One Way StockAn edited version of this piece appeared in Campus Review on December 11 2012.

For our final post of the year, we thought this was an appropriate way to not only look back on the dramatic events of 2012, but to look forward to the future of TAFE in Australia.

2012 was a grim year for the TAFE system in Australia. Decades of investment in public vocational education are being trashed by belligerent state governments and hundreds of TAFE teachers face the bleak prospect of unemployment. Employers have joined the chorus of dissent, lamenting the impact of cuts to TAFE budgets, and the resultant course cuts and campus closures. Small regional and rural communities across the country face the prospect of losing their TAFE campus, diminishing opportunities for their young people. Large metropolitan TAFEs are shutting courses which have served industry and the community for decades as they brace themselves for the impact of ongoing and severe budget cuts. The April 2012 signing of the COAG National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development cemented in VET policy the same market policy which saw such a massive growth in private for-profit provider delivery in Victoria that by early this year, the Victorian TAFE system had dropped in market share from 75% in 2008 to 45% in 2012.

There needs to be a rigorous and public re-evaluation of the unfolding disaster in TAFE for there to be any chance of saving one of Australia’s most valuable and highly regarded public education institutions.

The chaos in TAFE did not start at the beginning of 2012. It has been many years in the making. The Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency (AWPA), in a recent briefing paper argued that despite a rise in total VET revenue, funding per full year equivalent VET student has decreased by 11.8% between 2007 and 2010. The 2011 CEET report update showed government recurrent expenditure per hour of training declined by 15.4% between 2004 and 2009. If both expenditure per hour and TAFE’s share of that expenditure had been maintained at even 2004 levels, TAFE’s funding would have been about $974m (or 18.9%) greater in 2009 than it actually was. This trend continued, as the AWPA paper shows, into 2010.

The ongoing trend of reducing government funding for vocational education, damaging as it has been, is not the major problem facing the sector. It has been the determination of successive state and federal governments to impose market “reforms” as the sole policy setting which has wreaked the most havoc. These reforms have been advanced by both Labor and Coalition governments. The Rudd and then Gillard governments have blindly tied increased competition for government funds, and the opening up of the VET provider market to access to federal funding in successive national agreements. Victoria embraced these reforms enthusiastically in 2007, leading the way with an uncapped, student demand driven system which saw the number of private for profit providers double overnight, and inexorably a budget blowout of more than $400m by 2011. No-one has yet asked how we could trust a bureaucracy which didn’t notice a budget blowout of this order with oversighting untested VET reforms. No-one has called the Victorian VET bureaucracy to account, even as the government response to untrammelled growth in the private market, to which all of this funding flowed, was to slash Victorian TAFE budgets by an estimated $300m. More than 2,200 TAFE workers are in the process of losing their jobs in Victoria.

Those who thought that the unfolding disaster in Victoria would give vocational education policy makers a rare opportunity to re-evaluate their flawed policy settings for the sector were wrong. Lemming-like, the federal government embedded a requirement for increased competition for vocational education funding, a Victorian-like, and euphemistic  student “entitlement” to training, and the introduction of income contingent loans in their April 2012 COAG agreement.

The state governments, equally lemming-like, fell into line, signing the agreement, and proceeding in at least two states to take to their TAFE budgets with the metaphorical axe. NSW has cut at least $80m from its TAFE budgets, foreshadowed at least 800 permanent job cuts and already started to slash courses. TAFE courses are currently shutting down in NSW, and TAFE teachers are being, in the NSW government’s own language “deleted”. This is before the implementation of the Smart and Skilled “reforms” foreshadowed in the COAG agreement. The Queensland government has accepted most of the recommendations of its VET Taskforce, and is anticipating the closure of between 25 and 38 of its TAFE campuses. Again anticipating the reform process, Queensland TAFE is currently implementing about $130m budget cuts, and Queensland TAFE courses are being cut, as teachers are being made redundant.

The TAFE system in Australia is on the brink of destruction. The sector does not have the time for blame shifting and sparring between the jurisdictions and the Commonwealth. The time to act is now.

The Federal Government has “skin in the game”. It has signed agreements with the states and territories worth $8.8b over the next five years. It has invested considerable public money in TAFE infrastructure, an investment currently being trashed by state governments all of which have committed, through the NASWD to develop and implement strategies which:

…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.

The Federal Government must withhold federal funding to those state governments who continue to destroy their public TAFE systems.

The Australian VET system has been debased by fly-by-night, for profit, private providers. They have trashed the vocational education brand, creating uncertainty amongst individual students and employers and undermining confidence in vocational qualifications and standards. No state or territory government, nor the Federal Government, can hold its hand on its heart, look an individual student in the eye, and attest to the quality of vocational education that a student will receive at any one of the more than 4,000 private RTOs currently accessing public funding to deliver national accredited training across the country.

It is too late for those thousands of students who have already wasted their once only entitlement to training at a dodgy private provider. It is too late for the thousands of TAFE workers who have lost their jobs. It is already too late where courses have been abolished and infrastructure wound up. It is not too late to listen to the Australian community.

The TAFE sector desperately needs a circuit breaker. The Australian community has not sanctioned the wholesale closure of TAFE campuses. The community deserves an opportunity to remind governments how much it values TAFE. The TAFE footprint is a phenomenon of which most nations would be justifiably proud. Australian unions deserve the opportunity to have their say about the future of training for workers. Australian employers have already shown that the high regard with which they hold the TAFE system.

We need decisive government action to save TAFE. Now.

-Pat Forward is the Federal TAFE Secretary of the Australian Education Union