A story of how the market gods failed TAFE and what needs to be done

Dec 12, 2022
View of the TAFE buildings from Swinburne University, Hawthorn campus.

At both federal and state levels, the Market Gods Cult has failed to deliver. It’s been a tragic waste of human and economic potential. It’s time to resort to rationality in our TAFE arrangements.

In Genesis, God commands Abraham to pack some fire wood and a knife then take his son to a special spot, slit the kiddie’s throat and then burn the corpse. Abraham is relieved to find it’s an obedience test when a sheep substitute appears. Isaac, the son, probably adjusts his Father’s Day plans and seeks biblical trauma counselling.

In TAFE, the gods of Market Forces never needed to be so specific and blunt in their demands for sacrifice. In the 90s and 2000s, the Market Gods began to make their presence felt, but obliquely, via newspaper business and economics pages. Believers, in and out of TAFE, were soon paying homage to the Infinite Universal Wisdom of Markets.

Suddenly there was no need for studies of TAFE student outcomes. No need for difficult longitudinal studies about how well the knowledge and skills taught at TAFE related to personal, workplace and community expectations. No need to have a coherent national strategy about TAFE. No need even to revisit the Australian TAFE system’s core concept of “Competency Based Training” to see how it’s traveling thirty years on. No need for any of that stuff. The Market Gods, unleashed, would see to all of that. Competition magic just required belief.

“Markets” were a trend. TAFE trend surfers manoeuvred skilfully to catch the best career wave. Terms such as “Competition driven training innovation” could be deployed to show a bloke was destined for success.

True, at its Federal heart, the TAFE system was an anachronistic, even bizarre, jumble of 1960s concepts from managerialism, but some federal privatisations and out-sourcings would soon set that to right. Magic market power would be unleashed to carry a grateful populace to the economic and social Promised Land.

First, the TAFE funding doors would be flung open for private-sector training competition. With the typically ambiguous, one-size-fits-all training specifications produced by the Competency Based Training system, what could go wrong? Answer- A shit-load.

In a flicker of a spreadsheet, private providers were ruthlessly stripping training outcome statements to their barest minimums, while multiplying government training payments per student contact hour by the projected number of students, minus costs. Handsome profits required innovative marketing – Get a free laptop. Get a qualification. Sign-up here! There was a bit of backlash of course: some in the media were identifying “scams”.

In the Old Testament, God looked very favourably on animal sacrifice- sheep, goats, chooks, and cattle. Clearly the Market Gods would expect offerings too, ahead of stumping up their miracles. Money needed to be sacrificed.

So Federal TAFE altars were constructed on which millions of dollars could be sacrificed as burnt offerings. The altars were in the temples of Compliance and Competition. Many priests were appointed and strange theologies and rituals created.

Unbelievers wailed, saying unto the market priests Why do ye not just invest in better learning materials for the punters?” But the priests were unmoved, saying “Well, yous be just teachers and know not the Big Picture. Read more the gospels of Compliance and Competition.

So much Federal TAFE money was sacrificed but better programs for students still did not appear.

State and territory TAFEs, riven by ancient tribal disputes, were also drawn to the cultish worship of Markets.

On some Pacific islands, after WW2, local people who had been exposed to Christian missionaries and had seen the arrival from the air of thousands of tons of wartime freight, became convinced that “cargo” could be attracted by the construction of bamboo replica control towers, and the cutting of small bush runways. A similar phenomenon unfolded in Victorian TAFE.

It was quietly decided that if each Victorian TAFE was made a competing “corporation”, that would please the Market Gods and they would bestow their wisdoms.

Soon, every “standalone” TAFE in Victoria began to acquire its set of corporate trimmings- a Corporate Director of Delivery Quality perhaps, a Director of Administrative Compliance, even an Executive Director of Strategic Engagement, an entire Marketing Department, an assistant CEO or two, plus an executive remuneration policy development team. All executive positions, of course, backed by appropriately-sized contingents of managers and administrative staff.

The illusion of progress was created, but there was little practical improvement from TAFE student or teacher perspectives. Many of the new executives were new to TAFE and knew little about vocational learning.

The Victorian “corporatisation” gambit has wasted many, many millions of dollars. A succession of state government bail-outs, artfully disguised, has prevented the financial meltdown in some TAFE “Corporations” The quality of some student learning resources remains embarrassing. Teacher morale has plummeted. Too many keen new teachers leave TAFE after brief and painful exposure to its administrative idiocies.

Meanwhile, back in TAFE workshops and classrooms, fifth generation photocopies of decades- old learning materials continue to be dished out to students. The last letter in the TAFE acronym -“Education” remains, to all intents, undefined – Does the act of copying words from a text book into a workbook constitute “education”? Is giving reading materials written at “College Graduate” level to apprentices whose reading skills have been assessed as “Cert. 2” actually going to inspire their skills development?

At both federal and state levels, the Market Gods Cult has failed to deliver. It’s been a tragic waste of human and economic potential. It’s time to resort to rationality in our TAFE arrangements.

TAFE should be the responsibility the Commonwealth Public Service and have defined, evolving objectives.

The range of TAFE study areas within each vocational sector must be dramatically extended to reflect the diversity of student learning needs. The new Federal TAFE must become a development and distribution hub for vocational learning using modern technology platforms.

TAFE needs a major reno to be a nation building project. This should be obvious to a Labor Federal Government.

You may also wish to read:

Neil Hauxwell: Toward a great TAFE revival

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