Jones Beach Umbrella © 2009 Joe Shlabotnik , used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license


Over the summer holidays, we are revisiting some of our favourite articles from The Australian TAFE Teacher magazine.

The severity of the cuts to TAFE funding in the recent Victorian budget on May 1 2012 has focused the attention of many outside the sector on the unravelling of vocational education in Australia. The sector has been calling for an informed debate about vocational education policy for a long time. The attention is welcome and the debate essential.

The dismantling of TAFE did not start on May 1 in Victoria, when the Baillieu government slashed $300m and an estimated 2,000 jobs from TAFEs. TAFE has endured endless funding cuts over the years, and it is by any measure the worst funded education sector in Australia – a 25.7% reduction in funding since 1997. These cuts to funding have resulted in the neglect of teacher qualifications and professional development, and decline in student support. TAFE has become one of the most highly casualised sectors in education. TAFE has scrimped and saved and adapted and struggled for more than a decade, only to be reminded by government bureaucrats on an annual basis that funding cuts are, in Orwellian terms – “efficiencies”.

Twenty years ago the training marketeers gave us a competency based training (CBT) and competition. A few years later, courtesy of New Labour, they gave us “market design” and the development of a competitive market in vocational education and training. In the middle, the sector endured “growth through efficiencies”. It has taken twenty years, but the current debacle in Victoria is as much the result of this twenty year reform process as the May 1st Baillieu budget.

It is true that the Baillieu government has gone further than the previous Labor state government in directly cutting funds from TAFE. However, the Baillieu government has taken reforms bequeathed to it by the previous Victorian Labor government and driven them to their logical conclusion. The Victorian State Labor opposition has struggled in the last month to articulate a response to the cuts.  As the architects of Victoria’s “skills reform” they are responsible for the fragmentation and decline in TAFE funding that resulted. The harshness of the budget cuts is undeniable – so is Labor’s complicity in creating this situation.

Much the same can be said of the Federal ALP. The recent intervention by Minister for Tertiary Education Senator Chris Evans is timely and welcome.  He has, and he must continue to call this Victorian government to account for what it is doing to TAFE. But Federal Labor must walk away from the policy that it has devised and promoted, which it has funded, which bureaucrats have shamelessly and uncritically promoted and which the Victorian government implemented three years ago.

The truth is this: market models won’t fix the problems in vocational education.

The poverty and austerity of market design as an organizing principle for the sector is being revealed for what it is in Victoria – a poor cover for destroying public institutions in vocational education. All stakeholders must call for a rigorous public debate that contributes to the development of policy that would shape the future of the sector. TAFEs and unions have done this and some industry groups have broken ranks and joined TAFE. These are positive signs.

The crisis in TAFE sparked by Victorian budget cuts can only be addressed if all stakeholders declare their hands – governments who want to shift the costs of vocational education from themselves onto students (through income contingent loans), industry and unions who profit from government VET funding, consultants who benefit from the subcontracting out by government departments of research, and universities who continue to prey on the sector in order to maintain their student numbers.

Markets are not the way to organize social goods like education. Advocates of market design cannot point to a single piece of research that shows that it works in education.

Markets are neither good masters, nor good servants. The problem in Victoria is not that the market has failed, but that it has done exactly what is was designed to do – deliver profits to entrepreneurial private providers who work often within the parameters set for them – 5 day diplomas, qualifications delivered in hours – these are the currency of the current VET system. The regulators are powerless to stop providers from offering these qualifications at cut price in a fraction of the time it takes, because in the current VET market in Australia, they are not doing anything wrong.

Some commentators have already called the game. The severity of the Victorian budget cuts has surprised many, and there has been a collective shake of the head, as many seek to save what they can from the wreckage. In an attempt to persuade other states not to go down the Victorian route, we are encouraged to consider the as yet untested SA model – caps and incentives associated with access to entitlements. There has been an almost universal call to upgrade quality requirements among training providers.

Neither looking to SA, nor attempting to increase quality requirements will work in the current environment. There is little more than a whisker between the architecture of the SA Skills for all, and the Victorian Training Guarantee. I have studied both closely – they are in large part indistinguishable, and each lends itself admirably to the gutting of the TAFE budget as happened in Victoria on May 1. Indeed, the ridiculous complexity of the SA model – a level of complexity which makes the Victorian model look simple in comparison – will lead to the same confusion and despair as is evident in Victoria.

A call for increased quality will not work either because quality is hard to define in a market-driven, fragmented, CBT system. The problem with CBT is that it severs the link between learning and assessment. According to CBT, learning happens anywhere anytime, and can be assessed in any place. This trivialises vocational education because in the end curriculum and structured teaching and learning don’t matter, and nor do teachers or institutions. In vocational education, as in all education, quality centres on the learning process, which young apprentices and all vocational education students engage in when they “go to TAFE”. Learning is a social process linked to an educational institution, even where a part of that learning is on the job. In the current debate, the advocates of a VET market see TAFE as just another training provider, indistinguishable except for the additional costs to governments, a problem which the Victorian government has remedied by effectively cutting all Victorian TAFEs “full service delivery” funding. Indeed, the current focus of quality is the outcomes of learning. It is an impoverished learning experience which can be conflated narrowly with outcomes.

The call for increased quality in a market system will not work because the current batch of government bureaucrats have no idea how to define quality, and because governments refuse to resource the level of increased scrutiny required in a low trust, high surveillance system. Witness the “increases” in funding to ASQA in the recent Federal Budget. They were illusory – the increases in actual funding were minimal – around $3m. The Federal Budget merely allowed ASQA to set higher fees.

Reports of the death of TAFE are premature, but the fight to defend it is going on in earnest.

There has never been a greater need for vocational and further education in publicly funded educational institutions, with highly qualified teachers. In working with students at these institutions (whether in classrooms, workplaces, or online), the focus must be on contemporary industry skills, but it must also be on further education, and on citizenship and on building the capacity of this and future generations to participate powerfully in society.

This is TAFE, and the ferocity of the community response to the Victorian cuts should send a warning to governments that while they might act carelessly with the asset that they hold in trust for their communities, the communities themselves know the value of TAFE.

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