The Final Report of the Queensland Skills and Training Taskforce, established in June to advise the government on the reform of the VET sector, was released on 6 November 2012.  There are a few changes from the interim report which was released in September.  It recommends the closure of 38 of the state’s 82 TAFE campuses and a radical overhaul of industrial arrangements.  The Report recommends institutional mergers to create from the existing 13 institutes, five geographically focused institutes (including a single Brisbane Metropolitan institute) plus SkillsTech Australia as the new parent entity’s lead subsidiary on trade skills training.  should the CQU/CQIT merger not proceed, CQIT could form another region.

The ‘fundamental components’ of the Taskforce recommendations are inconsistent and incoherent.  It recommends a new industry-led Queensland Skills Commission, but also fully contestable and demand driven funding.  This is based on the Taskforce’s misguided view that ‘implementing a demand driven funding framework means focusing on the requirements of the VET system’s end-users…'(p. 41).  Fully contestable demand driven funding require concentration on student demand, not on employers’ statements about their need for more graduates.

It recommends the establishment of a TAFE Queensland “parent entity” outside the current department structure as a statutory body, providing a potential future opportunity to transition to a more commercially focused organisational form (potentially including a Government Owned Corporation).  This would incorporate 11 TAFE institutes that currently come under the department although it’s not clear how the two institutes that are already statutory authorities (Southbank and Gold Coast) would be treated under this model.

The establishment of the Queensland Skills Commission would see the Queensland Government’s strategy and funding of vocational education outsourced to this body.  The Queensland Skills Commission would subsume Skills Queensland and take over many of the current responsibilities of the Queensland education and training department.  The Commission would:

    • conduct/commission labour market research and analysis to identify skills demand that in turn drives productivity growth in the broader economy
    • design solutions that meet the economy’s skills needs in the short, medium and long-term and support small, medium and large enterprises
    • invest public funds into skills formation leading to skilled employment outcomes for the State within an increasingly contestable VET funding environment.

Together with the Taskforce’s recommendation that TAFE Queensland be operated by a ‘stand-alone entity’ (p. 64), the Taskforce is essentially proposing that the Queensland Government have no direct involvement in vocational education strategy, funding or management.

The Report marks Queensland’s move from being a ‘Smart State’ to a ‘four pillar economy’ based on resources, construction, agriculture and tourism (p. 6).  The Taskforce notes changes in Queensland employment from 1 January to 31 August 2012 (p. 26).  This is a remarkably short period from which to review investment of vocational education, which has implications over years.  However, there were falls in employment in 3 of the 4 pillars of the Queensland economy.  Only mining increased, by about 8,000 workers.  But this was overshadowed by health care and social assistance, which increased by over 20,000, which is not one of the four pillars, and is barely mentioned in the Report.

The Report proposes a timetable for transition to full contestability for public funding, beginning from 1 July 2013 on a limited basis, with full implementation from 1 July 2014.  The Taskforce recommends that the actual amount of contestable funding be subject to the definition and finalising of the cost of the “TAFE owner’s base cost”, which the Taskforce describes as “the ‘non-market’ services of the public provider”.  The Taskforce suggests that there are no reasons why these services, once quantified and defined, could not be provided by private providers.  This is the $190 million in full service delivery funding the Victorian government has cut from its TAFE system.

The Taskforce reports that its consultations “identified an almost universal view that the current industrial relations arrangements restrict flexibility in terms of hours of work and staff utilisation, create uncompetitive costs and are inconsistent and out of date with current training arrangements and strategies.”  The Taskforce recommends freedom to increase casualisation as one strategy for increasing TAFEs’ productivity, and also the increased use of online and other non-face to face delivery options.  It recommends sweeping changes to the industrial relations framework to deliver improvements in flexibility and productivity.

The Taskforce makes mention of the more than 2900 RTOs (the majority of which are private for profit providers) operating in Queensland but it makes a virtue of this, and makes no reference to any concerns about the activity of dodgy private RTOs, despite ample evidence in Victoria and other states of the risks associated with rapid opening up of the market.  The Report is replete with contradictions – it laments the fact that TAFE still has a two-thirds market share, despite the extraordinary numbers of RTOs operating in the state.  It criticises TAFE, and portrays it as unresponsive and yet refers to its association in the public mind with quality and trust.

The Taskforce presents an extraordinarily narrow view of vocational education, linking it directly and only with employment outcomes, signalling strongly that these are the only things which should be funded in the implementation of the nationally mandated reforms.  There is no mention of the well established second chance role of TAFE, scant regards for the important role that TAFE plays in innovation and no mention at all of the role that TAFE plays in community building and the nurturing of social capital.  The report does not recognise the role of TAFE institutes in providing ad hoc advice and support, anticipating future needs, stimulating innovation and introducing new ideas and trends to their communities and local employers.

The final Report reflects the composition of the Taskforce, their self-interest, and their lack of knowledge and understanding of the complexity and importance of vocational education.  Peak private provider organisation, ACPET was represented on the Taskforce, but Queensland TAFE was denied a place because the government argued that it would represent a conflict of interest.

The Report posits a very narrow focus for vocational education in Queensland, and much of the structural reform proposed in the Report is entirely consistent with reforms proposed in the other “reform” states.  Where the Queensland Taskforce deviates is in its contempt for TAFE and its brazen assertion that despite the fact that TAFE is associated in the public mind with “access, training, quality and trust”, it will be given “reasonable opportunity to reform” – but then could and should become just another private provider.  In other words, the Taskforce basically sees the end of the reform process in Queensland being the privatisation of TAFE.

If the Queensland Government accepts these recommendations in their current form, it would be in breach of requirements in both the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development, and the National Partnership Agreement, to maintain and resource TAFE.

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