Within a few months of coming to office the Abbott government established a Vocational and Education and Training (VET) Reform Taskforce. Over the past two years there have been three separate parliamentary inquiries into Australia’s Technical and Further Education system. Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane initiated the Abbott governments VET Reform Taskforce to examine the future shape of the VET sector. Describing the Australian skills and training system as a “convoluted mess”, he continued:
The reality is that we have inherited a system in the skills and training area which is so close to broken that we have regular meetings now with people who say, ‘For God’s sake just fix this – it is so complicated, it is so heavily regulated, it is so over-audited we’re not getting the results that we need to get.‘
The problems facing the VET sector
Serious structural problems beset Australia’s skills and training system. Low-quality provision and over-regulation highlight the shortcomings of skills and training delivery in parts of the sector.
The creation of a national training market intensified competition between public and private providers. Marketising VET has placed different incentives and pressures on TAFE institutions and private VET providers. Compliance with national frameworks has been a heavy burden.
National industry qualification frameworks, which sought to make VET qualifications consistent across Australia, now operate as straitjackets. These frameworks, commonly referred to as “training packages”, are based on competencies related to particular jobs rather than skill sets relevant to work in related industries and useful for changing employment contexts.
By their very nature, these centrally planned and bureaucratised frameworks are inflexible and over-prescribe outcomes. They are reviewed on a three-year cycle, adding complexity to the audit processes providers are subjected to.
The national policy agenda holds TAFE providers and private providers captive, discouraging locally targeted outcomes, including local industry collaborations.
An opportunity for reform
The VET Reform Taskforce presents a key policy moment to establish conditions for TAFE institutions to renew their purpose. Ideally such a taskforce should support TAFE institutions and their owners, state and territory governments, in making necessary structural changes by articulating a national vision for skills and training and the types of key institutions that will make that happen.
The VET Reform Taskforce could clarify the purposes and remit of future providers of skills and training. While state and territory governments own and operate TAFE, the policy settings that created, sustained, changed and affected their education purposes and intentions have long been set at a national level.
TAFEs repurposed, for example, as either community colleges or polytechnics could accommodate young people who are not participating in secondary schooling. That would connect them to further education, pre-trade, trade and occupationally relevant diploma-level education opportunities. Such institutions could also offer further education, trade and post-trade education, retraining and higher-level skills and training through vocational degrees.
In an era when Australian businesses are dealing with global economic challenges, publicly backed robust skills and training institutions have a key role to play.
Private and public skills and training organisations equip people to participate in shifting labour markets. Minister MacFarlane has an opportunity to progress a vision for skills and training that fixes VET by remaking TAFE.
Why is VET so important?
Recent policy reforms of higher education set a goal of 40% of young people achieving an undergraduate bachelors qualification. But what about the other 60%? Not all people see their futures through university education, which is why VET is so important.
When the Coalition was last in office, the government initiated Australian Technical Colleges, to provide skills and training to secondary school students. The Rudd-Gillard ALP government abandoned this policy and set about funding and establishing Trade Training Centres for clusters of secondary schools around the nation. The Abbott government is continuing this initiative, with a name change to Trade Skills Centres.
Nationally it seems both sides of politics are committed to skills and training, in a technical and vocational sense, in secondary schooling. This expands the educational and social purposes of secondary schooling past a limited preoccupation with university admission. As this future for skills and training is being established, there is also a need to consider skills and training outside of and after secondary school.
TAFE institutions across Australia have a vast campus network that reaches into regional and urban centres. Servicing the training needs of industry, regions and local communities requires deliberate national policy action. TAFE and what it can become will play a key role in meeting future skill needs.