TAFE is a smart investment

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19 June 2017

Valerie Braithwaite

As Australia experienced massive changes to its economy in the second half of the twentieth century, TAFE has been critical to the successful reinventions of communities across Australia.

Adapting an economy, attracting industry, and holding onto local businesses is the preoccupation of politicians at every level of government. As politicians steadfastly attend to the hopes of business, the hopes of communities become secondary. The logic of our politicians is one we know well. Attract business and everything else will fall into place. People will adjust to new livelihoods, they will settle and buy houses and have families, commerce will flourish, towns will thrive and we will all be happy.

Politicians and business leaders alike quickly forget the human dimension. Maybe they just count on the fact that humans are adaptable and compliant when faced with dictums from employers and government. It is not as simple as individuals pulling themselves together and struggling on. Our high rates of mental illness, suicide, homelessness, youth unemployment and family breakdown attest to the fact that shifting industrial landscapes create unmet human needsand that the consequences are non-trivial for society when help is not at hand to support communities through change.

Adapting successfully requires a social infrastructure that guides and supports us as we redefine who we are and reassess our prospects for the future. Social infrastructure that regulates our hopes and sustains our sense of worth is every bit as important as the material infrastructure that we assume will be there for our communities.

Social infrastructure in some quarters is assumed to be the province of society, not the concern of government. Government is right in some circumstances in thinking that social infrastructure is informal and need not be duplicated. Certainly it should not be crushed by government interference. However, governments have a role to play in recharging a community’s batteries and lifting spirits so that collectively a community can re-design future goals.

Education is an important institution in this regard and one that is strategic for governments to support to manage economic upheaval and avoid its socially disastrous consequences. In a civilised society, education is an institution for starting over, and moving on to build a new life. Education is not just about acquiring sets of skills and competencies. It presents an opportunity to be someone else who also happens to have a set of skills and competencies that others will value.

It is in the context of human reinvention that Australia’s TAFE system has so often come to the rescue. The purpose of vocational education is not just to provide people with competencies and skill sets. But also the way in which it can give people a sense of social worth and capacity to develop and adapt. This applies to both individuals and communities. TAFEs can’t be fairly evaluated through templates that benchmark them against universities or RTOs.The value of TAFEs lies in how their communities see them and use them, in the relationships that they forge and the opportunities they create.

Any discussion of TAFE and vocational education is incomplete without recognition of how communities suffer psychologically and socially in times of economic upheaval, and how important education is for re-igniting hope for a better future. A caring TAFE sector with well trained, committed and appropriately remunerated teaching professionals meets this need. Supporting communities through a well-resourced, local TAFE is a smart investment when economic and social turmoil strikes.

You can read the original version of this article, where Valerie discusses these themes in the context of her hometown of Ipswich in the latest edition of The Australian TAFE Teacher magazine.

Valerie Braithwaite is a Professor in the Regulatory Institutions Network at ANU. Valerie is an interdisciplinary social scientist with a disciplinary background in psychology.