Napthine falls short: TAFE needs more than a bandaid

The announcement this week of funding for Victorian TAFEs won’t make up for previous cuts. AAP Image/Julian Smith

There might be a new premier in Victoria, but it seems there’s still no good news for TAFEs. The $200 million in structural adjustment funding announced this week is certainly welcome, but it is simply too little, too late.

The Victorian government should have made such provision almost a year ago when it abruptly took a meat cleaver to TAFE funding, hacking out $300 million.

The damage from these cuts has been monumental. But what is more worrying is the way these cuts have signalled a changing role for TAFEs in Victoria with repercussions for the quality of vocational education and the wider economy.

Cut to the bone

You didn’t need a crystal ball to foresee that the former Baillieu government’s cuts would result in severe and immediate challenges for the public TAFE network.

In large part because the cuts had almost immediate effect, TAFEs had little time to put their houses in order. Within weeks, despite the calming assurances by the Victorian Tertiary education and skills minister that all was well, redundancies were rolling through the sector, amounting by year’s end to several thousand. There was the wholesale dumping of courses; fee increases; and campus closures in communities with low education and training attainments.

It could be argued that, over time, rationalisation might have positive outcomes in forcing TAFEs to thoroughly review their operations. They could have adapted to become more agile and more specialised, dumping marginal offerings and concentrating on areas of strength.

But the point is, TAFEs really haven’t had much time to work this through – and no assistance to date. So the sector has panicked and responded without regard to overall balance and what is now apparently the quaint notion of “community interest”.

The $200 million announced this week - $50 million over four years – is in no way “compensation” for the $300 million hacked out of annual TAFE budgets. TAFEs are still left with a deficit of $250 million a year.

The $200 million is also only for the express purpose of assisting TAFEs – principally the regional TAFEs – to “transition”. But in four years, the $50 million a year in structural adjustment funding will be gone but the $300 million a year cut in operational funding will continue.

A changing role

This latest announcement forms the government’s response to an “independent” review of TAFE that was looking at how to foster a “strong sustainable TAFE sector in an open and competitive training market”.

You would have thought the government might have more usefully commissioned such a review before the event of the full blown “marketisation” it unleashed in May last year.

Teachers and students protest after cuts to TAFE last year. AAP Image/Joe Castro

Be that as it may, the government’s response confirms a shift towards the role of public sector TAFE providers, first revealed when it removed “full service provision funding” last year.

In its submission to the Roche review of TAFE in Queensland, TAFE Directors Australia, in justification of maintaining TAFE funding, observed that as publicly owned entities, TAFE institutes at their core have a commitment to “the community good” which a private, for-profit entity, no matter how publicly-spirited it might be, simply does not.

The raison d’etre of a private provider is to make a profit. If it delivers a community service, this is a bonus, but it’s not what drives the provider. While any surplus generated by a TAFE institute is, by definition, reinvested in community service activities.

There’s to be none of that namby pamby nonsense henceforth in Victoria.

In its report, the independent review panel recommended that the government “should clearly define the community service obligations that it wishes to fund in the Victorian vocational training market and the process for identifying and costing them” (recommendation 18).

The government agreed and defined a community service obligation as a service that would not be provided commercially without additional funding. It concluded “there are no requirements that currently meet this definition.”

That makes sense in the context of the government having already abolished full service funding and a higher funding rate for TAFEs over private providers. But what you then see is that, in the case of meeting the special needs of certain students (such as students with a disability), a provider either has to provide at a direct loss to the bottom line (not likely in these tough times), reduce the scale or quality of the service, cross subsidise delivery by increased fees to other students or cease delivery altogether.

One of the first course casualties of TAFE funding cuts in Victoria was the teaching of AUSLAN at Kangan Batman TAFE. And throughout the TAFE sector, support services for students with special needs have been drastically scaled back.

The open market

Against all this, the Victorian government points to a dramatic growth in government-subsidised enrolments from approximately 380,000 in 2008 to more than 670,000 in 2012.

Most of this growth has been in the private Registered Training Organisation (RTO) sector (plus 76%) as against the TAFE sector (plus 11%). Private RTO provision has grown from a 34% share of government-subsidised in 2008 to 58% in 2012.

Perhaps this is, as the government suggests, a case of people voting with their feet. Or perhaps it’s a case of reduced quality of provision.

Premier Ted Baillieu defended his TAFE cuts when he was in power. AAP Image/Julian Smith

Certainly the Victorian government has had its concerns with the quality of provision as evidenced by the fact that the number of private RTOs eligible to provide subsidised training was slashed this year by 20% (from around 500 to 400).

And just this week, the National Skills Standards Council has issued a call for a new “Australian Vocational Qualifications System” in order to protect the economy from a “failure in confidence” in qualifications. John Dawkins, the chair of the NSSC, told The Australian newspaper that “underperforming” RTOS could destabilise the training system and labour market by undermining the integrity of qualifications and “providing unfair competition to better providers”. Dawkins said “we can assume an employer looking at qualifications from a TAFE or some of the better private providers would not have a question about the quality of that qualification. The question is, what about the others?”

A good question indeed, and all the more relevant after the dramatic changes that we’ve seen in the Victorian vocational system.