The Victorian government is dismantling rather than reforming its TAFE system, say outraged supporters of public vocational education and training.
While other states look on with interest, the Victorian government’s reforms of the public TAFE system are expected to lead to 2,000 job cuts, course closures, fee hikes and mergers.
The $300 million a year cuts to the state’s 18 institutes, announced as part of the May 1 budget and beginning on July 1, affect 80 per cent of courses. The move effectively means the Victorian government has severed its commitment to its TAFE and public vocational education and training provision, says Pat Forward, the AEU’s federal TAFE secretary.
What looks like a dismantling of Victoria’s public TAFE system follows no known precedent, says industry watcher Leesa Wheelahan, associate professor at the University of Melbourne’s LH Martin Institute for Higher Education Leadership.
“TAFE will survive, but it will look nothing like the kind of TAFE we have now,” she says. “It will have narrowed scope, reduced support for students, and less concern about the public good and its community service values.
“This will really undermine pathways from school to TAFE, and from TAFE to university for disadvantaged students.” She says the reforms are “not too far down the track”, but they will be in a couple of years when it will be too late to roll them back. “Once you destroy institutional capacity, you don’t whistle up capacity and wind it back tomorrow.
“It’s not just about responding to market demands, but also about strong institutes that develop and codify national vocational skills for current and emerging demands.”
At the crux of the issue is greater competition – a training market that emerged in the early 1990s followed by budget cuts. Private providers have increased their market share as funding is tied to students rather than institutions.
In Victoria, TAFE had 75-80 per cent of the market in 2009-10. That was down to 48 per cent by December 2011 and it continues to dwindle.
TAFE is a minor provider in eight industries where courses are cheaper to run in high volumes. The May budget slashed funds per student contact hour from around $7 to $8 on average, to as little as $1.50 for some courses.
The move means, for example, that the University of Ballarat expects to close its TAFE courses in horse racing and creative and performing arts, both vital local industries in this regional community.
The Victorian TAFE Association (VTA), the peak body for the state’s TAFE providers, has published forecasts that 200 TAFE jobs in regional Victoria, and 350 in metropolitan TAFE institutes and dual sector providers, will go by July, and another 1,450 jobs will go in January next year.
VTA executive director David Williams questions the push for market-driven reforms, saying the process has never been planned, managed or steered by educationalists, but rather has been economically driven by treasury.
“They see the consumer as not wasting their one chance to enrol in a certificate III course, making an informed choice based on information and getting high quality training,” he says.
“We know that’s not the case. Some providers have been fast-tracking courses that don’t meet quality requirements, and students don’t find out until they try to get a job.”
Although Victorian students can access a HECS-style loan at diploma level, low socioeconomic status students are unlikely to do so.
There’s also a disconnect between imposing upon young people a single career choice and generation Y’s tendency to tackle multiple, serial or simultaneous careers.
In short, the reforms will effectively restrict people’s access to training and retraining, says Forward.
Williams echoes this, saying training for disengaged, low socioeconomic status or disadvantaged students will not exist because no-one will be prepared to fund it. These are the students expected to suffer the most after January next year when the Victorian government pulls funding to TAFE for community services obligations including student services and facilities.
The VTA, along with the AEU, continues to lobby against the reforms, but only now has its opposition gained traction in the broader community. The association hired GPS Research to survey community attitudes to TAFE and vocational education and training in December last year. From its 1,050-person sample it found strong support for investing in the TAFE sector rather than private training providers.
Wheelahan says the strong support surprised her. “Past research indicated the community didn’t understand TAFE; that they think it’s just about trades. [But] that’s not what we’ve seen. There’s been a huge response to the cuts. TAFE is more valued than we, the government and the community previously thought.
“The main thing Victoria can do is to protect the rest of the country – show the absolute uproar over the dismantling of the system. It may have some impact.” The AEU and VTA have been pitching their case for a rethink about the budget cuts to politicians at all government levels, and urge the general public to do the same.
A tsunami of tweets, Facebook posts and media coverage – including a call for the federal government to take over the sector – show the issue isn’t going away without a fight.
The Victorian reforms are under the gaze of other state governments. On July 1 South Australia also began rolling out its highly complex reforms, which Wheelahan says will take several years to implement rather than a year such as Victoria’s.
And NSW is critical, says Pat Forward, because it accounts for 30 per cent of TAFE in the nation. “The risk is that it will do the same as Victoria, with the same devastating consequences,” Forward says.