12 Dec 2012

Cuts Won't Make Us Smart And Skilled

By Antoinette Abboud
The O'Farrell Government's plans to cut funding from TAFE will gut the sector. TAFE is designed to provide access and equity in education, not to compete with private providers, writes Antoinette Abboud
When Barry O'Farrell revealed his Smart and Skilled reform agenda in September, announcing massive cuts to education of $1.7 billion, many pointed to Victoria as a warning of what happens when "contestable" funding is introduced and the sector is left wide open to the full force of the market.

O'Farrell has repeatedly said competition will make TAFE the sector more responsive to industry or employer needs. Contrary to his rhetoric, TAFE in Victoria has been destroyed, and in its place fly-by-night private providers, backed with government money, have taken its place — some enticing students with iPads or cash incentives to enrol in a narrow range of courses.

As well as creating a glut of ill-qualified fitness trainers, the Victorian experience revealed that a deregulated education industry could not deliver targeted training to fill skill shortages. TAFE was left to provide the bulk of more expensive courses while private providers cherry picked the profitable ones. And under this mantra of choice and competition, students have faced a blowout in fees.

Yet, TAFE has never been simply an institution tasked with equipping industry with a workforce of blue singlets and tradespeople. It has long been about further education — that's what the "F" and the "E" in TAFE stand for. TAFE has historically played a "second chance" role for many of its students.

As part of its stated commitment to access and equity, TAFE has run programs that  target and provide learning opportunities to people often excluded from or who face many barriers accessing education. The Year 10 and HSC courses at TAFE are well known for this. These courses provide a supported adult learning environment suited to their needs and a pathway to employment or to further vocational training and education. The Tertiary Preparation Course helps adults who have been away from formal learning gain the academic research and writing skills needed for university study. Migrants finding their qualifications useless on arrival in Australia, often turn to TAFE, where they can improve their communication skills, get "job ready" and gain vocational qualifications in related fields.

Similarly, refugees, the long-term unemployed, ex-offenders, and women entering the workforce after long absences come to TAFE to update or gain new skills in programs specially targeted to their learning needs.

When these courses at TAFE disappear, so to do the educational options and pathways for many adults. Leesa Wheelahan, Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne and a former TAFE teacher, has described this as "cutting out rungs in the education ladder".

A recent paper from the Centre for Policy Development, Valuing Skills: Why Vocational Training Matters, outlines how TAFE does more of its share in working with such groups. As well a significant number of students in vocational training being from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, of the total student population at TAFE NSW, 8.7 per cent have a disability and 17.5 per cent live in rural or remote areas (compared with 4.2 per cent and 1.8 per cent respectively for private providers).

TAFE also does more training towards skills shortages — in fact TAFEs are incentivised or mandated by state policies to be providers for the most remote areas, due to the risk of these areas being left unserviced by the collapse or withdrawal of a private operator.

Unfortunately, neglect of adult education is not new. The agenda we are seeing rolled out now has its beginnings with structural modifications introduced by Minister John Dawkins under the Hawke government in the late 1980's, to change the sector to an "open training market". Over the decades, TAFE has been made to bend increasingly to the needs of industry and the market. Courses that don't meet narrowly defined criteria have been gradually eroded and in the current situation are the most vulnerable.

So too are the support services that mean TAFE is better equipped to meet the needs of all adult learners. Funding cuts inevitably reduce students' access to counselling and careers advice, childcare, disability support and assistance for learners with special needs. TAFE must now compete with private providers who have no obligation or incentive to offer such support (many don't) or to enrol what they see as the most difficult or expensive to teach.

If the Smart & Skilled reforms were really about improving vocational training one might expect the entry level standards should be what TAFE already has — qualified teachers, quality training, support services and a commitment to access and equity. The increasingly competitive environment we are moving into assumes a level playing field, yet O'Farrell's reforms do not require that private providers match TAFE's standards and support services. TAFE's consistent quality and the overall satisfaction reported by VET graduates (89.3 per cent in 2011 according to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research survey) stands in contrast to the unscrupulous behaviour associated with private providers, where regulation is nearly non-existent.

What happens to the nature of education when we treat it as little more than a commodity? What courses will stay and what will be go in a market environment? How do you grow quality training by cutting millions of dollars from TAFE? And what of the needs of learners with complex needs? How do we expect these students to navigate the new entitlement system?

The senior bureaucrats that drive these reform agendas at both federal and state levels, may have convinced themselves that a user choice system actually empowers individuals and epitomises active citizenship. When filtered through the large marketing budgets of private providers who are delivering training to make a profit, "informed choice" is not a mutual concept. And it will always be skewed in favour of the middle classes.

TAFE has long provided an essential public service and played a key role in building the capacities of our communities. We are now applying a supermarket philosophy to education: "only leave on the shelves what sells". The value added "stuff" TAFE provides and that we take for granted will quickly disappear in the race to the bottom.

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Posted Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 12:44

Excellent article Antoinette.

Our "leaders" definitely have no concern or value in delivering equity to our society anymore.

