Whilst the Government’s 2018 Federal Budget failed to recognise the importance of TAFE and skills development to Australia’s economy, TAFE and funding were upfront in the Labor Opposition’s speech in reply. Labor has put TAFE back as the centrepiece of national skills training, promising to scrap upfront fees for 100,000 TAFE students as part of its platform.
The 2018/19 Federal Budget continued funding cuts in the vocational education and training (VET) sector, with only one new program the $3.8m Rollout Skills Checkpoint for Older Workers. The 2017/18 Budget had committed $1.5 billion to the Skilling Australians Fund, but a year later and no state or territory has signed up to funding under this program. Other programs have maintained funding or had it reduced with the apprenticeship mentoring program due to finish next year. Nowhere has the Government recognised the critical need to build skills and help support innovative workforce development programs as so many other countries have, ignoring the calls of many business groups in the lead-up to this year’s budget. Instead the VET sector remains in disarray.
Given this lack of interest, the Labor Opposition’s speech in reply to the budget, was well targeted. Coming on top of their previously announced promises to quarantine at least two-thirds of public skills funding for TAFE and to undertake a review of the tertiary sector, Labor leader Bill Shorten committed Labor to making ‘Australia a nation of tradies’. To do so, he announced a plan to scrap upfront fees for 100,000 TAFE students at a cost of $380m over five years. This pitch was again aimed at apprentices and trainees as was the Government’s Skilling Australians Fund.
This recognition of the need to increase the numbers of apprentices and trainees is important. NCVER figures show a serious decline in numbers of apprenticeship commencements and completions over the last four years. Given the significant increase in TAFE and private provider student fees over a similar period as a result of funding pressures and changes resulting from the competitive training market, such support will undoubtedly be welcomed by many young people considering a trade. However given that apprenticeships make up around a quarter of TAFE/VET enrolments, it would have been good at least to see Federal Labor address fee issues for many of the other skills shortage areas.
Continuing with their support for ‘tradie nation’, the Labor leader committed to ensuring that apprentices comprised one-tenth of the workforces employed on major federally funded projects. He said that when Canberra invested in projects like the Western Sydney Rail Link, Melbourne Metro, upgraded power infrastructure or boosted tourism facilities in Northern Australia, it would “also be investing in Australian jobs and apprentices”. Labor would also bankroll an extra 10,000 pre-apprenticeship places and establish an “Advanced Entry Adult Apprenticeships” program to fast-track training jobs for up to 20,000 people facing redundancy.
There is no doubt these are policies that many businesses will welcome, but one wonders if funding will be enough to turnaround dropping apprenticeship numbers without also addressing the reasons why many young people won’t take up these jobs, including low pay rates and poor public perception of a trade compared to a university education.
Shorten’s speech also promised to uncap university places, a promise that may have been better considered as part of Labor’s review of tertiary education, given its previous impact on enrolments in the VET sector.
As part of the continuing support for rebuilding TAFE as the VET centrepiece, given the reputational damage and loss of enrolments following the VET scandals around VET FEE-HELP and unscrupulous providers, Labor committed to $100million to a “Building TAFE for the Future Fund”, as well as maintaining funding through the Skilling Australians Fund.
Shorten promised that: “A Labor government will reverse the government’s new cuts to TAFE and training. And we will reverse the trend toward privatisation, because it’s time to put public TAFE back at the centre of our national training system.”
These announcements are important for a number of reasons, and hopefully the current Federal Government will take notice of how they are applauded. A recent report from the Mitchell Institute, ‘Participation in tertiary education in Australia’ draws a very serious picture of an Australian VET system without significant additional government funding and public policies that turn around the decline in VET enrolments. According to the scenario modelled with VET student numbers continuing to fall at the same rate as they have since 2012, by 2031 VET would become a residual sector in this country.
Federal Labor has set out to make vocational education and TAFE’s role in it an election issue. One can only hope that the electorate also understands the significance of such a move, and uses the time from now until the elections to ensure all current and prospective members of Parliament support a position that ensures we do continue to have a robust and accessible VET system in Australia.
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), an Executive member of AVETRA, 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.