The Victorian vocational and education training sector (universally abbreviated by those in the sector as "VET") has been going through some tough times of late. After a blow-out in funding costs under a system brought in by the Brumby government, Ted Ballieu’s Coalition government has been clamping down on VET sector funding.
The response has seen $40 million dollars cut from the sector last year, with another $290 million in budget cuts this year. Despite the funding blow-out largely arising from the private sector, it is government institutions, particularly TAFEs, that are bearing the brunt of the cuts. Some reports estimate that as many as 2,000 jobs in Victorian TAFEs will disappear.
The pain is being felt particularly in large metropolitan TAFEs and also in regional towns like Bendigo. Several major Victorian universities have TAFEs articulated to them, which act as both stand-alone vocational education centres and also as feeder programs for higher degrees. As a result of the funding cuts, Swinburne University will axe 240 jobs and close its Prahran and Lilydale campuses, while Victoria University was already restructuring in anticipation of the funding cuts, losing 50 jobs, raising fees and discontinuing courses. RMIT will also cut courses and jobs, though how many is as yet unannounced.
In the regions, 100 jobs will go at Bendigo TAFE and the Kyneton campus will be closed. About 70 positions will be made redundant at Gippsland TAFE, and 26 job losses have been announced at Mildura-based Sunraysia TAFE. The University of Ballarat will also cut courses and staff, reducing its total TAFE activity by more than 30 per cent.
Victorian education unions and VET sector students are mobilising to oppose the funding cuts, with a rally planned for today outside Victorian Parliament House. The cuts are causing particular heart-ache in the regions, where local TAFEs and universities are major employers. The cuts have been a major topic of media coverage in regional media and there have been several protests in Bendigo, Ballarat and East Gippsland.
According to the policy experts and union leaders that New Matilda has spoken to, the real cause of the funding crisis is a botched reform of the VET sector funding system by the former Brumby government. Under John Brumby, Victoria radically deregulated its VET system, introducing a voucher system that allowed private training providers to compete against government institutions and TAFEs for VET sector funding. The reforms were intended to liberalise the sector and allow more flexibility for students wishing to take courses with private training institutions.
The private training providers responded with gusto, rapidly expanding courses and enrolments to take advantage of the voucher funding. According to Victorian government figures cited in this article by the Australian Financial Review’s Mathew Dunkley and Joanna Mather, enrolments in private courses exploded by 308 per cent between 2008 and 2011. In contrast, enrolments in the public TAFE system grew by only 4 per cent. As a result, VET Sector spending by the Victorian government has blown out by $475 million over and above budget estimates for 2011-12.
With no cap on the number of places eligible for funding, over-enrolment was rampant. In an article bluntly entitled "Victorian TAFE chaos: a lesson in how not to reform vocational education", education policy analyst Leesa Wheelahan recently noted that fitness instructor training places had increased by 2000 per cent in Victoria. Private training providers were particularly aggressive in their enrolment practices, enticing students with offers of free iPads and sometimes even cash bonuses. Careers Australia’s website is a good example, prominently displaying a message that reads "FREE IPAD2" on is front page.
Course quality, on the other hand, was in many cases patchy. In the worst examples, registered training organisations appeared to be running courses of essentially no educational content, faking their outcomes to rort the system for government cash.
Australian Education Union spokeswoman Mary Bluett told New Matilda that regulation of the private training sector has been basically non-existent. "There was no regulator capable of checking the quality of private providers that moved into the space," she said in a phone interview. "The Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority theoretically could do it, but they had no capacity to do it … I’m not going to say all private providers are bad, some of the well-established ones do a good job, but what this system did was encourage fly-by-nighters."
Bluett points to a training organisation that came to the Union’s attention last year. It was offering $500 cash incentives to members of amateur football clubs to complete certificate II courses in fitness instruction. The club’s own facilities were then used to undertake the course. "There was no advice given to people that if you undertake this certificate you could not get a government funded place [in the future]", Bluett says.
Gavin Moodie is an education policy analyst based at RMIT. "Private providers expanded in Australian vocational education only relatively recently, and so states haven’t established the infrastructure to cope with the explosion of private providers over the last ten years," he wrote in an email.
"Regulating quality rigorously is rather expensive and most of the states have been under funding their regulators badly," Moodie continued.
The AEU’s Bluett argues that the explosion in dubious private training provision was predictable, given the lack of safeguards. "These changes under Brumby — we opposed them at the time, we pointed to the future. It brings us no joy to say this is all exactly as we predicted."
But beyond the regulatory failure, Moodie points to a broader misunderstanding of the ability of the market to quickly provide services that have been built up by state institutions over many decades.
"Behind all of these problems is the failure to recognise that educational institutions aren’t just interchangeable providers of services, but are institutional repositories of expertise, experience — an educational culture — and relations with other parts of society that take years to develop. This institutionalisation of educational expertise can be stultifying tradition… but it is being eroded without much reflection on what may be lost."