The Federal Budget has identified the need for increased skilled workers as a critical area. In analysing some of the Budget’s promises and what commentators had to say, it appears there is a lot more to be done.
In December 2021 I wrote about the Federal Labor policy ‘A Future made in Australia Skills Plan’ with ‘Free TAFE’ as its centrepiece. I concluded that what this policy announcement did was to recognise and address some of the critical drivers of the need to extend opportunities to reskill and upskill Australians, and to make VET part of these. In doing so, Federal Labor has created a relevant and dynamic framework for a revamped system.
The Federal Government had the same opportunity in this 2022-23 Budget, but according to many commentators including the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute, there is some new funding for skills in the Budget but it is “targeted in areas that will reinforce the chaotic, privatised, and fragmented state of skills training in Australia today.” The Budget analysis from the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) suggests that “There is a substantial increase in funding for skills but absent a new National Skills Agreement being finalised, it is unclear whether this will make any progress on fixing an outdated training system that does not support the needs of a modern workforce.”
One of the areas flagged in the Budget is funding for a new National Skills Agreement, a funding increase of $3.7 billion to the states and territories, which according to the Federal Government has the capacity to deliver an additional 800,000 training places. This new agreement would be based on the Heads of Agreement signed way back in 2019, but apparently there is still not agreement on the way forward. According to the Financial Review, skills ministers from six Labor states and territories wrote recently to the Skills Minister Stuart Robert expressing concern over the Government’s insistence on pushing a draft agreement that was rejected by all states and territories last year. The Financial Review says the letter outlines core grievances, including the potential for reduced funding to TAFEs and increased fees for some courses, as well as giving the National Skills Commission responsibility for setting prices.
One of the other major areas in the Budget is around apprenticeships. $1.3 billion is pledged over 5 years from 2021-22 to support employers to engage and retain new apprentices, and reform the Australian Apprenticeships system to sustain a skilled and responsive workforce. According to the Centre for Future Work, the Government’s Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements Scheme (which pays a generous subsidy to employers who take on new apprentices – but without guarantees of ongoing work at the end) is extended until end-June 2022, at a cost of $365 million. That is said to create another 35,000 places, in which wages are subsidised up to 50% for the first year (capped at $15,000).
As further evidence of this ‘chaotic’ vocational education and training (VET) system, the Federal Government continues to increase funding to employer subsidies. Both research from a range of bodies and current data from NCVER, question the effectiveness of such subsidies in encouraging new apprenticeships or leading to completions. There are 173,000 fewer apprentices and trainees in training today than in 2012. The number of apprentices and trainees completing their training has declined by almost two-thirds since 2013.
There is additional funding for aged care training places in the Budget, an extra 15,000 places over two years. However given the critical need for increased staffing across aged care facilities in a range of occupations, this number is unlikely to go far. As with apprenticeships, training is not the complete answer, with funding also required for necessary wage increases.
The recent report from the Centre for Future Work, Fragmentation & Photo-Ops, outlining issues relating to failure of skills policy through COVID, highlights a number of areas of concern. One of the most shocking of these is around the expansion of piecemeal units of study, while accredited quality training has collapsed by over 500,000 enrolments since 2015. The report goes on to make the point that: “all VET enrolment growth over the last five years has been in non-accredited programs, which have grown by almost 70,000 enrolments since 2015.”
In their recent election brief sent to the Federal Minister for women and opposition spokespersons, Women in Adult and Vocational Education (WAVE) makes the point that: “Short-term ad-hoc training alone will not provide women and girls with the education and training they need to find decent work, defined by the ILO as ‘opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.’ Current opportunities offered through Job Trainer and micro credentials are band-aid solutions to current economic problems and do not contribute to longer-term opportunities for decent work.”
An area again overlooked in the Budget and from government rhetoric, is the additional funding required to ensure we have a quality public VET system in Australia. Court cases around the registration of ‘dodgy’ private providers continue, a consequence of the ill-thought out and uncontrolled competitive training market. As was the case in the lead-up to the last Federal elections, the TAFE Community Alliance has sent a survey out to many of the candidates and sitting members standing for this election. We have asked questions around increased funding in VET, affordable aged care training places, a revamped apprenticeship system and investment in the quality of TAFE teachers as both educational and industry experts, and in the scholarship of teaching and learning.
Responses received already across a range of parties and Independents shows overwhelming support for the VET system with the recognition of the importance of TAFE. We make the point that: “Whatever the composition of the Federal Government post-election, Australia needs a bipartisan commitment to TAFE as a public institution serving student access and support, and delivering skilled workers for employment in local and regional communities and industries. It is critical that TAFE is funded to make equity and access to educational opportunities a key part of its role.”