Enrolments in the TAFE sector have dropped in many qualifications. Tracing the reasons for this change at a time when Australia needs more skilled technicians and paraprofessionals is complex. They appear to be tied to the overall changes in funding of tertiary education, the increase in student fees as well as the status of the VET sector.
NSW Parliamentary Budget Estimates in September this year were informed by a leaked document from TAFE NSW that showed that overall total enrolments were down by 11.2% to 404,456 in the year to July 2016. The NSW Assistant Minister for Skills acknowledged that there was an expectation that enrolments would also continue to drop in 2017. Considering that TAFE delivers some 84% of VET in NSW, such a significant drop in enrolments is of serious concern.
In the Western Sydney region of NSW, which includes Campbelltown and Macquarie Fields campuses, total TAFE enrolments are down by more than 16,000 compared to last year – a massive 17.4 percent. This region of Sydney is also recognized as experiencing high youth unemployment rates.
The National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) releases figures each year on VET activity bringing together the information provided to it by the States and territories. These recent figures also show a decrease in enrolments in certain areas, including a 3.4% decline in VET students aged 15-19 years old Australia wide.
Also of concern is that NCVER notes a decrease in enrolments in nationally recognised training and that there has been an increase in enrolments of over 100% in skills sets. In other words, the upheaval of the VET sector over the last decade around creating a national training system led by industry has not worked. Fewer students are enrolling in Training Packages which are designed by industry and fewer students are wanting full qualifications. One of the issues also revealed in NSW is that there has been a significant number of students enrolling in the fee-free courses, indicating that one of the concerns for young people is now the cost of a VET course.
Budget Estimates in NSW also revealed an expected drop in enrolments in Diploma and Advanced Diploma courses of some 46%. This, the Assistant Minister acknowledged, was as a result of Federal Government policy which subsidises such courses at a university level but not in VET. Students can now pay more for a course at TAFE than a similar course at university. Rod Camm, CEO of the Australian Council of Private Education and Training (ACPET), suggested that a perverse incentive is being created for students to go to university, rather than making sure vocational education is a legitimate choice.
As a result of the rorting of VET FEE-HELP by a significant number of private providers offering incentives for students to take up the higher level VET courses such as Diploma and Advanced Diploma, whether it really met their requirements or not, and in many cases not offering the promised education and training, the Federal Government has put restrictions around the courses for which a loan can be accessed. This has worked against many TAFE students who want to undertake courses in areas such as the arts, journalism, and photography, but find the non-subsidised cost of such courses, without loans, prohibitive. The same restrictions do not apply at university. VET students who decide to study in an area that is not on an approved study list will also not have access to income assistance such as Youth Allowance, AusStudy and AbStudy from this year. They will be expected to pay for courses upfront and might not be able to access welfare while they are studying. However if they decide to pursue the same vocation at university they will have access to this support. In this way more students are being channelled to university who may be much better suited for the more practical courses offered by TAFE.
These are just two of the issues that are turning potential enrolees away from TAFE. The first is the availability of courses subsidised by government funding, with its fairly restrictive skills shortage lists. Given the unpredictability of future careers there are increasing concerns that such lists may not cover areas of future skills needs, let alone recognise the importance of a career in such an area as the arts. These lists also apply at the State level in terms of eligibility for students to undertake an initial qualification subsidised by government. Again, if you choose to study outside the current skills shortage list you can expect to pay a high fee for your course. Consequently there appear to be reduced course options for students, and in many states reduced numbers of locations where studies can be undertaken face-to-face.
The second issue is the cost of studying at TAFE or with a private provider. These costs have increased significantly over the last decade, causing many young people to consider whether they have the money to invest in their future careers or whether they are better off taking a job instead of studying. There should be outrage that we are creating a user-pays post-school vocational system that benefits the wealthy. TAFE has always prided itself on providing access to a range of students who may require additional support in order to successfully complete their required qualifications, yet this access is also being squeezed as governments measure educational achievements through their financial bottom-line rather than through student attainment and satisfaction.
What has happened to enrolments in TAFE and other Registered Training Organisations? Students are looking for other options that they can afford or choosing not to undertake an initial or further qualification. How can we measure this loss both to career opportunities for individuals and to the economic wealth of this country? The future will undoubtedly tell.
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 NSW 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, and is an educationalist and researcher committed to equity and public education.