July 16, 2019

What can TAFE expect from the Federal Government?

Labor took a bold and progressive suite of policies to the election that were designed to reinvigorate TAFE and re-establish it as the central pillar of Australia’s vocational education system. They went as far as announcing terms of reference for a proposed thorough review of Australia’s vocational education system, which the AEU endorsed. Their policies aligned very closely with the AEU’s TAFE manifesto and, most importantly, included a guarantee that two thirds of public funding for vocational education would go to TAFE, 150,000 new apprenticeships would be created and that a total new investment of $1 billion in TAFE would be made over the next parliamentary term.

However, the re-election of the coalition means that an entirely different vision for vocational education in Australia will now be enacted. In the 2019-20 budget, the government offered some outline of its plans, drawn from a few of the recommendations of the Steven Joyce review, which was published without fanfare the same day that the budget was handed down.

The Joyce Review and Coalition policy

Joyce made more than seventy recommendations in his report, grouped around what he claims is a six point plan “to deliver a stronger skills sector which is a positive choice for many more Australians, whether they are starting their working lives or need new skills to advance their career.”The six points as described in Joyce’s proposed plan are:

      1. Strengthening quality assurance
      2. Speeding up qualification development
      3. Simpler funding and skills matching
      4. Better careers information
      5. Clearer secondary school pathways
      6. Greater access for disadvantaged Australians

The report also suggests a series of ‘early actions’ that the Commonwealth Government can unilaterally take without the involvement of state and territory governments.These stepsare:

      • Bringing forward implementation of reforms to strengthen ASQA and
        quality assurance in the sector.
  • Piloting a new business-led model of Skills Organisations for qualification development, and extending work-based VET further into less traditional areas.
  • Establishing a new National Skills Commission to start working with the
    States and Territories to develop a new nationally-consistent funding model based on a shared understanding of skills needs.
  • Revamping and simplifying apprenticeship incentives to increase their attractiveness to employers and trainees.
  • Establishing a new National Careers Institute.
  • Creating new vocational pathways for introduction into senior secondary schools.
  • Providing new support for second chance learners needing foundation language, literacy, numeracy and digital skills.

It is clear to see that this plan represents a further narrowing of curriculum and qualifications for TAFE and vocational education, the further shrinking of TAFE’s presence in Australia’s vocational education sector and the further entrenchment of competency based training as the default in vocational education.

Smoke and mirrors budget package

The first of these actions was unveiled in the 2019-20 budget with the government announcing measures based on the suggestions for a business led Skills Organisation, the establishment of a new National Skills Commission and measures to increase cash incentives for apprentices and those who employ them.

These measures were labelled the Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow package, and were trumpeted by the Treasurer as a new $525 million investment in vocational education.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for this hyperbole to be exposed as nothing but smoke and mirrors. While the Treasurer claimed he was providing half a billion dollars over five years “to upgrade the VET sector” in fact $417 million of this money was pilfered directly from the Skilling Australians Fund despite that fund only being activated less than a year ago, a move described by TAFE Directors Australia (TDA) as “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.At the time of the announcement, TDA CEO Craig Robertson said “It beggars belief that the Commonwealth could expect state and territories to sign up to the Joyce vision for a new national skills framework after having pulled the rug from what was promised and funded under the Skilling Australians Fund.

Once this money is moved from the Skilling Australians Fund to the new Delivering Skills for today and tomorrow package it actually represents a further cut of over $80 million to total vocational education funding- this is in addition to the $270 million the Coalition cut in 2018 and the $3 billion in total they have cut since coming to office in 2013.

Vague promises on apprenticeships

On budget night the Treasurer boasted that Delivering Skills for today and tomorrow will double employer incentives and lead to the recruitment of 80,000 new apprentices, but this is only slightly more than half of the 140,000 apprenticeships Australia has lost in the last six years, and just a quarter of the total of 300,000 the government was promising to deliver as recently as mid 2018 when they launched the now greatly diminished Skilling Australians Fund.

Free reign for business to devalue vocational education

Instead of reigning in private providers and rectifying the incalculable damage they have inflicted on the sector in recent years, the government announced plans to hand over what remains by establishing ‘National Skills Organisations’ to provide ‘modern and flexible alternatives to classroom based learning’ and to ‘enhance the role of industry in designing training courses by establishing a national skills commission’.

All of this can be seen as euphuisms for ramping up their drive to entirely privatise vocational education and to devalue qualifications to fulfill only the narrow and specific needs of individual employers, an approach that often provides little to no long term benefit for those subject to it.

The industry led ‘Skills Organisations’ as proposed by Joyce and announced in the federal budget signal a further narrowing of qualifications and represents the further entrenchment of a strict competency based training system, the next stage in the decades long process of governments handing control of the design of course content and delivery to industry, an approach entirely at odds with the capability based system that academics experts agree is the most beneficial and sustainable.

As Professor Leesa Wheelahan asserts; “public vocational education is in danger of being reduced to atomistic, just-in-time and just-for-now, narrow skills training by a fragmented population of private for-profit providers and a residual public TAFE system[1]”.

The Joyce Review and the Coalitions’ priorities for vocational education as revealed in the budget do nothing to assuage that danger.

What now for TAFE?

The most telling aspect of the Coalitions’ approach to TAFE is that there was not one single specific mention of TAFE anywhere in the thousands of pages of budget papers - the Morrison government just isn’t going to address the 25% fall in TAFE enrolments that occurred on their watch or even acknowledge the existence of TAFE anywhere in the budget, let alone do anything to resolve the crisis.

Details beyond the budget announcements are scant and TAFE and vocational education barely rated a mention during the Coalitions’ election campaign. Since the election there has been no indication from the Morrison government of whether they plan to implement further recommendations from the Joyce review beyond what has already been announced, or how they plan to address the ongoing crisis in Australia’s TAFE and vocational education system.

What we do know is that the measures announced in the budget signal an intensification of the deliberate undermining of TAFE as the primary institution for vocational education in Australia.

[1] Wheelhan, L, Moodie, G, Lavigne, E & Samji, F, Case Study of TAFE and public vocational education in Australia: Preliminary Report,Educational International,2018, p5.