Back from the brink


01 May 2023

The AEU’s Rebuild with TAFE campaign turned the politics around for TAFE with the Albanese government making a $1.1 billion commitment, along with state and territory governments, to Fee-Free TAFE places during the Jobs and Skills Summit in September last year. It’s a great start to restoring funding for TAFE, as demonstrated by Victoria, where Fee-Free course offerings have helped TAFE fulfil its social contract and enabled students who were previously excluded to enrol in TAFE.

More than 100,000 people have signed up to Free TAFE in Victoria since it was introduced in 2019, giving greater access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, with more than half of Free TAFE students being women, nearly 30 per cent from culturally diverse backgrounds, around a quarter being previously unemployed and 10 per cent who live with disability.

But there is much more to be done to rebuild TAFE.

Fee-Free TAFE also has other teething issues – such as not being applicable to foundation courses, for subsequent certifications and more. Now that Fee-Free TAFE is available around the country, governments need to make sure that students everywhere have access to the courses and support services that were in place prior to TAFE being gutted by the Coalition.

As Fee-Free TAFE rolls out, it has become very clear that the impact of the last decade of funding cuts has left TAFE without the essential resources to ensure access for all to high-quality programs. It is the teaching workforce that carries the burden of making Fee-Free TAFE work around these issues.

We know that additional funding and free places won’t address the lasting damage for TAFE caused by failed marketisation and contestable funding policy settings. It doesn’t address the loss of TAFE teachers, campuses and courses across the nation. It doesn’t address the dire infrastructure needs of TAFE campuses, the equipment and resources they need to educate students to modern industry needs.

That requires political leadership and more funding and we will be campaigning to ensure that the Albanese government meets its commitment for a strong public TAFE sector to be at the heart of vocational education in Australia. We expect to see that commitment reflected in the Federal Budget in May.

Next steps

TAFE holds a special place in Australia – and with skills shortages around the world, arguably TAFE is needed more now than ever before. Restoring TAFE to its rightful place as the preeminent provider of vocational education is essential to realising the full potential of Australia’s public education system.

As the 2023 AEU Federal Conference unanimously agreed: TAFE must be supported and fully funded by state, territory and federal governments.

The AEU will continue to campaign for the rebuilding of the public TAFE system, enhancing alliances with social partners and other unions, to assert the fundamental importance to society of vocational education through TAFE.

To rebuild with TAFE, the AEU demands that the state, territory and federal governments:

1. Cease the public funding of for-profit private providers of vocational education;

2. Restore funding and rebuild TAFE as the anchor institution of vocational education;

3. Develop a national capital investment strategy to rebuild TAFE;

4. Cancel the debts of all students related to the failed student loans experiment;

5. Re-invest in a securely employed TAFE teaching workforce and develop a future-focused TAFE workforce development strategy that:

(a) equips all TAFE teachers with an AQF 6 qualification, or higher, in adult or tertiary education;

(b) ensures an inclusive and diverse workforce; and

(c) addresses teacher shortages through attraction and retention strategies.

6. Restore, develop and fund the wraparound support services required to enable accessibility and inclusion for all;

7. Improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment in TAFE and provide a culturally safe working environment;

8. Increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student enrolments and support successful course completions equal to those in mainstream while learning in a culturally safe environment; and

9. Empower women to achieve meaningful career progression into leadership positions.

Rebuild with TAFE is resonating around the nation and so is the need for strong policy advocacy. The AEU currently has representatives on the Jobs and Skills Australia Consultative Forum, National VET Workforce Strategy, Foundational Skills Advisory Group and the Accord Ministerial Reference Group, all of which have been set up by the government in a tripartite structure to undertake the important policy work that is essential for the sector. Our work on these bodies must be supported by campaigning action through our members and their communities so that we can genuinely Rebuild with TAFE.

Correna Haythorpe, AEU Federal President.

This article was originally published in The Australian TAFE Teacher, Autumn 2023