Rebalancing Australia’s Education System


Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent statement that TAFE and universities need to be seen as equal, rests upon virtue that is difficult for anyone to disagree with. Yet it also conceals the sticky and messy politics about striking fair accountabilities for the provision of quality technical and vocational education and training (TVET) in Australia.

These accountabilities and their associated hazards received widespread media attention when the predatory practices of the privatised training market were revealed. The TVET policy architecture that federal governments have initiated and implemented over the past decades has been imagined narrowly in wholly financial terms resulting in policy solutions focused on income contingent loans programs such as VET FEE HELP and, since 2017, VET Student Loans.

The VET FEE HELP scheme is one of the biggest policy scandals in recent government history. With no caps on tuition fees, the scheme blew out from millions to billions of dollars of taxpayer money within three years. This policy failure was compounded by funding policy solutions centred on apprenticeships and employer subsidies, and by allowing private providers to gain unregulated access to government subsidies for enrolling students. These out of control federal policies caught thousands of students in a web of student debt and very poor quality technical and vocation education with limited employment outcomes.

Reorienting TVET provision

The billions of dollars of taxpayer funds distributed to private TVET providers at the expense of TAFE institutions reoriented TVET provision in favour of the private sector. VET FEE HELP benefited private technical and vocational organisations by increasing their share of government contributions and directly resulted in a reduction in funding to TAFE. This was not just to the detriment of students both financially and educationally, it undermined TAFE as a key education institution in the national education systems of Australia.

Federal governments have a key responsibility in funding TVET and providing the conditions for national policy agreement about how the sector can work. The challenge for TVET in Australia is not to implement a new or reinvented national system, built upon a sentiment that TAFE and universities need to be seen as equal. It is more pressing that any new policy changes interrupt the derision and erosion of the foundational public TVET institution –TAFE - as occurred through the last waves of ‘VET reform’.

The status of TAFE needs to be elevated to redress the current lop-sided nature of Australian education where the track from school to university is widely considered the principal measure of educational success. Its dominance exacerbated by the expansion of Higher Education provision through the uncapping of student places.

Future Policy Arrangements

The first national review of the vocational education sector in forty years, the ‘Joyce Review,’ was conducted in an exceedingly quick timeframe by the former New Zealand Minister of Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, Stephen Joyce. It represents the latest policy chapter in the Abbott, Turnbull and now Morrison federal coalition policy changes to TVET.

In line with one of the recommended early actions of the Joyce Review, the Morrison Coalition government is establishing a National Skills Commission and National Skills Commissioner at a cost of $48.3 million to ‘determine and implement priorities for the VET sector’. There will also be a National Careers Ambassador scheme, a National Careers Institute and new Skills Organisations. In effect, the National Skills Commission will likely shape the policy and funding agreements between states and federal governments.

At the recent Council of Australian Governments (COAG), State Ministers were sent away to consider a future policy arrangement for TVET. An expert group was established to assure this, with Mr Stephen Joyce as Chair, along with TVET policy operative Professor Peter Noonan from Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute, and Dr Vanessa Guthrie, former chair of the Mineral Council of Australia. Together they will advise the federal government on the future directions of the reform.

Securing consistency in intergovernmental arrangements will be an important goal for the new Skills Commission to redress the imbalance between TAFE and university options. Federal government funding and resourcing of Vocational Education and Training represents an important share in resourcing the national skills systems. The majority of funding for TVET, and TAFE more particularly, comes from State governments. That state governments own and operate TAFE systems, is not dissimilar to their provision of school education. And like school education, TAFE relies on Federal government funding to succeed.

The conundrum for TVET and for TAFE more specifically is that there continues to be a lack of appreciation or regard for the important role of TVET and the significance and value of TAFE as a public institution for skills education. Agreement by the two levels of government about the future of TVET, cannot proceed without an understanding of the institutional importance of State TAFE institutions and colleges. The distribution of government (both federal and state contributions) funds between government owned TAFE institutions and private training institutions needs to be front and centre of any new national agreements between the two levels of government.

While no definite reform path has yet been fleshed out and determined, what is clear is that any redirection in policy is often incremental and always slow. The consequences of this for vocational education - a key policy area for enhancing productivity and job growth – will result in untapped talent, so important to Australia’s continuing prosperity, remaining unutilized.

Balancing Industry Intervention

Any reforms, through the establishment of the National Skills Commission, must not repeat policy misadventures from the past. The sector has suffered through too many waves of policy “fixes”.

It is interesting to note that since the election of the Morrison Government, federal policy responsibility has moved from the Department of Education to the charge of Minister Michaela Cash and the Department of Employment, Small Business and Skills, Quality and Industry. It’s a clear signal of the direction of TVET in Morrison’s Australia, yet TVET is more than an economic experience; it is educational. A fact often overlooked by governments, and industry.

TAFE’s core relationship with industry makes it different from any other form of education. Apprenticeship education is the most recognised form of this and it is a speciality of TAFE learning. However, an overreliance on industry advisory arrangements resulted out of the policy reforms of the 1990s, where industry training boards, and skills organisations advised on employer needs in terms of course content in training packages. This resulted in the focus on development of rigid national qualifications, designed in large part by industry rather than education providers, which fulfilled only the narrow and specific needs of individual employers.

It is important that, going forward with the Joyce Review inspired reforms, the quality of education offered is done with an appreciation of the value and intricacies of technical and vocational teaching and learning. Rather than repeating tired industry advisory arrangements and market logics from the policies of the 1990s, it is time that TVET policy moved toward industry having responsibility and commitment to offering opportunities for structured workplace learning for TAFE students. A national partnership agreement between states and the federal government could deliver on this, by funding states to engage employers to offer this in partnership with TAFE. Rather than criticising TVET quality from the sidelines, industry can be brought into TVET as a partner that offers more than advice, but provides opportunities for TVET students to gain real employment based experiences.

Australia is experiencing an infrastructure boom due to rapid population growth making skills and labour planning more important to nation development than ever before. TAFE’s role as an integral institution for producing the labour and skills needed for a changing society and economy must not be overlooked. However, any national agreement going forward cannot afford to operate through an ideological policy imaginary that blurs the real tasks of being employed with building national infrastructure projects to stimulate employment growth. It is not just about finances and markets, it is about jobs and the wherewithal to do them in a rapidly changing twenty-first century that is reconfiguring our patterns of production of trade, knowledge transfer and cultural development.

We live in a time when social institutions, not excluding the national parliament, are being looked upon by the pubic with increasing distrust and concern. Maintaining public trust in key institutions depends on adequate and accountable funding, but more importantly is achieved and guaranteed by a clarity about their key roles and articulating policy principles that has a vision for TVET that goes beyond the ‘market question’ to consider the uses and purposes of TVET for the national labour and skills base.

It is important for young people locked out of productive work, and for those facing employment insecurity that TAFE exists to provide real solutions to real needs. On this point it is more pressing than ever that any future policy reforms of TVET do not proceed with national funding agreements that undermine the key institutions of TAFE. Why state governments sign up to funding principles and agreements that erode and diminish TAFE is hard to decipher, what is clear now to the public is that it is unacceptable.

Dr John Pardy