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.