In Victoria these policies are extended to VCAL (also accessed predominantly by students with disabilities and from lower socio-ec demographics) where program funding has been drastically cut, leaving schools the dilemma of either cutting these types of programs or making sacrifices in other areas of the school to still fund and provide educational opportunities to meet these students' needs.

Education is an effective avenue for gaining employment, entering the workforce to begin with or supporting mothers returning to work, it is also a necessity for people with goals/dreams, seeking fulfilment and developing pathways to promotion or entrepreneural and inventive ideas/abilities.

School leavers who can no longer access alternative education to meet their needs and abilities - where are they to go now? What options do they have for leading productive, fulfilling lives or being citizens that contribute to their communities? They will be victims of the system and end up on centrelink payments where the middle to upper class can take more potshots at them and degrade/dehumanise them even more...

The real powers that be who really run this country...all those little thinktanks serving our most wealthy...they've got it all worked out...they don't need a skilled Australian workforce anymore...they have no concerns or values or interest in developing our youth, our skill or educational levels/outcomes...they have a ready workforce from overseas. You just watch as our youth become less skilled.less educated and disillusioned in the welfare cycle and the temporary overseas workforce, social dumping and cheapest of cheap migrants take all the jobs...and yes there WILL be a "skills shortage" but it will have been made by our own "leaders".

Posted Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 12:45

oh I forgot to mention the developing attack on regional universities where there are now rumours of some at risk of closing...

Posted Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 14:34

Socially suicidal. But if this is the way we vote, it's what Osstrahlians deserve. I'm still thinking about that ancestral Visa to Scotland, where they seem to heading in the opposite direction - strengthening their public education, strengthening their society - instead of gutting cohesion, entrenching privilege, and burdening students with unfathomable and ever increasing compound debt.

These could be good business for some vulture providers, though. I knew a guy tried to get into that racket - the international student racket here in Sydney, very lucrative. That's not about education, though - it's about student visas. This guy was a REAL vulture - his business closed due to fraud. I guess it's the ideological fervour of the day: create opportunities for these vultures - and certainly don't try and regulate them, that would be inefficient!

This user is a New Matilda supporter. bobbeeart
Posted Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 23:55

Well all I can say is a bad Labor Govt is always better than any Conservative Govt of any kind , imagine the place if Abbott gets in next time we vote, so the public get the govt they deserve and will wear it , going along in their selfish little lives ,unaware of what's happening to this country, most people don't care they just follow the media bull and vote accordingly , god help mus!

Posted Sunday, December 16, 2012 - 10:23

Excellent article by Antoinette Abboud. Education is not just about understanding, self-improvement, self-realization and self-fulfillment, it is also about economic opportunity.

Neoliberalism is about maximizing freedom for the smart and advantaged to increase their wealth by exploiting the disadvantaged and less smart. However even from a strict neoliberal economic perspective the downsizing of TAFE sector by the neoliberal Victorian, NSW and Queensland Governments is bad for business that needs a trained workforce.

We certainly live in a sick society that is getting sicker. For an alternative approach based on an evolving social humanist idealism directed at maximizing human well-being, happiness , opportunity and dignity see Professor Brian Ellis' new book "Social Humanism. A new metaphysics" (see "Review "Social Humanism": http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/20947-social-humanism.html ).

The cuts to TAFE come on top of decades of cuts to the university system part of the tertiary sector. Richard Hil's “Whackademia. An insider's account of the troubled university” is a passionate description of the sorry state of Australian universities by a UK-born Australian academic. The book cover puts the problem succinctly: “Despite the shiny rhetoric of excellence, quality, innovation and creativity, universities face criticism over declining standards, decreased funding, compromised assessment, overburdened academics and never-ending reviews and restructures” (see Gideon Polya, "Book Review: “Whackademia” Reveals Parlous State of Australia 's Censored, Under-funded & Dumbing-down Universities", Countercurrents: http://www.countercurrents.org/polya141212.htm ).

All sensible voters can do is to punish the incompetent incumbent and that means kicking out the Liberals (Libs) at the next state elections. However the neoliberal Laborals (Labs) are essentially just as bad and much worse in the sense of mendaciously employing pro-equity rhetoric from a bygone age of decent Labor values.

Thus Labor has stripped $1.3 billion from university funding (including university-linked TAFE funding) in 2011-2012, the most recent cut being $0.5 billion from university research. Things got even worse for Australian universities in 2012 with the passage of the Australia-United States Defence Trade Cooperation Treaty-related Defence Trade Controls Bill that makes it an offence punishable by 10 years in prison for an academic without a permit to inform non-Australians (in conversation, tutorials, lectures, conference papers, scientific papers etc) about numerous technologies and thousands of chemicals and organisms listed in a presently 353-page Defence and Strategic Goods List (see “Impact of the Defence Trade Controls Bill on academic freedom”, NTEU: 10 October 2012: http://www.nteu.org.au/article/Impact-of-the-Defence-Trade-Controls-Bill... ).

Peace is the only way but Silence kills and Silence is complicity.