July 1, 2013

Why the new Rudd government needs to stand up for TAFE

By Pat Forward

The Federal Government and incoming Minister Brendan O’Connor need to decide what to do with Commonwealth VET Partnership funding for NSW and Victoria. Twelve months ago, then Federal Minister for Tertiary Education, Chris Evans took a stand against recalcitrant state governments to stop them cutting funding to TAFE institutes, and refused to pass on Partnership funding. What is at stake is more than $560M of Commonwealth funding to NSW over the next five years, and more than $430M to Victoria.

On June 7, then Tertiary Education Minister Craig Emerson passed on $356M funding to Queensland. He did this even though the Queensland government had slashed funding to its TAFE institutes. The very next day, the Queensland Government announced that it would be stripping TAFEs of their buildings and facilities, and progressing the VET “reform” process closer to full privatisation of the TAFE sector. This made the Federal Government look foolish.

Refusing to pass on Partnership funding is a complex strategy to sell to the sector because it is requirements in the Federal Government’s own National VET Agreement and the National Partnership Agreement for Skills Reform which have led to hundreds of millions of dollars of government funding flowing to thousands of for-profit private VET providers. These same requirements will see students assume a much greater burden of debt for their training.

The Federal Government acted only when the conservative governments in Queensland, NSW and Victoria went too far, agreeing to progress the reforms but stripping hundreds of millions of dollars from TAFE at the same time. The Federal Government argued that the recalcitrant states needed to reverse the cuts and guarantee support for their TAFE institutions before the Partnership funding would be passed on.

These guarantees have not been forthcoming from Queensland, NSW and Victoria.

TAFE cannot survive the current onslaught of bipartisan market reform, and disdain for public vocational education. And the community understands that Australia will be the poorer for the degradation and the loss of its public TAFE system.

So why has it been so hard to get governments to stop wrecking TAFE? Why has it been so difficult to make the destruction of a whole sector of education, one that over one million Australians access each year, an issue in the minds of politicians?

When the Victorian Government slashed more than $300M from TAFE last year, the public response was overwhelming. It was the response from students, teachers and communities which focussed the attention of the then Minister, Chris Evans on the problem at hand, and led to the Federal Government taking a stand in defence of TAFE.

When the Queensland and NSW governments also slashed funding to TAFE, the Federal Government took a stand in these states as well.

But nothing has improved for TAFE during the last twelve months. In fact, the situation has worsened. Victoria, NSW and Queensland have lost thousands of TAFE teachers and staff. Even if we set aside the human tragedy of the loss of employment, the damage to the TAFE system through loss of experience and expertise will be irreparable. Courses are being cut, campuses are closing, and students are being turned away from TAFE. The alternative for many young people will either be a for-profit provider of uncertain quality, or no training place at all.

For those who might doubt the desperateness of the plight of TAFE in Australia, in May this year the Victorian Auditor General released his report into the Victorian TAFE system. It said, in part:

... If greater capital investment does not occur, assets will deteriorate at a greater rate than they are replaced or renewed. This presents a risk to the long-term financial sustainability of TAFEs, as buildings and other infrastructure assets will become unusable.

...There is a risk that if individual TAFEs do not change their operations to cut costs and increase student revenue, they may become unsustainable.

The Federal Government should not pass on VET Partnership funding to Victoria or NSW because each of these states is thumbing its nose at the Federal Government, taking advantage of the bleak political moment.

The Federal Government has everything to lose and nothing to gain from passing on funding because these states will not pass the funds onto their TAFE institutes. The Federal Government could pass these funds directly to TAFE institutes in Victoria and NSW.

It could go to the next election with a clear distinction between itself and the coalition. It could send a signal to the TAFE sector that even though its own TAFE policy is deeply flawed, it is prepared to take a stand against conservative governments vandalising a highly regarded community asset.

The Australian community holds its TAFE system in high regard. The Federal Government and new Minister Brendan O’Connor should stand up and defend the TAFE system across the country.