TAFE must be the foundation

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9 March 2017

By Aaron Devine

The Vocational Education and Training system has finally reached the bottom and government, industry, peak training organisations and policy makers are ready to start the long climb out of the hole dug by failed policies.They simply need a ladder.

The ladder they need is an alternative VET policy and purchasing framework that builds skills and innovation and is of value to students and communities.TAFE must be the foundation of that policy and central to its formation.The private sector charlatans who have left students, taxpayers and the community with debt, meaningless qualifications and a loss of confidence in the value of vocational training have shown the failure of a market system based on profit and profiteering.

The comments from Mr Rod Simsfrom the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald are noteworthy:

“In a blistering attack on decades of common government practice, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims said the sale of ports and electricity infrastructure and the opening of vocational education to private companies had caused him and the public to lose faith in privatisation and deregulation.”

Mr Sims’ comments are telling, given they come from a long-term proponent of privatisation, and support the need for fresh thinking in vocational education. The Federal Government’s recent changes to legislation are biting and no advocate for TAFE will celebrate the closure of private training organisations, as it lays bare the human cost of people losing their jobs and students left with debt and shattered dreams.However, it also highlights an ever-present reminder of greed and unconscionable conduct that should motivate real policy change.

The current legislative changes, while welcome, are a holding policy at best, focussed on building barriers to stop students (and the taxpayer) from continuing to throw themselves over the metaphorical cliff into debt and poor outcomes.VET policy needs to look beyond this holding pattern and focus on how Australia builds the skills bridge over the cliff to enable us to engage and thrive as a community in the modern world economy.TAFE leaders and staff should courageously look to new thinking and policy that will stabilise our training system and focus funding and activity back to training and meeting the needs of industry and communities.

Central to any new policy model for vocational education is that ‘for profit’ training organisations should not have access to government funding or government loan schemes. International comparisons show a growing realisation that institutions with deep community links and strong industry engagement are needed to build the skills of tomorrow.Institutions that have learning and teaching deeply ingrained into their organisational culture are best able to support reengaging learners and those from social disadvantage.

Internationally, the trend is away from the laissez faire student entitlement model and towards VET systems are being directly guided by their governments, with long term plans and industry specialisations being carved out based on the identified skills needs of the future.

Any future model for vocational education should encourage the development and progression of our TAFE colleges into self-accrediting institutions, in equal status, academic freedom and capability as our universities. Light, tight regulation as experienced by our universities is a good model for consideration for our TAFE system.

The costs and benefits of moving away from national training packages to allow development of new local curriculum linked to local community and industry needs should be considered.Self-regulating institutions underwritten by their state governments, should hold accountability for their outcomes and report to their communities and state government. The booming tourism and hospitality industry of the Gold Coast has significantly different training needs and priorities to that of Mt Isa and different again from those of Cape York, yet we seek to establish a one size purchasing model independent of local needs.

TAFE staff will continue to be on the front line with second chance learners, managing significant social and economic disadvantage; while also dealing with innovation and technological change of modern workplaces.Rebuilding the TAFE workforce and their educational capability will take time, yet security of employment and long term funding commitments will encourage the attraction and retention of great talent.

Australia has been the developed world’s most radical follower of a free market philosophy in vocational education and training. This damaging experience has produced clear evidence that government funding of for-profit training organisations has not delivered the outcomes expected or desired.The restriction of government funding and loans to not for profit training organisations, should be the basis of any new funding model for VET.

A system based on student demand and student entitlement has had no discernible positive impact on skills shortages and not resulted in increased industry satisfaction.It has encouraged a race to the bottom on quality, based on price and shorter training duration. It is time to encourage communities with their local TAFE to take control of their own educational and industry needs.

Many opinions and solutions exist to rebuild confidence in our training system and it is time to start outlining them and debating their strengths and weaknesses.Quality training in quality facilities from quality staff, based on the aspirations of our community should be the basis from which to build this new future.

That is a future with hope for all Australians.

Aaron Devine was the General Manager of TAFE Queensland – Brisbane.He is now Managing Director of Devine Management Consulting