LINDA SIMONS. Now is the time to support the public provider of VET

The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasised the importance of strong public institutions in Australia, both to help deal with critical health and economic challenges, and to make sure all Australian residents are given opportunities to be part of the economic recovery. This is particularly true of public vocational education and training, TAFE.

The spread of COVID-19, the subsequent lock-down of businesses and the requirements around social isolation, have led to some perhaps unexpected government reactions. These have included governments paying wage subsidies to employers, significant increases to Jobseeker payments, free childcare and a range of other economic measures that may not in ordinary times sit comfortably with conservative liberal governments in Australia.

While private enterprises have played their part, there has been a significant reliance on public government funded provision to help us through. This is and should be the case in vocational education and training. NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian recently announced that 21 free online TAFE courses would be offered in NSW. The aim, according to the Premier, was to give those now unemployed an opportunity to develop additional skills and qualifications to help secure jobs when the economy improves.

The courses on offer have been broken down into five areas of interest: administrative skills; digital impact; health and medical knowledge; leadership performance; and business skills. They cover everything from introduction level word processing and spreadsheet creation, to advanced management techniques, pharmacy training, and website building.

TAFE NSW has been overwhelmed by the take-up of these courses with some 27,000 students enrolling in the first three days, and already a significant number have completed their studies.

A great opportunity. A timely and relevant one. An opportunity that demonstrates the importance of ensuring a well-funded public vocational education and training, able to make these courses available quickly and to make them free. There are many questions about what the new economy will look like once we start to move out of social isolation. But the need for skilled workers is a certainty.

These courses are part of current Training Packages, giving students the opportunity to build further on these initial qualifications. TAFE offers introductory packages to online education, and provides support for students as they study. These support services differentiate TAFE online courses from many others now available.

The last decade has battered TAFE institutes across the country as governments have supported a market philosophy promoting the development of the private sector. The April 3 COAG Skills Council meeting agreed that: “as the COVID-19 pandemic deepens, critical short-term gaps will emerge in key frontline workforces, in sectors such as aged care, disability support, and health care, and new training will be needed to keep these and other sectors operating.

Council agreed to take immediate action to ensure a core of training system capacity remains operational as an essential service across all jurisdictions. This will enable the VET system to continue to deliver training for critical COVID-19 related skills and ensure it is well positioned for recovery”.

It is important that the federal government and states/territories work together to ensure that ‘core capacity’ is the public TAFE system, able to deliver not just free courses addressing an immediate need, but also an ongoing capacity for students to continue their studies in a different environment.

Recent media discussions have highlighted the lack of preparedness of Australian governments to deal with crises situations whether they are as a result of bushfires or pandemics. The capacity of the public VET system to provide a variety of modes of delivery to cater for student needs is important. The responsibility of governments to ensure the relevant professional development of teaching staff and the provision of facilities to enable students to complete practical elements of their courses is now obvious, but a challenge that was previously ignored.

The COAG Skills Council meeting noted that work had already commenced with all states and territories to transition TAFE and public providers to more flexible online delivery modes to support students to complete their courses. In addition it said, the Commonwealth was evaluating options for targeting funding under the Revitalisation of TAFE Campuses across Australia initiative, to assist TAFEs to adjust their business and delivery models.

Craig Robertson, CEO TAFE Directors Australia, made the following observation in a recent Newsletter: “Many TAFEs tell me virtual learning will reach its limit, however, … training packages require demonstration of skills – in a structured learning context or on the job – to complete the qualification. TAFEs are planning in-situ workshops where social distancing is respected so some qualifications can be completed. Yet this will constrain volume and flow of students and for other qualifications securing in this climate the required work placement mean the qualification will not be able to be completed.” There are possibilities to support students to continue their studies, but this does require governments to view vocational education and training differently, as they have had to do with many other public services.

One of the problems facing the teachers in the VET sector over recent years, has been the focus on compliance to meet regulations imposed by governments and industry through the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA), at the expense of quality educational provision for students. The need to vary these regulations at this time has been recognised by ASQA, with the opportunity for VET providers to consider postponing regulatory activities.

VET Ministers agreed as part of the COAG skills meeting that: “the first priority in protecting students is preserving the capacity of Australia’s training system and keeping the VET system viable.” It would appear that there is no better way to do that than invest in the public TAFE system.

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

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Linda Simon has been a teacher in schools, TAFE and now at Charles Sturt University. She was Federal TAFE President of the Australian Education Union and is an educationalist and researcher committed to equity and public education.

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