The urgent restoration of the billions of dollars cut from TAFE funding must be central to the Morrison Government’s initial response to Australia’s Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector.

Today’s Productivity Commission review into the VET sector recommended that a new agreement between Commonwealth and State and Territory governments increase market competition in vocational education and not cap prices.  It also called for adopting set cost measurement, delegating changes to training packages to industry, increasing the availability of income contingent loans to students and considering shifting subsidies from providers to a voucher scheme for students.

The report also found that marketisation and incentives to private providers “initially increased participation but incentives were later wound back because of escalating costs and rorting” and that “efforts to promote a ‘more open and competitive training market’ had stalled”.

However over the last decade TAFE has suffered under a concerted drive from successive governments to privatise vocational education and defund TAFE, with budget cuts and an ever-increasing portion of government VET funding being directed towards low-quality and non-accredited profit-seeking private training providers.

Since being in government the Federal Coalition has overseen:

  • 140,000 fewer apprentices now than when it was elected in 2013.
  • $3 billion cut from vocational education.
  • a decline in enrolments in vocational education and training.
  • a decline in TAFE enrolments in particular, which have plummeted by 24.5 per cent.
  • a decline in Commonwealth Government contributions to public VET delivery by 23.2% in 2018 alone.
  • a fall in the total number of TAFE institutes to 35 nationally in 2017-18, down from 57 in 2013/14

According to the Report on Government Services, total annual government VET expenditure has fallen by $1.6 billion (21.3%) from the 2012 peak of $7.65 billion. In 2018 the Commonwealth’s contribution to all vocational education fell by $326 million (10.6%), while its contribution to public VET delivery fell by 23.2%.[1]

Experts are now warning that an additional 100,000 apprentices and trainees will be lost by December unless the Morrison Government acts quickly, according to new modelling from the National Australian Apprenticeship Association.

AEU Federal TAFE Secretary Maxine Sharkey said that the focus of any Morrison Government response to the VET sector had to be to maintain TAFE as the strong public provider of high-quality vocational education. 

“A strong and vibrant TAFE sector must be a vital part of Australia’s VET response to the economic challenges we face, particularly in a post COVID-19 environment,” Ms Sharkey said.

“The report’s recommended options, including voucher schemes and increasing income contingent loans, are extremely risky, and open the sector up to a repeat of VET-FEE-HELP style rorting by unscrupulous private operators”.

“It also ignores the urgent need to replace the billions of dollars of funding that governments have cut from TAFE in recent years,” Ms Sharkey said.

“However the ‘efficient national pricing’ mechanism and introduction of vouchers as recommended in the Productivity Commission’s report will further open the VET system to rorting, severely undercut TAFE, and further the Morrison Government’s efforts to sideline our public VET provider.”

“TAFE provides a huge range of high-quality qualifications, and has a higher cost base due to its broad focus and established national infrastructure,” Ms Sharkey said. “If future VET funding is directly linked to delivering a specific and narrow skill and calculated on the basis of the lowest private offering then this will unfairly disadvantage TAFE.”

“In addition, these recommendations raise a number of other concerning issues. What happens in regional and remote areas that do not provide a viable market for private VET providers, but which have already lost their TAFE institute?  How will the range of regional differences across the country be factored in to the proposed uniform loadings?”

“Prime Minister Scott Morrison has repeatedly stated his aim to get a million people back to work following the COVID-19 shutdown,” Ms Sharkey said. “It stands to reason that his government should make sure these people are properly qualified and receive those qualifications from TAFE, the high quality public provider.”

“However, to date the Morrison Government’s response in relation to vocational education has done nothing to recognise the integral part that TAFE must play in Australia’s recovery.”

Ms Sharkey said that any attempt to subjugate TAFE to the demands of big business or to further encourage the profit motive of private training providers must be strongly resisted.

“In order to rebuild Australia’s workforce and economy, a clear and strongly supported national workforce strategy is required.  This is particularly important for youth employment,” Ms Sharkey said.

“Right now TAFE is the only institution ready to meet the challenge of rebuilding Australia’s workforce. TAFE must be the government’s preferred solution for providing high-quality vocational education, helping people to get back to work and getting the economy moving again.”

“A true strategy for workforce renewal can only be achieved through national support for TAFE, and by making use of TAFE’s longstanding partnerships with industry, particularly in regional Australia.”

[1] https://www.ncver.edu.au/research-and-statistics/publications/all-publications/government-funding-of-vet-2018