Made in Australia: will Labor get the job done with free TAFE?

Dec 16, 2021
Labor leader Anthony Albanese
Game of chicken: Anthony Albanese. (Image: AAP / Mick Tsikas)

Vocational education needs investment and reforms to ensure Australia’s prosperity: Anthony Albanese has revealed how Labor will meet the challenge.

Federal Labor announced its “Future Made in Australia Skills Plan” on December 5 with free TAFE as its centrepiece. It was an important policy release by Labor in the lead-up to next year’s election. In this announcement, leader Anthony Albanese identified the key drivers of the critical need to increase funding for vocational education and training (VET), giving the policy an urgent and dynamic framework.

The first driver is the overall impact on the economy of COVID-19 and the border closures to many skilled migrants. The pandemic has highlighted the need to rebuild Australian industries in manufacturing and other areas, many of which have moved offshore. This would appear to be behind Labor’s call for “a future made in Australia” and the investment in opportunities for workers to retrain in skills-shortage areas. Labor will make 465,000 free TAFE places available over four years, including 45,000 new places. This is a smart move for a number of reasons, including the impact of the current government’s JobTrainer program, with free or low-fee places in VET, and the positive response to free TAFE places for study during lockdowns.

The second is the inclusion of $50 million for a TAFE Technology Fund to help deliver new or upgraded IT facilities, workshops, laboratories and tele-health simulators. While this is a small amount of money, it does recognise how work and study have changed during the pandemic, with the need for TAFE facilities and the skills of its educators to be updated to meet the demands of a digital economy. Such forward thinking has not always been at the forefront of Labor policies, often dominated in the past by traditional apprenticeships.

Labor does recognise the need to move the thinking on apprenticeships in a third key identifier, providing more opportunities for apprentices and trainees in areas experiencing shortages such as trades and construction, but also in resources, digital and cyber security, new energy and advanced manufacturing looking to Australia’s future needs. How Labor will do this is unclear, however, as the number of apprenticeships and traineeships have dropped considerably over recent years to 85,000 fewer than in 2013, according to Labor’s figures. Many reasons are given for the drop in apprenticeship numbers, including the impact of accessible university places, low apprenticeship wages compared to those in many unskilled occupations, and the reluctance of or difficulty for employers to take on apprentices in uncertain times. These are significant issues to address in order to rebuild apprenticeship numbers.

Free TAFE is part of Labor’s overall $1.2 billion plan that includes a $100 million investment in 10,000 new energy apprenticeships and a $10 million new energy skills program. Again, this fourth key driver is critical. If Australia is to move to new forms of energy including solar, wind and hydrogen — energy other than coal-produced — so that it can also fulfil its commitment to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent by 2030, it needs to ensure that workers have the skills to drive these programs. Making skills building a recognised part of policy announcements is another smart Labor move.

The fifth area recognised as requiring further workforce training is the care economy. As in the digital areas, it was apparent during the COVID-19 crisis and from inquiries such as the royal commission into aged care that many workers in aged care, disability care, community services and childcare need higher qualifications and a broader range of skills. Addressing this extensive area will be a challenge.

The sixth key issue is the need to rebuild TAFE itself to undertake this training. The impact of the competitive training market and cuts to VET funding since the Howard government years have seriously undermined the capacity of TAFE institutes across Australia and their teachers and other educational staff. Labor again commits to “ensure at least 70 per cent of Commonwealth vocational education funding goes to public TAFE”.

Public TAFE has accountability and transparency measures in place which are not always shared by the private training sector. The fallout from the failed VET FEE-HELP scheme is still being felt. The Federal Court recently imposed a record $153 million penalty on the Australian Institute of Professional Education (AIPE) after it was found guilty of a series of breaches in inappropriately enrolling students into its online diploma courses between 2013 and 2015. The college had received more than $210 million in Commonwealth funding. Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims recognised that many of these students with limited reading, writing and computer skills had been left with large lifetime debts. However, as the AIPE has been placed into liquidation, the penalty will never be paid.

Consider what this funding would mean to a sector struggling to fund many high-cost courses, provide adequate educational support for students and keep student fees low.

The centrepiece of this Labor policy announcement is free TAFE courses in skills shortage areas. This does however raise two questions: What about the other students studying in areas where we still need graduates, such as business courses? And do we always correctly identify skills-shortage areas? Increased funding for TAFE is critical, and making TAFE courses affordable for all students is a necessity. There are different ways of looking at this issue. Should we consider the importance of TAFE’s role in equity? Should we also consider that making introductory courses at certificate levels 2 and 3 free might be an important measure in assisting a wider group of students, including many women planning to return to the workforce, to gain initial skills before they move on to higher level qualifications?

What most Australians want is for VET funding to make an impact economically and socially, and to provide a wide range of affordable training opportunities. We hope that federal Labor has identified the right combination of key drivers and funding investments this time to make this a reality.

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