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TAFE cuts will affect everyone: state governments should think again

TAFE staff are striking today to demonstrate their opposition to unparalleled funding cutbacks totalling almost $300 million imposed by the Victorian State Government. A recent leaked cabinet paper summarising…

The role of TAFEs in supporting innovation by anticipating knowledge and skills can’t be easily picked up by universities. (AAP Image/Joe Castro

TAFE staff are striking today to demonstrate their opposition to unparalleled funding cutbacks totalling almost $300 million imposed by the Victorian State Government.

A recent leaked cabinet paper summarising so called “TAFE transition plans” has incited outrage. The plans show that campuses will close, TAFE institutes will merge, at least two thousand staff will be sacked, students will pay higher fees and TAFE institutes will cut provision or close down courses.

The Commonwealth government is now threatening to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for vocational education and training.

However, the Victorian government is not alone. The New South Wales government is cutting $80 million and 800 teaching jobs from TAFE, while increasing student fees by 9.5%. A Queensland government review of vocational education and training recommends closing 38 TAFE campuses and the Queensland government has cut $78.8 million from training, tertiary education and employment.

These state governments have failed to appreciate how important TAFE is to our economy and the community more generally. To them the vital work TAFE does is invisible.

But while TAFE’s effect might not be visible to politicians, it is an essential economic, social and cultural support for Australian communities and regions. Without strong TAFEs, there could be serious changes to our social cohesion and economic future.

The benefits of TAFE

TAFEs are often one of the biggest employers in regional or outer metropolitan areas and a focus for the community.

All TAFE directors in Australia will be on their local regional economic development committee and work together with local government and industry leaders to identify economic problems and skill requirements.

All TAFEs have staff working with schools to support better outcomes for students, and they work with local communities to develop programs and support for disadvantaged students. They provide pathways to higher education and to the professions, and in doing so, support Australia’s need for highly educated workforce and social mobility. They run courses that meet local economic or social needs even when it isn’t good business sense to do so.

Perhaps the least visible aspect of the work of TAFEs is how they anticipate the knowledge and skills that will be needed to support innovation. Just as universities create new knowledge for society and train the professions, TAFE’s role as an educational and training institution is to anticipate how workplaces are changing, and the kind of knowledge and skills that will be needed for tomorrow and not just today.

Every Australian has benefited from the contribution TAFE has made to economic development and social inclusion. Cutting TAFE is akin to a farmer eating rather than planting their seeds. We are cutting now rather than investing in the future.

Can universities take over?

Universities and TAFE play complementary roles, but whereas the role that universities play is well understood, TAFE’s role is not. Without TAFE, new knowledge that is generated in universities will not be translated into new work practices.

Universities can never take over the space vacated by TAFE, even if they wanted to. Universities might offer more “middle level” programs, such as diplomas and associate degrees, but they can’t offer the range of programs that TAFE offers at all skill levels. They also don’t have the same links with workplaces that TAFEs have, nor do they have the same geographic reach of TAFE.

There are hundreds of TAFE campuses in Australia in cities and regional and rural areas, which is the very reason many universities want to partner with TAFE institutes. Closing TAFE campuses in regions will reduce access to vocational and higher education.

Political will

The problem is that state governments don’t understand the invisible role TAFE plays. Instead, they are mesmerised by the invisible hand of the market and think it will all turn out in the end: it won’t and we will all be the poorer for it.

TAFE is far more than a “provider” of courses that is interchangeable with private providers. It is an educational institution that contributes to economic, social and cultural development, which private for profit providers can never replicate.

This piece was co-authored by Brendan Sheehan, a Melbourne policy consultant and former Skills Victoria executive. He publishes The Scan which reports on developments in tertiary education in Australia.

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11 Comments sorted by

  1. Mark Harrigan

    PhD Physicist

    These slash and burn cuts to the TAFE sector by the Eastern States conservative governments is nothing short of blinkered short sighted stupidity committed by politcal mongrels who have an eye not for the populace in general but for their own perceived conservative constituency. But all will pay the price.

    Perhaps TAFE might be in need of reform - but no case has been made for this. Instead they are just seen as an easy target for state governments who want to cut expenditure. The need to respond to budgetary pressures is not being done with intelligence or considered policy but rather aimed at a sector that, I suspect, is seen as not in their core consituency - so easily sacrificed.

    It would appear the conservatives don't value education and skills - despite their rhetoric - and instead think they can abandon skills development to an unregulated private sector. It's a very bad move.

