Almost twelve months ago, the AEU released a report from the Centre for the Economics of Education and Training which showed that funding for the public TAFE system had declined by 15.4% between 2004 and 2009. It estimated that funding for TAFE would have been $974m (or 18.9%) greater in 2009 than it actually was if funding had been maintained at 2004 levels. Nothing has happened to reverse this trend, and TAFE funding since this time has continued to decline.

In the 2012 May state budget, Victoria slashed a further $300m from TAFE budgets. In early September, NSW cut an estimated $80m, and the Queensland government is currently considering massive cuts to its TAFE budgets, cuts that would result in the closure of as many as 38 of its 82 campuses. The Queensland State Budget delivered an estimated a $79m budget cut to TAFE and an additional cut of about $50m to capital works.

The three eastern seaboard states account for about 77% of the TAFE system in Australia. Things are not much better in the other states and territories. In South Australia, TAFE continues to struggle with cuts to funding as that state dabbles dangerously with market reform of its once proud public system.

TAFE in Australia is funded jointly by the Commonwealth and State and Territory governments. The states contribute about two thirds of funding, own the TAFE institutes and employ TAFE teachers. In the words of the Federal Minister for Tertiary Education and Skills, the states have a great deal of skin in the game. But the Federal Government contributes considerable funding to the states for TAFE and VET, and over the next five years, through the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development and the National Partnership Agreement on Skills Reform, the Federal Government is set to contribute about $8.8b in funding to run the public TAFE system. The Australian TAFE sector represents a considerable public asset. It has stood the test of time, surviving the brutal policy settings of the last twenty years, as it has continued to build a network of high quality, trusted vocational education institutions in most geographic regions across Australian. It has done so in spite of rather than because of these same government policy settings.

Public vocational education policy has never been open to public debate or scrutiny. Recent TAFE history is littered with secret government-commissioned reports and inquiries. This is what some commentators refer to as the democratic deficit in VET, and it has meant that the policy settings contained in the April 13 COAG agreements – those same agreements which will result in the Federal Government contributing $8.8b to vocational education over the next five years – have never been exposed to adequate scrutiny, nor have they stood the test of rigorous contest and debate. Rather, vocational education policy, like a lot of other public policy, has been the plaything of ideologues and bureaucrats, of those who have been captured by the logic of the market, and who have become lazy in their closeted thinking. Market reform in vocational education has always been lazy public policy. It has never interrogated the real challenges faced by the contemporary TAFE sector. It has always opted for the brutal solution of the competitive market, rather than the more complex process of democratic debate.

The result of savage government funding cuts means that TAFE is now subject to unprecedented, intense media scrutiny. Most of this scrutiny has been focussed on Victoria where, not to put too fine a point on it, the TAFE system is struggling for its survival. In Victoria, TAFE campuses will be sold or amalgamated, many hundreds of courses have already been closed, and more than 2000 TAFE workers will lose their jobs, and hundreds of thousands of students will pay higher fees. In NSW, even before that state government announces its response to the requirements in the National Agreements, more than 800 jobs will be cut over the next four years from TAFE.  In Queensland, the recommendations of their Skills and Training Taskforce, which include the proposed campus closures, will be accompanied by a major realignment of the sector to meet the requirements of the National Agreement. TAFE in Queensland, as in other states, will be required to implement increased competition for funding, a shift to voucher-like funding mechanisms and the extension of income contingent loans. These are Federal Government policy settings, and they currently sit alongside the disastrous state government budget cuts.

While TAFE has never experienced such intense media scrutiny, it has also never experienced greater public support. The cuts have been opposed by councils, church leaders, industry peak bodies and unions and community leaders. Thousands have demonstrated against the cuts. But it has never been harder to find real friends in governments to put a halt to the destruction of the public TAFE system.

There is a tide in the affairs of TAFE, and this must surely be it. State governments will pay for the damage they are currently wreaking on TAFE, but that is cold comfort to those who know only too well that once sold off and destroyed, it is virtually impossible to rebuild a public asset of the size of the TAFE system. The economic and social consequences of the current cuts to TAFE will be long term, and for many individuals and industries, irreversible.

Real power lies with a resurgent Federal Government. What is at stake in moral and political terms are highly regarded educational institutions – institutions which are the envy of many other countries in the world. What is at stake in financial terms is not just the millions attached to the National Partnership Agreement, but the whole of Federal funding for VET. This funding is tied to requirements in both agreements that the parties (state, territory and the federal governments) enact policy reform directions which, amongst other things:

Enable public providers to operate effectively in an environment of greater competition, recognising their important function in servicing the training needs of industry, regions and local communities, and their role that spans high level training and workforce development for industries and improved skill and job outcomes for disadvantaged learners and communities.

It is simply not possible for any state government to say that it is meeting the conditions that it agreed to on April 13 this year at COAG while it closes or sells TAFE campuses, shuts down TAFE courses and sacks thousands of TAFE workers.

State governments must rethink the cuts to TAFE, restore the funding they have already withdrawn, and commit in material terms to a viable future for TAFE institutes.

The Federal Government has billions of dollars invested in TAFE, including the $8.8b attached to both National Agreements. It is poor public policy to allow the destruction of TAFE institutes in the states. It is even worse economic policy, both in terms of the impact on the future of the economy and the workforce, but also because such valuable community assets will never ever be rebuilt. The Federal Government must use the considerable political and financial weight that it wields in VET and TAFE to force state governments to back-down from their budget cuts. It has the capacity to withhold funding, and it also has the capacity to allocate funding directly to TAFEs, bypassing recalcitrant state governments. It has a great deal to gain politically and electorally by choosing to save the public TAFE system.

-Pat Forward is the Australian Education Union’s Federal TAFE Secretary