TAFE Institutes in Victoria are facing the biggest challenge in their history – a challenge of survival. Up to $300m has been ripped out of the public TAFE sector and it is beginning to have devastating effects on communities, staff and students. The Victorian government has made an ideological decision and blamed it on the need to tighten a budget. This is not a debate about funding for VET – record levels of funding for VET have been assured. What this decision exposes is an ideological choice of allocation of funding – away from TAFE and towards for-profit private RTOs.
The Victorian government has decided that it has washed its hands of public not-for-profit TAFEs. It sees no need to support TAFEs as full service providers to their communities and is blind to the realities of how vital TAFE Institutions are in Victoria, especially in regional areas. Their value choice is clear – tax payers money is better spent on VET provision through private, profit motivated RTOs that cherry pick the cheapest courses and seduce students in unethical ways to maximise their earnings. What is becoming even clearer though is that the Victorian government has grossly underestimated the tax payers they represent – people are angry and their anger is beginning to bite. It is biting because the Victorian public understands the real stories of the lives that these budget cuts will affect. It’s a clear case of a clash of values – those of the Liberal government and those of the Victorian community.
My TAFE institute has been serving our regional community for well over a century. It is part of the life blood of our city. Most families have had a connection to the TAFE and it is a crucial part of the social fabric of a city that is facing enormous economic challenges and high levels of disadvantage. My institute estimates that the loss of funding from the Victorian government’s budget cuts will equate to about 20% of its total operating budget. Most of this loss is from the removal of full service provision funding. The loss of this funding in particular represents a reneging on the State Government’s social contract with the taxpayers of Victoria – a contract that sees them being custodians of public education facilities that hold a really special place in the lives and hearts of Victorian families. The scrapping of full service provision funding means that there is no such thing in Victoria as public TAFEs anymore.
I work in the Foundation Studies area of VET, and in particular in English language provision. We deal with some of our community’s most vulnerable and challenged members. Whilst the hourly subsidy rate for our programs has not been reduced greatly, the loss of full service provision funding will still have a significant impact on how we will be able to provide our education programs. Concession fees for our students will have massive increases – a significant deterrent to already disadvantaged students. Not only will fees increase, but the overall quality of experience will be compromised; a learning experience that our students as taxpayers and citizens expect and deserve from their public provider.
But let me now put a face and a story to these cuts.
Sammy is 34 years old. She is sole parent of four children – two in childcare and two in primary school. She is a Sudanese refugee who is illiterate in her first language. Learning a second language for her is a slow process – she has to learn how to learn, how to speak, how to read and write for the first time in her life. She knows that English is the key to success for her family. She puts $2 a week in a jar to save for her concession fees. She attends TAFE for 20 hours a in a class suited to her language level, with best practice resources available to her.
Sammy is part of the family at the English Language department. She has sought and used the services of her TAFE’s student social workers and counsellors as well as received guidance and support from the careers advisors. She is an avid user of the TAFE library because it has an extensive collection of English language learning resources but also because she has unlimited access to computers and the internet, something she can’t afford at home. She is taught by highly trained and committed ESL teachers who value her as a whole person.
Under the new funding regime, Sammy will be faced with a different challenge to her life. For her institute to continue delivering ESL programs with reduced funding, Sammy’s learning experience will need to be compromised. Her fees will increase, class sizes will be larger and she will have mixed language levels in her class. Sammy will pay for student contact hours that she will not receive as the institute tries to slash face-to-face delivery hours. She will have more casual teachers rather than committed ongoing teachers. Her department will be able to afford fewer learning resources and the institute will no longer be able to provide the student support services that she has so well utilised in the past. But most importantly for her, her pathway opportunities will be diminished as the institute will reduce the number of offerings in lower AQF level courses, restricting Sammy’s chance to be supported into employment after she graduates from her language learning journey.
The Victorian government argues that these changes to the VET system are to ensure value for money. But whose money is it? It is my money, it is Sammy’s money, it is your money, it is our money. These cuts do not ensure value for money. We all know the adage “You get what you pay for”. Mr Ballieu’s legacy to Victoria will be the demise of TAFE and the destruction of the educational principles fundamental to quality VET.
And what do these changes say about what our society values? If these changes go ahead unchallenged, it shows that we value profit focussed providers more than public providers who have community and statutory obligations. It shows that we value shareholders more than community stakeholders. It shows that we value providers that issue qualifications rather than those that help students earn and receive a qualification. It shows that we value training more than education, that we value delivery efficiencies more than teaching excellence. It shows that we value casualised, insecure staff more than secure, respected and loyal staff. It shows that we value unqualified, unprepared trainers more than well qualified, professional educators. It shows that we value providers who are assessment focussed more than learning focussed. It shows that we value an open market over economies of scale. It shows that we value choice over quality. These are not the values of my community and we must let the Victorian Government know this. The Victorian Government is out of step with the values of the community they purport to represent.
These cuts symbolise a race to the bottom for our VET sector and Victoria should be a warning to other states of where privatisation of the VET sector can lead.
-Angela Di Sciascio is a English Language teacher at a large Victorian regional TAFE