them complete.'

Course design is crucial and relies heavily on 'peer to peer and community interaction', Brimo says. 

The courses will cost $1250 for a full certificate. The government's myskills.gov.au says the average price for the Certificate IV in business is $3000. 

OpenLearning, founded in 2011, boasts a quarter share of Malaysia's public university students, with a total of 575,000 students signed up to its free and paid offerings around the world. It takes a 15 per cent cut of paid courses offered on its platform, nothing for the free courses. This is its first foray into vocational education. 

Delivery is cheaper in part because fewer teachers are needed to manage a larger number of students, something that troubles the education unions about online courses; and partly because of the way the OpenLearning platform captures all student work and interaction for automatic assessment. Once the course is designed and built, there are low ongoing costs to the provider.

Christine Warrington, director of the Hunter TAFE Institute, which enrols 55,000 students a year across the NSW region, says the pilot is a student-first approach that banks on the market value of an Australian skills qualification. 

'It may not suit more practical qualifications like cookery or welding. But there are components or units of competency in every qualification we offer that would suit this model,' she says. 

'It's got visibility, the learner knows exactly what they're going to be charged if they seek accreditation, and it gives them the opportunity to try before they buy.'