  2. mark mc dougall


    Anything that does not serve the economy, especially the right wing economy seems to be slashed.
    They have not thought through the fact that the "arty" faction are the ones that lead the trends, they are the ones that renovate suburbs and towns that had been left derelict by the "economic" machine. The "artys" fill such areas with life and colour then the rich want to take a part, the area becomes trendy, prices go up, the rich overworked take over,.. and lead into suburban decline again.

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    1. Leesa Wheelahan

      Associate Professor, LH Martin Institute at University of Melbourne

      In reply to mark mc dougall

      The O'Farrell government has decided to cease public funding for arts courses, and of course, funding for arts courses in Victoria has been slashed. This has meant that the University of Ballarat is cutting their courses in visual arts and music as a result of the cuts. It seems that the governments think the working class doesn't need opportunities to do arts programs. This is a very narrow and instrumental view of education, and it denies people opportunities to enter these programs. Our society will be the poorer for it.

  3. Alice Gorman

    Lecturer at Flinders University

    It's all so depressing. Why is education under attack so frequently despite its acknowledged importance? Why can't things get better instead of worse for a change? Why can't they just let those of us who teach get on with our jobs?

    TAFEs and universities are indeed complementary. We teach different things for different reasons, and as Leesa rightly argues, they are not simply interchangeable. But we also often work together - my department for instance has a close relationship with the surveyors at our local TAFE. We can't let TAFEs be eviscerated.

  4. Rob Crowther

    Architectural Draftsman

    TAFE needs to be expanded and not cut.

    The most pressing need for experienced people is the recognition of the self learning we do every day and to have that accepted as Continued Professional Development and perhaps further qualification.

    We also need to have the books and journals we read to be recognized. A suitable way to do this is to get a lifelong mentorship/partnership happening with TAFE.

    We (experienced people) can tell them what we are going to learn and how we are going to learn it – we don’t need their classrooms nor the battery hen teaching methods. We definitely do not need busywork assignments and assessments. We do however need their expertise in formulating our self directed learning into a format that is consistent with the education and training system.

    In short, TAFE needs to expand to cater for the 50 year old who is an independent learner.

  5. Sue Kilpatrick

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I endorse the comments in this article. As a former Board member of a regional Victorian TAFE I know first hand of the social and economic contribution made by our TAFEs. They are close to employers and can develop essential skills for the workforce. They are active in promoting social inclusion with educational opportunities for all.

    The withdrawal or shrinking of the TAFE sector from our regions and low SES suburbs will have implications far beyond saving money now. The impact of reduced investment in skills and education will reverberate down the years.

    Educational investment is crucial if we are to be a clever country and thrive in the world economy of the future.

    1. Leesa Wheelahan

      Associate Professor, LH Martin Institute at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Sue Kilpatrick

      Yes, it is amazing how short-sighted state governments are being. The problem is that once TAFE is wrecked it can't be put back together again - it isn't possible to wind down institutions and capacity, whistle it up when needed and then wind it down again.

  6. Jess Perks

    logged in via Facebook

    I'm a current student, studying the last Certificate II in Animal Studies. Because of these outrageous and ridiculous cuts, my course is no longer offered, my volunteering work in the provided vet clinic will be cut, the clinic is now only operating ONE just ONE day a week when it was 3 then two and now only One. I am so angry I don't know how I'm containing myself and not swearing. Though I would like to walk up to the person who approved this and give them a swift punch to the face. Why not cut sports or football? Why TAFE, why.. ?

    1. Leesa Wheelahan

      Associate Professor, LH Martin Institute at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Jess Perks

      Hi Jess,

      Thanks for taking the time and letting us know about your experience. I think you are talking for many students who are going through similar experiences. It is a shame that the government doesn't understand the impact that these cuts are having on people's lives. No wonder you feel so angry. I hope that you can find a course that allows you to do what you love and are good at. You may find the TAFE4all website has information on how to tell the government how you feel:

      Kind regards


  7. Sin Fong Chan


    The quality of existing offline on-campus courses, online courses or even MOOC is not the issue. The quality of the learners and assessors is the subject of concern.

    I have been an educator in public and private colleges since 1996, spent couple years as a tutor-lecturer and several as a correspondence course tutor. The delivery of course material, either by electronic means or personal face-to-face is the easy part; assessing the student/ learner / trainee's (will be referred to as learner hereafter…

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