November 17, 2020

TAFE: Community in action

By Michelle Purdy

As more than a million Australians are forced into unemployment by the coronavirus crisis, TAFEs anchor role in providing place based training that allows people to re-train and gain skills without being forced to leave their communities is more vital than ever.

TAFE offers a lifeline for regional and rural communities, promoting stronger economic and labour market outcomes and helping to ‘bridge’ access to vocational education and jobs pathways for students with higher needs.

The campuses that are managing to survive in the regions despite a 30% loss in funding over the past decade, are bearing considerable marginal costs to provide the opportunity to access a quality education in less profitable, thin markets.

Unfortunately, these opportunities have significantly diminished under this government’s policies, which have seen huge numbers of TAFE campus closures and a 60% drop in the number of TAFE providers in recent years.

Put back funding

The AEU has long called for coordinated plan for federal support to TAFE. To date, the Commonwealth Government has relied entirely on state and territory governments to ensure the ongoing viability of TAFEs. Now the Prime Minister has stated that future federal contributions will be contingent on state and territory funding, despite the Mitchell Institute report showing that Australia’s total investment in the VET sector is at its lowest level in real terms since at least 2008.

The AEU’s federal budget submission argued that the federal Governments must act urgently and decisively to restore the gradual and systematic erosion of TAFE funding, or TAFEs role in the Australian education system would remain under threat. Correna Haythorpe, AEU Federal President said: “If the government doesn’t address education funding it will further entrench deep inequality across Australia and it will further reduce opportunity.’

And it is not just the unions that are calling for national investment. As the President of the Country Women’s Association of Australia said on National TAFE Day. “If governments are serious about improving the liveability of rural, regional and remote communities then they MUST include the opportunities that a publicly funded TAFE system can offer.”

Productivity boost

This sentiment was echoed by the CEO of the National Farmers Federation, Terry Mahar, who said in response to the Prime Minister’s announcement that there would be no new funding; “Evidence-based reforms to the vocational education and training sector, including a rational approach to funding arrangements, are sorely needed. For a long time now agriculture has been an afterthought when it comes to the formal skills development system and the programs that support it.

“Farmers would very much welcome a framework that builds and recognises the many skills required in farm businesses. Our goal is double the number of tertiary and vocational agriculture graduates and to increase the overall available farm workforce by 2030.”

In order to rebuild Australia’s economy and workforce a clear and strongly supported national workforce strategy is required. This is particularly important to address the escalating rate of youth unemployment in areas where population densities are low and geographical spread is wide. A true strategy for workforce renewal can only be achieved through national support for TAFE, and by acknowledging the capacity of TAFE’s longstanding partnerships with industry and partners that ensures that the right mix of skills are delivered to address the particular needs of the community.

People

The pandemic has certainly shone a light on the need for more skilled aged care, disability and childcare workers. To meet the demand, students in regional communities will need access to local training, and for those who left school with no qualifications or who were disengaged from education, TAFE can provide students the extra support they may need.

For Tasmanian Angela Weeks, 2020 was the year to make her long held dream come true. After six years working at Huon Aquaculture she took the plunge and enrolled part-time in the Certificate III in Individual Support (Ageing, Home and Community) at TasTAFE’s Devonport campus.

“For a long time I didn’t feel like I had a lot to offer or the life experience to be a carer. Once my family grew up I could see that it was time to make a career change” she said.

There have been a number of challenges as Ange hasn’t been in the education system for many years. Her enthusiasm and bubbly personality carried her through the first part of the course but there was a gap in her level of understanding and ability to stay on task with her written assessments and a new industry based language to learn. Having TAFE in the community allowed Ange to start accessing the Drop-in Study Support until COVID-19 hit and everything went online. She then started working with a tutor weekly by distance to better understand the assessment questions and develop the writing style needed.

Ange finds her teachers passionate, very supportive, professional and extremely knowledgeable about the aged care industry. Ange is very excited at the prospect of her local work placement at Tandarra Lodge in her home town of Sheffield later this year so that she can put in to practice what she has learned about providing the best care possible. We will need thousands of people like Ange if we are to deal with the crisis in aged care into the future.

Place

At the heart of communities, TAFE also puts the needs and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, their families and communities, who reside in rural and remote areas at the centre of its teaching.

Pakana Ranger Brenton Brown is a Palawa man working at Preminghana on the far North West of Tasmania which is owned and managed by the Aboriginal community. The land is beautiful with long windswept beaches on the edge of the Tarkine with the background music of crashing waves and the roaring 40’s.

He and the other rangers are currently rebuilding traditional bark huts at Preminghana so that community, particularly the children, can reconnect with their culture and for the general public to learn respect through knowledge.

Brenton has almost completed his Certificate III in Conservation and Land Management with TasTAFE while working on the job. He explained that reading and writing have never been his strong points and he’s never done well in big groups. It is only through the support of his teacher meeting with him out on country where he can provide verbal answers and demonstrate his knowledge plus the occasional 1:1 catch up on campus that has got him through the course so far. Brenton knows what he is doing while working on the job and can identify the native plants, animals and weeds and how to manage these as the ranger program works on managing this precious land. Putting all that down on paper was a barrier. Concerns over his literacy stopped Brenton from signing up for the certificate III course for several years until he built up his confidence.

“If it hadn’t happened this way I don’t think I would have done the course. Study has opened up my mind and I have learned a lot about land management. You can’t just light a fire. You need to think about the fauna and native trees and the reason for the fire before starting it” said Brenton.

As the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education concluded back in 2018, ‘TAFE has to be put back into the regions, closer to people, places and the heartland of much of Australia’s productivity.’ Now more than ever TAFE needs guaranteed federal support.

This article originally appeared in the Australian TAFE Teacher Magazine, Spring 2020

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