How good is TAFE?


Scott Morrison used every opportunity to declare “TAFE is as good as uni” in August before the first meeting of the Council of Australian Governments following the election. He promised that vocational education reform was top of the agenda and that he would transform the sector to address Australia’s critical shortfall of skilled workers. He declared:

"TAFE is as good as uni. Vocational education is as good as uni, and I've got to say some of the people that I've met who have been most successful in business, they've done it out of a trade and technical qualification."

Yet, predictably, when the communique detailing the outcomes of the meeting was published, there was no mention of TAFE. Just like the Federal Budget where again TAFE was not mentioned. It is clear that when the Prime Minister talks about vocational education he is talking about private sector provision. After all, if he really believed that TAFE is as good as university, why would he have stripped $3 billion in funding from TAFE – our world class public education provider?

Envy of the World

Australia’s TAFE System was once the envy of the world. It gave millions of Australians the skills they needed to thrive, and as a public institution, it provided education in non-profitable rural communities and regional Australia. It was a lifeline for those seeking employment for the first time, those who missed opportunities at school and sought a second chance at education as well as those seeking retraining and further education throughout their lives.

The Morrison Government’s obsession with private vocational education providers at the expense of TAFE is already hurting the career prospects and livelihoods of Australians who are not able to access affordable and high-quality vocational education. It has left hundreds of thousands of trainees and apprentices around the country at the mercy of private training companies.

Putting profit-seeking private training providers in charge of vocational education is all about helping big business line its pockets at the expense of working Australians. History has already shown us, through the VET FEE HELP debacle, that private training providers will go into a feeding frenzy in their drive to extract profits from students.

Even the government’s own regulator, The Australian Skills Quality Authority, said that parts of the training market are already in a race to the bottom. While the Productivity Commission recently described our TVET system as ‘a mess and struggling to deliver relevant competency-based qualifications sought by industry.’

There is no denying that it is a mess. But it is a mess of the Government’s own making. We are now facing a critical skills shortage, with 140,000 fewer apprentices learning their trade today than back in 2013 when the Government was first elected. Also, since then, the number of students in government-funded vocational education has fallen by 25% from 1.48 million to 1.1 million. In addition, the number of hours of vocational education delivered has fallen by 28% between 2013 and 2018 all according to the latest National Centre for Vocational Education Research figures.

Urgent need for TAFE

We have a perfect storm of a lack of apprentices, a youth unemployment rate that is twice that of the national rate and a national skills shortage where businesses are desperate to find Australians with the skills they need.

The Australian Government’s own ‘Jobs Outlook’ predicts that there will be 866,000 jobs to fill by 2023 and the top industries for jobs growth over those four years will be health care and social assistance, construction, education and training, scientific and technical services. Almost two in every three jobs created will come from those four industries and most will require TVET qualifications.

In fact, The Grattan Institute's latest report into education found that vocational education in construction, engineering and commerce "typically lead to higher incomes than many low-ATAR university graduates are likely to earn", making it a much more attractive option to younger people.

There is a clear and urgent need to re-establish TAFE as the strong public provider of vocational education. Yet, the Morrison Government remains unconcerned about the 25% fall in enrolments or the TAFE campus closures on its watch, or the job losses that have gutted the TAFE sector and have impacted not only students, but the remaining staff and teachers who are left to pick up the workload. In Victoria, 44% of the TAFE workforce has been sacked in recent years. In NSW, it is 35% and in Queensland, 25% have lost their jobs. This represents an irreplaceable loss of knowledge and expertise to the system and further exacerbates the crisis in the sector. But still the Morrison Government refuses to acknowledge the existence of TAFE, let alone do anything about the crisis.

Despite the undisputed benefits that a fully funded high-quality TAFE sector could provide to our society and economy, there has been a concerted and continual drive to marginalise TAFE by defunding it. It took years for the government to admit that through poor policy design, private companies were rorting the system and stealing taxpayer money. However, instead of reigning in private providers and rectifying the damage they have done to the sector in the past, Morrison plans on handing them the keys to the bank.

The Commonwealth and the states and territories must put the interests of students first and acknowledge the damage that the push for privatisation has inflicted on TAFE. Yet As Federal TAFE Secretary Maxine Sharkey said: ‘The private sector’s idea of VET competition is to drive down costs and drive TAFE out of business. Then it can jack up its prices and force students to pay through the nose’.

National Skills Week held in the last week of August saw the Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business, Michaelia Cash celebrating TVET as a chance to recognise the value of apprentices and trainees across Australia as well as to raise the status of practical and vocational learning. But it is hard to celebrate without considering the current plight of TAFE.

Urgent Need for Funding
An injection of funding is the answer. Yet, of the $525 million allocated in the budget for skills, only $70 million is new money. The rest is the money that was not spent on the Skilling Australians fund.

TAFE must remain the strong public institution of vocational education in Australia. If the Prime Minister really wants TAFE to be “as good as uni” then his government will need to heed our calls, as outlined in the AEU TAFE Manifesto to:

  • Guarantee a minimum of 70% government funding to the public TAFE system. In addition, no public funding should go to private for-profit providers, consistent with other education sectors.
  • Restore funding and rebuild the TAFE system, to restore confidence in the quality of the courses and qualifications and the institution.
  • Abandon the failed student loans experiment, and cancel the debts of all students caught up in private for-profit provider scams.
  • Re-invest in the TAFE teaching workforce and develop a future-focused TAFE workforce development strategy in collaboration with the profession and unions.
  • Develop a capital investment strategy in consultation with state governments, to address the deplorable state of TAFE facilities around the country.
  • Support a comprehensive independent inquiry into TAFE

Any proposals that undermine the importance of Commonwealth and state and territory governments working together to build a strong and vibrant, fully funded public TAFE will continue to be fiercely opposed by the AEU.

Correna Haythorpe, AEU President