National TAFE Day was celebrated on June 16 this year, a little over two weeks before the Federal elections. Both Labor and the Greens took the opportunity to restate their support for TAFE and launch further policies. However the Government’s media release from Senator Scott Ryan, Minister for Vocational Education and Skills, focused only on criticisms of Labor’s policies, with no indication of how the Government might support TAFE. “On National TAFE Day 2016”, he said, “The Turnbull Coalition Government is standing with thousands of TAFE students against Bill Shorten’s knee-jerk plan to charge students thousands of dollars in upfront course fees.” He went on to say: “Labor’s ill-thought-through plan for massive upfront fees stands in stark contrast to the deliberative and consultative approach of the Turnbull Coalition Government, which has introduced more than a dozen measures to crack down on dodgy providers, and put students’ and taxpayers’ interests at the heart of VET FEE-HELP reform.”
It is interesting that Senator Ryan should comment on the Government’s consultative approach. Whilst the Government has held forums, and sought feedback from stakeholders around specific initiatives, including changes to Training Packages and industry committees, there has been little transparency around the results of such consultation and the subsequent policy changes. On 4 April the Minister announced a series of national consultations with providers, industry and community, on re-designing VET FEE-HELP. To-date it has been impossible to find any further information about such consultations, let alone how one might be involved. The Minister again claimed that he was taking a “deliberative and consultative approach”, but not who he was deliberating and consulting with.
The Australian Greens used National TAFE Day to restate their announced election policy of a ‘$400 million TAFE rescue package to ensure investment goes where it is needed most’, and to ‘cease providing federal government funds to for-profit private providers’. Opposition to the funding of for-profit private providers has long been part of the Greens’ policy platform along with the phasing out of the public funding of privately provided VET where TAFE can provide the same educational and training outcomes. The Greens also support the establishment of a VET Ombudsman with $10 million in seed funding.
The dire situation of the VET sector is recognised by most opposition parties, and support is strong for independent reviews and strengthened oversight of Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) within it.
In a recent media release, Shadow Minister for Vocational Education, Sharon Bird, refers to the Government’s ‘policy-free zone on apprentices, TAFE and skills’. In contrast the Australian Labor Party has released a number of policy statements, including the introduction of a TAFE funding guarantee so that a ‘guaranteed proportion of government funding for VET stays with TAFE’.
In their National TAFE Day statement, Bill Shorten and Sharon Bird further explained their National Priority Plan for TAFE: “Under Labor’s plan for TAFE, a Shorten Labor Government will work with Premiers and Chief Ministers on a comprehensive National Priority Plan that defines the unique role of TAFE and places it squarely as the public provider within the VET sector – as the cornerstone of our economy’s need to train and retrain its workforce and to deliver on improving the participation, productivity, innovation and growth efforts required for the nation. We will work with the states and territories to rebalance the contestable and non-contestable funding model to ensure it delivers the outcomes that are intended. Labor believes there is a place for contestable funding but we must get the balance right.”
The ALP supports a National VET sector review ‘to weed out dodgy providers’, but continues to support a national training market. Again the media release from Shorten and Bird on National TAFE Day stated: “The fundamentals of an effective market are clearly missing and no amount of regulation, as important as it is, will change this. Labor believes the market must find stability through a predominant public provider, complemented by a quality private sector.”
Many in the funding-poor and frequently undermined TAFE sector will not necessarily agree with this continued support for a training market, nor would many of those students misled by ‘dodgy private providers’ into a lifetime’s debt.
Much of the battlefield between the Federal Government and the Opposition has raged over apprenticeships, with Labor making the point that the number of apprentices in-training is at its lowest level since 2001. In its election policy, Labor states its intention to ensure ‘a proportion of the jobs on major federally funded-projects are delivered as apprenticeships, initially creating 2,600 new apprenticeship places for young workers’. In contrast the Government focused its 2016 Budget funding on employer incentives and Trade Support Loans.
Probably the most significant announcement on National TAFE Day was from the Greens in relation to the relative costs of a student being educated at a private vocational college compared to TAFE. In analysing the federal Department of Education and Training’s funding figures and the number of vocational graduates in 2014, the Greens announced that “taxpayers forked out $73,200 per graduate from private colleges on average, but only $10, 500 per graduate in TAFE courses” (SMH, 17 June) The cost is on average seven times more in a private vocational college.
As we run up to the Federal elections, there has been more policy activity around vocational education and training than is usually the case. Even minor parties such as the Glenn Lazarus Team, have stated their support for TAFE and the need to ‘stop the cuts’. It has taken a crisis in the VET sector to get here, but many in the community would think that even stronger action is needed to turn this problem around. On National TAFE Day, the TAFE Community Alliance called on the political parties to:
- abandon the current failed VET market funding models and commit to funding the direct and indirect costs of TAFE as the public VET provider;
- place a cap on student fees and charges for any VET providers who want access to public funds; and
- institute a performance audit by the Australian National Audit Office into Commonwealth expenditure in VET, especially in relation to its policy effectiveness, administrative efficiency and whether it has delivered value for money to the Australian taxpayer.
Linda Simon, currently teaching in adult education at Charles Sturt University. She is National Convenor for Women in Adult and Vocational Education (WAVE), a member of the Executive of AVETRA and an organiser of the TAFE Community Alliance. She is a former TAFE teacher, Federal TAFE President of the Australian Education Union and Secretary of the NSW TAFE Teachers Association.