New figures quantify the extent of the TAFE disaster

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Successive government changes to marketise vocational education over the last 10 years have resulted in a collapse of publicly funded vocational education, the decimation of TAFE, the shift to for-profit private providers, and disinvestment by governments in vocational education.

This is seen in changes to publicly funded hours in vocational education from 2009 to 2016. The focus is on hours of delivery rather than student enrolments, because funding is tied to training hours rather than the number of students. Table A examines these dimensions:

  • Share of publicly funded hours by TAFE and private providers in 2009 and 2016.[1]2009 was chosen as the starting point because it was one year after the Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) agreement in in 2008 to give private providers greater access to public funding.
  • Change in the number of publicly funded hours in TAFE, private providers and overall from 2009 to 2016.
  • Change in government funding per hour of publicly funded training from 2009 to 2016.

In Australia overall, TAFE’s share of publicly funded hours declined from 81% in 2009 to 54% in 2016. The number of hours of delivery declined by 30% in TAFE, while it increased by 194% in private providers in that time. Funding per hour was cut by almost 10%. If we go back further than 2009 to examine the change in funding between 2007 and 2016, then funding per hour was cut by 15%.

The national picture disguises diversity between the states. While COAG set the framework for national vocational education policy, each state implemented these policies in their own way. Victoria is the most notorious, having implemented scorched earth marketisation policies more aggressively than any other state – at least to begin with. In 2009, TAFE’s share of publicly funded hours in Victoria was almost 78%, and this collapsed to 42% by 2016. The nadir for TAFE in Victoria was in 2015, when TAFE’s share of publicly funded hours was not quite 36%. The number of publicly funded training hours in Victoria in TAFE declined by almost 29% from 2009 to 2016, while it rose in private providers by almost 333%. Funding per hour of delivery plummeted by almost 25% in that time.

However, Queensland is even more alarming. TAFE’s share of publicly funded hours was barely 30% in 2016, down from 77% in 2009. The number of training hours delivered by TAFE in Queensland dropped by half in that time, and the funding per hour of delivery in Queensland declined by 27%. In 2016, private providers’ share of publicly funded hours was 68% and the number of hours they delivered increased by 322% from 2009 to 2016.

South Australia and New South Wales are dire straits, each in their different way. Policy in South Australia has combined marketisation with chaos, as governments there lurch between funding TAFE and full marketisation. TAFE’s share of publicly funded hours in South Australia in 2016 was 62.6%, up from 47.2% in 2014. In 2014, the Labor government decided to redirect funding to TAFE, while the newly elected conservative government will re-introduce full contestability. Despite this short reprieve since 2014, TAFE’s number of publicly funded hours declined by almost 30% from 2009 to 2016, while it increased in private providers by 8.7% in that time.

New South Wales is in chaos. While TAFE’s share of publicly funded hours was almost 77% in 2016, the number of publicly funded hours in TAFE declined by almost 29% from 2009 to 2016, while it rose by 111% in private providers in that time. It looks as if funding per hour has been improved in NSW, but this is only because enrolments have collapsed. NSW used to have the biggest vocational education system, reflecting the fact that it is the most populous state. In 2009, NSW’s share of publicly funded hours in Australia was 34%, but by 2016 it was 27% and this was an improvement over 2015 when NSW had only 20% of all publicly funded hours in Australia. Victoria now has a bigger system than NSW, and has had since 2011.

Federal Labor has promised to save TAFE if it is elected. The only way this can happen is if governments invest in TAFE as institutions and in the TAFE system. If Labor is to succeed, it will need to rebuild trust in vocational education and rebuild the capacity of TAFEs to offer high quality programs to all students seeking a place in programs that meet their aspirations, taught by highly qualified and well-resourced teachers.

Leesa Wheelahan was the Associate Professor at the LH Martin Institute for Tertiary Education Leadership and Management at the University of Melbourne. She is now the William G Davis Chair in Community College Leadership at the University of Toronto. Leesa has taught in tertiary education for approximately 22 years, which includes time as a TAFE teacher.