LINDA SIMON. Falling enrolments in TAFE! How can this be?

Jul 12, 2018

The latest NCVER report shows that TAFE enrolments 2016-17 have fallen by 6.5% and government-funded VET programs by 5.9%, with the greatest fall in NSW of 6.8%.  This blog is a commentary on some of the reasons why this has occurred which focus on cuts to funding for the VET sector and poor public policy decisions.  If such enrolments continue to fall, the consequences for skilled employment in Australia, will be disastrous.

Figures from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) have been telling a story of dropping enrolments in the VET sector for a couple of years now. The ones that generally get the most airplay are decreases in apprenticeship take-ups and completions.  But these are not the whole story.  The recent figures (2016/17) show that the number of students enrolled in 1874 government funded training institutions (which include community as well as TAFE) fell by 5.9% compared to the previous year, dropping numbers to 1.2 million.  These figures don’t include for-profit private training providers as many don’t supply NCVER with figures. However we do know that whilst there are now less for-profit providers in the training market given the debacle of VET FEE-HELP and other schemes to take advantage of vulnerable students, the percentage of funding being allocated to them continues to grow.  There are many reasons for the falling enrolments but six have been chosen here for commentary: ideology, cuts to funding, student fees, lack of accessible courses and locations, competition with universities, and falling confidence in the VET sector.

Government Policy based on ideology – create a competitive training market

It has been almost ten years since the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) opened VET funding up to the open market, leading to an enormous growth in the number of private providers and more significantly in the number of for-profit providers seeking government funds to run their courses.  In 2016 (according to the Productivity Commission) more than $1.3 billion was allocated nationally to private providers.  This is close to 28% of government recurrent funding.  A Sydney University study showed that many for-profit providers were sustaining profits of around 30%.  This indicates that for every dollar of public subsidy paid, 30 cents of profit were distributed to the company’s shareholders.

Cuts to funding

What does this mean?  According again to NCVER the VET sector lost one-sixth of its government financing in 2016, and this has been exacerbated in the latest Federal Budget.  If increasing amounts of this reduced funding are going to for-profit providers, then less is going to TAFE.  Consequently less funding for courses and student enrolments. TAFE figures nationally are down by 6.5%, the biggest fall in NSW where numbers dropped by nearly 31,000 enrolments.  The biggest declines were in the 45-65 year old age group, where the opportunity to retrain and upskill can be most important.

Student Fees

Ask potential students what are the most important issues when considering training options, and fees are likely to be one of them.  One of the consequences of an open training market has been an enormous increase in student fees as TAFE institutes seek to continue to offer courses with less government funding.  Where courses ten years ago cost hundreds, now they cost thousands of dollars, often more than a university course.  Supposedly the VET FEE-HELP scheme was to provide TAFE students with the same loan opportunities as university students, but it is a more expensive scheme for students, and many are rightly wary of entering into such agreements given the problems experienced by those who were studying in private colleges which collapsed.  VET FEE-HELP remains a very complicated process for students, more so than the university HECS system.  So, when the choice is there, it is no wonder many young people are choosing to study at university rather than TAFE, even when a TAFE course would ultimately be a better fit for a future career.

Lack of accessible courses and locations

A further consequence of the marketised system has been the demise of the local TAFE college offering a wide range of course.  In attempting to maximise the public dollar, TAFE institutes have cut down offerings in local areas and created fewer centres of learning.  Whilst this may work in the university sector it often doesn’t in TAFE, where many students are working and studying part-time and need to have ready access to a study location.  The demise of the TAFE college as part of the local community, has been a heavy loss in Australia, and one that governments appear to fail to recognise.

Competition with universities

Poor public policy has also driven decisions around the expansion of the demand-driven system in higher education to sub-degree programs.  Poor policy, because it appears that the ramifications for the VET system, in particular TAFE, were not thought through.  So when the recent NCVER figures show that the most significant decrease in VET enrolments has been in higher-level programs, this should be no surprise, especially when it was these Diploma and Advanced Diploma programs that were most subject to the VET FEE-HELP scandal.  This is also why any review undertaken of the VET sector must include higher education so that Australia has a tertiary education system based on decisions about appropriate courses for the appropriate sector rather than decisions made on the need to gain as much funding as possible for any one particular institution.

Falling confidence in the VET sector

This last section is almost a consequence of those that have gone before.  The number of scandals including the fraudulent behaviour of a number of for-profit providers, has left the VET system reeling.  Students are wary and who can blame them.  To rectify the mess they have created (the Productivity Commission recently said the VET sector was a mess) governments across the country need to reinvest in TAFE.  A change to poor public policy and a reinvestment of funding in TAFE, would go a long way towards encouraging students to enrol in TAFE, and would help to prevent the skills problems that are looming.

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), Secretary 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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