LINDA SIMON. More of the same in VET or a new vision?

Vocational education and training does not always feature strongly during Federal election campaigns. But given the critical state of the sector, both major parties have announced early on the directions they will pursue if elected. For the Government this is based on their recent expert review of VET ‘Strengthening Skills’, from which a number of budgetary announcements were taken. For the Labor Party, initial announcements around funding and support for TAFE, are to be further explored through a national inquiry into post-secondary education, which they have termed as “a once-in-a-generation National Inquiry”.

There are significant differences between the views of the major parties in relation to the future of vocational education and training, including the amount of money promised and their commitment to rebuilding the TAFE sector as the cornerstone of VET.

The recent Federal Budget contained a $525m investment in vocational education and training over five years, but only $54.2m of this is new money with the majority of it from reallocation of the Skilling Australians Fund. This money was unspent as Queensland and Victoria did not sign up to this scheme, which formed the current National Partnership Agreement. The scheme is aimed at increasing apprenticeships and traineeships, and is funded through the National Contribution Charge (levy), Federal Government and a contribution from the states and territories. Although project-based it appears to have been very unsuccessful in boosting apprenticeship numbers, with a drop in the target from 300,000 to 80,000, and in developing innovative programs. It is also symptomatic of the Government’s focus on apprenticeships rather than building a strong vocational education system providing a range of programs. The vocational education and training package announced in the Budget also consists of:

· $200m in apprenticeship incentives for trades with skills shortages

· $132m to establish a national skills commission to reform vocational education

· $67.5m to trial 10 national training hubs for school-based vocational education in places with high youth unemployment

· $62.4m on literacy and numeracy skills for at-risk workers; and

· $20m to help better identify emerging skills needs.

The Budget was very much a response to the as-yet unpublished review, “Strengthening Skills” by former New Zealand tertiary education minister Steven Joyce.

The funding of a new literacy and numeracy skills package is critical in the sector, and this was very much supported by submissions to the review. But it does beg the question as to the rationale for disbanding in 2016 the very successful Workplace English Language and Literacy Program (WELL). This is another example of the lack of a cohesive vision of vocational education and training in Australia and the continuing costs to the taxpayer of ill-thought out policies.

The Government has been making good use of its announcement of the 10 national hubs and 400 scholarships in regional areas during the election campaign with a number being announced in marginal electorates.

Steven Joyce’s expert review claims to propose a new vision for VET in Australia. It suggests that VET will become “a modern, applied and fast-paced alternative to classroom-based learning”, a rather puzzling aim. There is a suggestion that all VET learning will contain workplace learning, a rather difficult aim to achieve, but it also clearly places VET further in the hands of industry with Skills Organisations which would be industry-led and managed taking over from the current Industry Skills Councils (ISCs), the role of developing and maintaining VET qualifications. Considering that the ISCs are a relatively new invention of this current government, one has to again wonder why a review would suggest new industry-led organisations to replace the current industry-led organisations. The costs to taxpayers of a number of these recommendations in the review and Federal Budget will be enormous, without any apparent benefit to student learning.

Labor claims it will reverse the decline of TAFE and make sure quality vocational education is available in our suburbs and regions. It states it will increase funding for TAFE and put public TAFE back at the heart of Australia’s vocational education system. Considering the current Government did not even mention TAFE in its Budget and it was not a stated part of the national review, this is a very different and welcome focus from Labor.

In his Budget reply speech, Bill Shorten made a $1 billion commitment to TAFE, including:

  • Waiving upfront fees for 100,000 TAFE students
  • Investing $200 million in a Building TAFE for the Future Fund, to reverse the decline in TAFE facilities, and revitalise TAFE campuses across Australia.
  • Guaranteeing that at least two out of three dollars of government funding for vocational education and training goes to public TAFE.
  • Providing an additional $334 million to enable 150,000 additional people to become an Australian Apprentice.
  • Supporting 10,000 young Australians to do a pre-apprentice program.
  • Providing support for 20,000 adults to retrain through an Advanced Adult Apprenticeship.
  • Boosting apprentice numbers across the country on Government funded projects.
  • Establishing an Apprentice Advocate to reduce the exploitation of apprentices and trainees, improve their safety, and close the apprentice gender gap.
  • Establishing a national inquiry into Post-Secondary Education.

Shadow Minister for Education and Training, Tanya Plibersek, speaking of the Opposition’s national inquiry, stated that it would result in additional funding in the sector and that it was important in considering post-school education in its entirety and putting TAFE and university on an equal footing in the inquiry. She expects that the two sectors can work together and complement each other’s offerings. Both the ALP and the Government have recognised the paucity of career education and advice in education, and both have committed to reforms in this area.

Unlike the Government’s brief review, announced in November 2018 and the report finalised in March 2019, the ALP has undertaken to commence its national inquiry in the first 100 days in office, and has already developed a comprehensive set of Terms of Reference, including examination of curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, funding and quality assurance.

Whilst the Government’s vision for vocational education and training further cements the sector as a tool of big business and industry, hopefully the ALP’s national inquiry, if they are elected, will consider the educational aspects of VET and ensure that we have a quality affordable system for all students.

Linda Simon has been a teacher in schools, TAFE and now at university. She currently teaches subjects relating to adult education at Charles Sturt University. She was Secretary of the TAFE Teachers Association for over fifteen years, and Federal TAFE President of the Australian Education Union for six years. Currently she is National Convenor for Women in Adult and Vocational Education (WAVE) and an organiser of the TAFE Community Alliance. She has served on the Boards of NCVER and BVET in NSW, and is an educationalist and researcher committed to equity and public education

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