ALEX MITCHELL: Defending TAFE is a winner for NSW Labor

Created by the Whitlam Government, TAFE tuition was free, offered trade and technical training to a generation of young men and women and upgraded education and career opportunity to all those who wanted it.

Two high-powered Liberals, tax adviser David Gonski and Peter Shergold, Prime Minister John Howard’s Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (2003-2008), are currently writing a review on the future of TAFE for NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. The report is due in July in the wake of a State Budget which is expected to slash spending.

Shadow Education Minister Jihad Dib told MPs on 20 February 2020: “In 2011, the Government said it would not touch TAFE. Nine years down the track we have a decimated TAFE system. The system has 175,000 fewer students, 5,500 fewer teachers and courses are disappearing every second day.”

Dib, MP for Lakemba and former principal of Punchbowl Boys’ High School (2007-2014), said: “I asked the Premier whether she would rule out privatising TAFE and she said, ‘I am not sure what you mean?’ I asked, ‘Will you rule out privatisation?’ I finally got something the third time I asked. If I were TV game show host Eddie McGuire I would have asked, ‘Do you want to ring a friend?’ because the only people who are going to benefit are the private providers that the Government supports. It wants to knock out the public education system.

“Only last year, $6.5 million was spent on consultancies. Would you believe that $1.4 million was spent on a consultancy report that simply asked: What is the purpose of TAFE? You are kidding me. I could have given that answer for nothing. Its purpose is to educate people. Its purpose is to address the skills shortage. Its purpose is to build the economy.”

During the same speech, Lebanon-born Dib, the first Muslim elected to the Lower House, told MPs: “When this privatisation-obsessed Liberal-Nationals Government came to power [in 2011], apprenticeships in NSW were at 126,000. As of March 2020, we are down to 87,000. That is a 33% drop. And we have a skills shortage like we have never seen before. All the Government is interested in is how it can outsource TAFE because others see it as a money-making opportunity.”

Announcing the review, Premier Berejiklian presented a jolly scenario of no funding cuts and greater training opportunities. “For some new hi-tech and high-end jobs, TAFE could become a better option for students than university,” she declared. “We need more tradies in existing trades, but we also need to prepare workers in new areas like 3D printing, robotics and other technology industries to provide jobs of the future.” No one believed a word of it.

Hilariously, she even managed to say that TAFE could be supplying workers to Western Sydney’s proposed second airport city to be called “Aerotropolis”.

On 10 June 2018, National TAFE Day was celebrated under the shadow of government budgets cuts by Coalition Governments in Sydney and Canberra. Ms Pat Forward, Federal TAFE secretary of the Australian Education Union (AEU), said: “Government funding cuts have left the TAFE sector perilously close to collapse. The damage inflicted on the sector, particularly as a result of underfunding and attempts to privatise, has eroded the viability of colleges and undermined confidence in the system. Enrolments in the sector have declined alarmingly in the last four years.”

Whether the day’s sausage sizzles and coloured balloons would change government intentions is debatable, but this is the kind of frivolous event that has become customary: no anger, no crowds, no community involvement and definitely no naming and shaming.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Coalition Government in Canberra is just as hostile to TAFE as Premier Berejiklian’s Sydney branch office. The next Federal Budget is to expected to

cripple Canberra’s contribution to the TAFE system; the very worst scenarios are TAFE’s sell off to the private sector or its closure.

Since the golden days of Gough Whitlam’s launch of TAFE with increased annual funding, Coalition – and some Labor – Governments have been ransacking TAFE budgets. In 1990 Bob Hawke’s Cabinet “endorsed proposals to deregulate the technical and further education system, encouraging the private sector to compete for public training funds and lifting the ban on TAFE colleges charging fees.”

In announcing the changes, senior Cabinet Minister John Dawkins let the cat out of the bag saying: “The public training system needs to compete with private providers. TAFE must

lose its monopoly position in respect of many aspects of training.”

The NSW Labor Opposition has the opportunity of submitting to voters a fully funded TAFE, free of charge and independent of political interference. It’s an election winner.

Alex Mitchell is a former Sydney Sun-Herald State Political Editor whose commentary appears every Friday.

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Alex Mitchell is a former Sydney Sun-Herald State Political Editor whose commentary appears every Friday. His latest book is Murder in Melbourne – The Untold Story of Palestinian exchange student Aiia Maasarwe.

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