As the TAFE system struggles for life under the relentless and increasingly merciless cuts by market-obsessed State governments, many universities are moving in for the kill.  Using the now powerful rhetoric of ‘seamless pathways’, the nations’ Vice-Chancellors are ever more active in advocating the abandonment of any notion of separation between the vocational and higher education sectors.

Some have made the mistake of believing the motive of universities to be purely educational: to provide the ability of students to enter and exit freely in the systems or even to build a parity of esteem between the two sectors. However, when you move beyond this rhetoric, it is apparent the actual motives are not quite as honourable.

Australian universities now have access to an uncapped number of places. This means universities are now able to increase their Commonwealth funding by enrolling more students. As a result this year, most universities have significantly increased their enrolments, with some even increasing student numbers by 30 to 40%.

This rapid and uncontrolled increase in student enrolments and related funding has created an unseemly scramble by universities to identify the areas where most students can be recruited, where most students can be accommodated and to eliminate high cost, low volume courses. Across the country, reports of universities closing courses in the humanities and social sciences are growing. Enrolments in business, information technology and health programs have skyrocketed.

What this has done is create the imperative for universities to find sources of students, anywhere and everywhere. This drive has been intensified by the Commonwealth, who as a result of its so-called Bradley Review of Higher Education, has pressured universities to rapidly respond to the political target of 40% of the Australian population having a higher education qualification. ‘Uncapping’ enrolment numbers was one means by which this was to be driven, along with other incentives for universities. Everything in public policy around higher education has become a drive for rapid growth.

It is therefore little surprise that students considering vocational education are an increasing source of potential nutrition to feed this furious growth in higher education. Critical to this is the attempt to cast vocational education as merely a ‘pathway’ to higher education, rather than an important and distinctive sector. The Commonwealth has helpfully sought to blur this boundary by introducing the broad terminology of the ‘tertiary sector’, further lessening this demarcation.

Yet all the financial weight and capacity is being weighted to the higher education end of this illusory tertiary sector. Unlimited Commonwealth funding for higher education stands in stark contrast to the financial haemorrhaging of the TAFE system by State governments. As the Commonwealth government pours money into higher education, State governments are rapidly withdrawing it from the public vocational sector. Australian public universities face little competition from private sector providers, yet TAFEs suffer the absurdity of a plethora of low quality, fly-by-night providers draining funding and students. The Commonwealth, under its recent stimulus-funding package, invested enormous capital works funding into universities, whilst TAFE campus closures are now the standard discussion for State government bureaucrats.

There is no tertiary sector in Australian education. Instead there is widening chasm between the funding and support for higher education and a brutal resource retreat in TAFE. Under current realities, university funding will grow exponentially with increasing student numbers and TAFE systems will be run down further by the neglect of government and the pillage by for-profit, low infrastructure private VET providers.

This is not to say that our public universities are not deserving of the levels of financial support they are receiving. It is long overdue after a decade of neglect by the Howard government. However, the same level of support for Australia’s TAFE system is not only not forthcoming, it is suffering exactly the opposite fate. The possibly of a parity of esteem between higher and vocational education, envisaged by Kangan in creating the public TAFE model in 1974, is more elusive than it has ever been.

This emerging reality is something well understood by university Vice-Chancellors. TAFE students are a logical target for universities increasingly hungry for students. Creating the impression of university concern for pathways is an increasingly convenient cover for blurring the boundaries between the sectors, normalising the prospect of a better-resourced university degree as the goal over a decent vocational program designed for the purposes of work and further vocational learning. As the TAFE melt down gathers pace in Victoria thanks to the Baillieu government, we also see the next stage: universities beginning to seek to take over TAFE campuses to support burgeoning enrolments. No one should be under the illusion about the real intentions of universities when it comes to pathways and a tertiary sector – the objective is for building the university rather than strengthening the public TAFE system.

Michael Stevenson is a TAFE teacher

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