TAFE NSW has a proud history of delivering education and training to meet economic, social justice and education policies. The fact that TAFE NSW is seen as the gold standard in Australian vocational education and training is largely attributable to the commitment and professionalism of TAFE workers. This history and reputation are now seriously threatened.
The $1.7 billion cut to the education budget announced (pdf) by the NSW Minster for Education Adrian Piccoli this week is another political betrayal for TAFE workers and students in NSW.
According to the NSW Opposition leader these cuts represent the biggest attack on education in NSW for 20 years. The NSW MP John Kaye says this as a continuation of funding cuts to TAFE that has seen NSW governments almost halve expenditure on training since 1997.
In classic political spin the Minister describes the cuts as "building a sustainable education system in NSW".
How slashing 800 TAFE job and increasing student fees by 9.5 per cent will help build the TAFE system is left unexplained by the Minister.
Instead an internal Departmental paper (pdf) announcing the cuts simply states they are the result of the introduction of a Labour Expense Cap (pdf), which was introduced by the NSW Government in its June 2012 budget with the sole aim of reducing employee-related expenses.
The proposed cuts are not driven by a sound educational imperatives. They are not even solely driven by financial imperatives. Underpinning the cuts are two philosophical concepts that are not new to conservative governments.
One involves the drive for so called market reform to reduce the government’s role as the planner and funder of vocational education. The other is a hostility to public sector unions winning good pay increases and solid conditions for their members.
In NSW this has materialised with legislation imposing limits on the capacity of workers and their unions to improve wages and conditions.
The size of the proposed cuts and the fee increase will have a direct impact on four key areas in TAFE: how skills shortages are addressed, the provision of quality education outcomes, work overload and job security of TAFE workers, and increasing barriers to participation.
NSW is facing a skills shortage of technical and trades occupations. The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) reported in June of this year the incidence of shortages in technical and trades occupations in NSW rose from 59 per cent in 2010-11 to 70 per cent in 2011-12.
The NSW Government acknowledges that skills shortages need to be addressed by the "strategic management of the vocational education and training (VET) market."
To address the increasing skills shortages in NSW and to contribute to the long term prosperity of the country the NSW Government needs to increase investment in our TAFE system and not cut spending.
Funding cuts will lead to increased class sizes, reduced face to face teaching, fewer course offerings and a reduction in students’ access to learning support services such as libraries, IT facilities, counselling and social activities. The standard of learning will also be affected by a reduction in the staff employed to maintain resources and infrastructure such as class rooms, laboratories, equipment and tools.
We are already seeing a diversion of money away from student services into marketing as TAFE Institutes gear up to compete with private providers.
The proposed cuts will also see the escalation of work overload problems, an increased OH&S risk to staff and students and a further erosion of worker job security.
The main reason for work overload in TAFE is increased work intensification resulting from the removal of jobs in circumstances where the work remains. Work overload can lead to fatigue and stress and in TAFE there is a direct relationship between excessive workloads of staff and the reduction in the quality of the service provided to students.
In addition to job cuts there will be an increase in the rise of precarious forms of employment — causal, temporary and agency.
A recent ACTU report on insecure employment found around 40 per cent of Australians worked in insecure employment. By contrast over 50 per cent of TAFE NSW staff are either casual, temporary or agency workers.
The cuts and the 9.5 per cent fee increase will disproportionately affect students in disadvantaged and regional areas who rely on TAFE for accessible, high-quality skills training.
Through an extensive engagement with TAFE workers for the NSW Government’s Smart and Skilled — Making NSW Number One process the Public Service Association (PSA) found the 6000 staff that we represent were concerned that access and equity should remain a priority for TAFE and that barriers to participation needed to be reduced.
In our submission (pdf) to Smart and Skilled we recommended the NSW Government place greater emphasis on diagnosing the barriers to participation of possible VET participants before it continues down a pre-prescribed path of reform.
TAFE has not, and should not, be geared solely towards the needs of industry.
TAFE has embraced the wider social purpose of meeting the special needs of disadvantaged groups within society and the retraining needs of those who wish to re-enter the workforce
The 9.5 per cent increase to student fees imposes another obstacle in the way of students seeking to further their education in an effort to gain skills and employment that will help address the nationwide skills shortage. These cuts will damage the TAFE sector in NSW and will see skill levels in NSW decline and will see already under resourced and overworked employees be stretched further as many important TAFE jobs are lost.
The question is can the damage be reversed once it is done?
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