May 16, 2018

In defence of basket weaving

By The Stop TAFE Cuts team

“But we do know that the last time the Labor Party played in the vocational education space all we got was the disastrous VET FEE-HELP program that subsidised everything from energy healing to basket weaving and saw billions of taxpayer dollars rorted and tipped down the sink.Senator Simon Birmingham, 11 May 2018

VET FEE HELP was legislated under the Howard Government, and supported and extended under the Labor Government, especially in the 2012 National Agreement for Skills and Workplace Development. The massive rorting of VET FEE HELP occurred between 2012 and 2015, under the watch of Simon Birmingham and the Coalition Government. Expenditure on VET FEE HELP rose from $322,620,267 in 2012 to $2,915,377,198. in 2015.

There is little doubt that the design and introduction of VET FEE HELP was an ill-conceived bipartisan project, but the Coalition Government was responsible for the implementation of a massive policy debacle, and they ignored repeated warnings that private for-profit providers were rorting the system.

It is, however the Education Minister’s recent comments, quoted above, about basket weaving and TAFE which has justifiably raised the ire of the Australian community. The irony of the Minister’s comments, basket weaving aside, is not lost on vocational education and TAFE insiders, who trawled through the Government’s 2018 Budget announcements for a mention of TAFE, for a glimmer of hope for the embattled sector, for some acknowledgement that the parlous state of government funding and support was to be addressed. There was no mention of TAFE. Instead, the Coalition’s ill-conceived Skilling Australians Fund, the third in a long line of attempts by governments to bypass the TAFE system and direct money to employers, received a $270m cut. While even the optimists doubt the effectiveness of the Skilling Australians Fund, the cut is symptomatic of the Turnbull Government’s approach to the sector, and it throws into sharp relief the Education Minister’s foolish comments about basket weaving and TAFE.

Dismissive allegations that TAFE only teaches basket weaving have been around for decades. They are not funny and they are ill informed. In this instance, the Minister’s comments went viral, and they sparked a huge response from across the country about the breadth, depth and importance of the work that TAFE does.

As we know, and as the Australian community knows, TAFE provides another opportunity for those who don’t do well at school, including an alternative pathway to further and vocational education, and oftentimes, a pathway to university. Much of that work that TAFE has done is under threat across the country. Much has already been lost.

TAFE is also a first choice for those who want to learn a trade. It is a place where laboratory workers learn. TAFE is the place for blue-colour apprentices, but it is also a place for artists, musicians and creative types.

Detractors of the TAFE system, and those who have attempted to redesign vocational education into a market-driven, employer focussed deliverer of “just in time” skills scoff about basket weaving, just as they have scoffed about the broad range of arts and music courses which TAFE used to offer. In fact, basket weaving is a complex, fascinating and skilled art form. Aboriginal people – from the Yolgnu people of Arnhem Land to the Gunditjimara people of southwestern Victoria are expert weavers. For millennia they have carefully collected the appropriate natural fibres; dried or processed them; and then sat and weaved them into baskets, dilly bags, eel traps and any number of useful and decorative objects. Some Aboriginal weavers take the skills they have been taught by their communities, and mesh them with the contemporary Western art practice they learn at TAFE. Of course basket weaving is not unique to Aboriginal culture. As long as humans have needed to carry things, they have needed baskets. The process of weaving fibres together to create something strong enough to carry heavy objects requires a particular set of skills and knowledge.

Sadly, after decades of funding cuts, and the destruction of many arts courses it is increasingly difficult to find arts courses of any sort, let alone basket weaving at many TAFE colleges across the country. This is despite the arts being a growth industry in Australia, and TAFE previously providing high quality arts courses that covered not only the practical and technical side of artistic practice, but also small businesses skills, and information about working in the broader arts sector. TAFEs are in the unenviable position of being pilloried for teaching basket weaving; and simultaneously being unable to provide basket weaving and other arts courses for lack of funding and subsidies.

The response to Senator Birmingham’s basket weaving comments was a defensive “TAFE’s not about basket weaving!” And for many workers – electricians, builders, hairdressers, nail technicians, potters, musicians, mechanics, chefs, nurses, lab techs, community services and disability workers, computer programmers, shipbuilders, forklift drivers, agronomists, accountants, administrators, logistics specialists, and fitters and turners – their time at TAFE did not include any basket weaving whatsoever. But for some people, TAFE was about basket weaving. And for some people, an art class or a session on basket weaving was the first step back into education before moving onto a life changing certificate, diploma or university degree.

Governments would do well to think seriously before they continue the practice of allocating government funding selectively only to courses in areas of so-called industry shortage. It is perpetuating an idea that working class students who undertake vocational education should only be able to access government funding in a narrow range of employer-determined courses, and should not have the same choices that their middle class cousins have at university.

It’s easy to be dismissive of basket weaving if you don’t understand it. And for this government, it seems they understand TAFE as much as they understand basket weaving.

Sandra Aitken a Gilgar Gunditj woman who was taught to weave by her Auntie and then went onto a Diploma of Visual Arts at TAFE is a great example of the art and skill of basket weaving. Sandra said that she found that “weaving and making baskets with groups of people breaks down barriers, we enjoy each other’s company and stories as we weave.”

Simon Birmingham should head to his local TAFE college, not to sit down and weave, but to look around and understand the full breadth and importance of TAFE – from automotive engineering to basket weaving.