National Skills Week 2019 recognised that more than just words were needed from Australian governments. The recent COAG meeting produced a vision for the VET sector, and whilst a cohesive vision is important, it means nothing unless backed up with additional funding for a sector that has been undermined for over a decade. Industry groups and companies call out for a revitalisation of training to rebuild our skilled workforce. They need more than a vision to do this.
Vocational education and training (VET) is in crisis. Both of the major parties made it an issue in the recent Federal elections with Labor producing a fairly comprehensive plan as to proposed changes and a commitment to a full review of the sector. The Coalition Government had conducted its own limited review of the sector prior to the elections with a number of the recommendations forming the basis of the Coalition’s election commitments. Yet none of the Morrison Government’s proposals go to the heart of the issue, the move to a marketised VET system which has taken public funding from VET at the same time as making the remaining funding available to not only the public TAFE system but also a large range of for-profit training organisations.
Figures from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) demonstrate that VET funding is the lowest it has been in over a decade, with a fall of over 30%, and there is no sign of this being addressed. Along with funding cuts at the Commonwealth level, states and territories have not maintained their funding levels. Given that they have the primary responsibility for funding and overseeing their TAFE colleges, it is no wonder that student enrolments continue to fall and TAFE campuses and courses close.
Universities and schools have access to enrolment driven funding whereas VET funding is capped with eligibility rules. Whilst universities and schools grow and expand their range of offerings, publicly funded VET is prevented from doing so without a broadening of the focus of what VET can offer to a wider range of students. The current funding and regulatory framework does not recognise an expanded role for particularly TAFE providers in ensuring students are educated and trained with the broad-based knowledge and industry skills that they need to effectively work in a range of jobs and occupations.
National Skills Week 2019 was celebrated under the theme ‘Succeed your Way’, a recognition of the possibilities that VET can offer with proper funding. According to SkillsOne, the 2019 theme seeks to explore the many ways a person can navigate and individualise their pathway to achieve success in their career through vocational training. A range of industry groups used National Skills Week to again highlight the shortage of skilled workers in many occupations. According to the survey undertaken by the NSW Business Chamber, skills shortage vacancies had risen to 82,000 this year.
Given all of these problems in VET, one would have hoped that the re-elected Coalition government would have moved quickly to put a well-funded plan in place. One that would at least have focused on offering more opportunities for a wider range of students to gain or increase skills. Indeed the Prime Minister made VET reforms a key agenda priority at the recent COAG meeting. But the result appears to be a little more than a vision of VET that sounds remarkably like what has gone before.
In fact the COAG communique states: “This vision is intended to build upon action already undertaken”, which one assumes means that very little change is proposed. There is no reference to increased funding, only that delivering high quality VET is a shared responsibility between the Commonwealth and states/territories. There is no recognition of the damage inflicted on VET by subjecting it to a market approach, but rather the communique states that: “All jurisdictions acknowledge the importance of a viable and robust system of both public and private providers, and the particular role of states and territories in facilitating the public provision of VET”. Again just more of the same.
Yet despite this short-sighted vision of VET, support for TAFE remains strong around Australia. So many people are appalled at the undermining of their local TAFE college. The TAFE Community Alliance wrote to all the candidates standing in the recent Federal elections and asked them three questions. In doing so, we said: This election provides you with the opportunity to make the revitalisation of TAFE an issue and ensure that whatever the make-up of the Federal Government post-election, there will be an enduring and bipartisan commitment to TAFE as a public institution serving student access and support, local and regional communities and industries. The questions followed:
1. Will you actively support increased core funding from the Federal Government budget for local TAFE institutions around Australia?
2. Will you work to wind back the contestable training market?
3. Will you advocate for the Federal Government to increase its investment in the quality of TAFE teachers as both educational and industry experts, and in the scholarship of teaching and learning?
We were overwhelmed by the positive response to these questions from a range of parties and individuals. The Liberals and Nationals were two of the few parties to not support or recognise the critical role of TAFE and the need to re-invest in public vocational education and training.
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) 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