LINDA SIMON. Axing access and equity in VET!

Oct 25, 2017

The axing of TAFE NSW Outreach programs as part of a current restructure process, highlights the importance of these programs to individuals and the community.  It also raises the issue as to VET’s role in delivering access and equity programs and why governments should make them a priority.

 Last week (18 October 2017) TAFE NSW axed their Outreach teaching sections.  For 41 years Outreach programs have been a key part of TAFE, but apparently no more.  When this change was mooted as part of the ‘One TAFE NSW Modernisation’ in early August, there were hundreds of calls in opposition to this cut.  Members of community organisations and former Outreach students expressed their concerns and questioned what would now happen to access and equity in TAFE.

As part of the NSW Government’s changes to vocational education and training (VET) under ‘Smart and Skilled’, funding was made available for TAFE to meet its community service obligations. These are enshrined within the TAFE Commission Act that technical and further education services are to be provided to ‘educationally or vocationally disadvantaged groups’. This funding is to provide access courses for those students who may be disadvantaged in some way and/or require initial access programs supporting the acquisition of literacy and numeracy skills, as well as the confidence to embark on further vocational training.

With the axing of Outreach programs and teaching positions, TAFE NSW will no longer deliver programs in the community to those most in need.  Yet many see that TAFE’s core business especially in parts of Western Sydney and regional Australia is about access and equity for disadvantaged and marginalised groups. How will TAFE NSW now continue to connect with these groups, certainly not through the new administrative positions that will act as brokers with industry and community groups? How will TAFE NSW meet the needs of the large number of refugees and asylum seekers who since January 2017 have been eligible to enrol in TAFE courses but many of whom initially need community based Outreach programs to address multiple disadvantage.

Outreach teachers bring both vocational expertise and community knowledge to their roles.  Theirs was a specialist position in TAFE, often able to make the connections with community groups that other teachers were not in the position to make. One Outreach teacher made the following impassioned plea prior to last week’s announcement.  If only those responsible for the new structures had listened and understood!

Outreach learners are unique. Their hope for success lies in the fact that they have a pathway to prove to themselves they can return to a learning environment, meet commitments on a regular basis, engage with peers and staff, and enjoy renewed confidence. This in turn results in a contributing member of society, not the statistic they once may have been.

Where have they come from? Gaol, fleeing domestic violence, managing homelessness, drug and alcohol issues, perhaps they are one of the 4th generation unemployed, or recipients of mental health services….Many have been successful professionals, simply finding personal issues unbearable.

Why keep Outreach for them? It brings them back from the brink of whatever situation has brought them to TAFE’s Outreach section in the first place, as for them it represents the provision of a setting that is empathetic, non-threatening, supportive, secure and free from academic pressures that urge them to perform beyond their capacity and capability at a particular time in their lives. They can now be described as part of enrichening the social capital of this region.

Many go on to further study. One outstanding learner has come from being incarcerated, returning to society with the cold hard reality there are no services for someone in her position. She began her academic journey in Outreach, now her plans are to continue studying and to progress to University the Bachelor of Social Science, at the same time set up a service in the region for women leaving prison or for women as an alternative to prison. She believes that future study is a way forward for her, to be a role model for others seeking rehabilitation, and establishment/integration into society as a contributor.

 This is a very powerful description of what TAFE Outreach can do and the ability it has to change lives.  The TAFE Community Alliance took the arguments up to the Managing Director of TAFE NSW expressing concern at the lack of support for access and equity in the new TAFE structures.  Other programs including those in general education, a provider of second chance education for many who the school system failed, and disability support services, are also on the chopping block.  In their submission to the Managing Director, the Alliance said: “We understand that comments have been made about it being unnecessary for TAFE Outreach to work in community settings but that students should be willing to come to a TAFE campus.  We hope that such comments have been taken out-of-context and that this is not really your point-of-view as it would make as much sense as TAFE not delivering in the workplace.  The strength of TAFE NSW has been its ability to meet the needs of industry and community alike by delivering education where it is most appropriate for the students.  Place-based education is very important for many cultural and ethnic groups.  The Alliance hopes that you have had the chance to reconsider your cuts to TAFE Outreach and rather have recognised and praised the work of the Co-ordinators and teachers.”  Unfortunately these words also fell on deaf ears

Another Outreach teacher described some of the students who had undertaken programs in her area:

  • April, a young teenage mother who was excluded from school because of pregnancy but was determined to continue her education. April was so inspired to do well for her children that she initially enrolled in Outreach’s Babes with Babes program and has pathwayed on to complete a TAFE Diploma of Children Services.
  • Derek, fresh from rehab, who self-medicated because of his sexual orientation, was determined to pay forward what he gained from rehab. After completing an Outreach taster in Working in the Drug and Alcohol Sector, he then completed a qualification in Community Welfare.
  • Nigel, an indigenous young man incarcerated in a hospital for the criminally insane for the murder of his father thirty years ago. Nigel had a major undiagnosed mental illness that had not been treated. During his studies in Residential Care in Outreach he was released on parole. He has now gone on to complete further studies and works as a volunteer in his neighbourhood centre.

The teacher went on to say:

Despite the fact that these achievements have been made possible by the Outreach educators whose innovativeness, agility and creativity have empowered these individuals, there has been no place found for Outreach in One TAFE. No place for educators who change lives.

TAFE Outreach has a long history of effectively engaging individuals and communities who would not otherwise access further education and training, into educational programs that strengthen communities and get individuals into study with effective career pathways and employment.

Disband Outreach and these students will have no access point to One TAFE. Lose the unique skill set of the teachers that have nourished them, pushed them, cared for them, but have above all been their linkage to the TAFE system, and these students, these individuals, will fall by the wayside, made vulnerable this time by an education system with no room for them despite its professed aims.

And for these students, and for the educators that teach them, this is, quite simply, a travesty.

Access and equity, through the delivery of such programs as TAFE Outreach, must continue to be a significant part of what makes VET special in this country.  Whilst short-sighted governments might take the axe to them now, we can only hope that governments in the future will rebuild and refund these important educational programs.

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.

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