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TAFE troubles puts Victoria’s tourism competitiveness at risk

Regional Victorian tourism is likely to feel the impact of Victoria’s recent TAFE cuts, which follow bi-partisan policy failure around competition.

Tourism and hospitality course closures have featured prominently in the recent announcements about redundancies flowing from the estimated $200 million of Victorian TAFE funding cuts.

While the causes are complex, their severity and suddenness impacts on regional tourism. The prospect of reduced training and learning capacity outside Melbourne coincides with a challenging time for regional southeast Australia as it is by-passed by the mining boom and struggles for viability.

As a traditional mainstay of regional economies, the farming sector is already warning of skilled labour shortages as a prospect of withdrawing TAFE agriculture courses. But the tourism sector is more labour intensive, and competitiveness will be particularly important for the regional outlook where there are limited opportunities to diversify the economy and retain community cohesiveness.

Melbourne is a tourism success story and Australia’s fastest growing urban destination. But more remote Victorian regions have stagnated as city residents opt for overseas travel and for lower cost carriers over self-drive domestic trips. To redress this trend - and to create sustainable tourism employment and retain local job-seekers - regions must provide appealing visitor experiences featuring high service standards.

Locally-based training and learning opportunities are essential, including food and wine-related services for hotels, restaurants, attractions, conference venues, events, retailing and tours. Food service is also critical for non-tourism institutions such as hospitals, aged care facilities and prisons.

While increased apprenticeship funding will provide some respite for existing providers, the “slashing and burning” impacts on all TAFEs, with financially precarious regional institutions the most vulnerable.

Deep cuts have been announced in outer Melbourne with TAFE tourism and events closing at Victoria University in Werribee and Swinburne closing hospitality, tourism and events at Lilydale. Meanwhile hospitality training facilities are likely to close at GippsTAFE with program cuts at SouthWest TAFE in Warrnambool and at Ballarat.

In 2011 publicly-funded enrolments across vocational education in Australia grew by 82,000, of which 94% (77,000) were in Victoria, pioneer of “contestability” (where public TAFES were encouraged to compete against private providers).

The constestability agenda was introduced to “level the playing field” for public and private provision - but the scale of the ensuing private sector expansion exceeded expectations, particularly around a handful of qualifications.

The proponents of change argue that the altered funding will bring an end to excessive numbers of poorly-targeted qualifications (for instance, in fitness training) for non-existent jobs. With regulatory controls failing to keep a lid on the expanded private provision in Melbourne, the government is cutting across the board.

Cuts to some hospitality programs may also reflect a backlash against the unanticipated proliferation of Indian enrolments in commercial cookery courses within Melbourne.

Though migration changes have largely addressed this problem, the bitter legacy of racially alleged attacks, media beat-ups and college closures brought disrepute to hospitality training. The private sector cost blowouts and the Indian migration debacle occurred in Melbourne, but the cuts will disproportionately hit the regions.

Both political parties failed to strike the appropriate balance between regulation and competition in training targeted at both the domestic and international student markets. The spin-doctors argue there was a need to reduce funding for over-provided (“bad”) programs and provide a boost for trade/craft programs and apprenticeships (“good” programs).

Many paraprofessional fields have indeed lamented the declining take-up of apprenticeships where “real skills” are acquired by combining on-the-job learning from skilled masters with classroom training. So far so good. We need qualified chefs preparing the highest quality food. The recent staging of TV program Masterchef in Daylesford was a showcase for combining quality local produce and skilled practitioners.

However for every chef preparing meals, training restaurants are needed to provide a “front-of-house” where tolerant diners enjoy their creations and make allowance for servicing from inexperienced students “in training” (and even share the learning experience on TripAdvisor!).

Many outstanding private providers currently operate as registered training organisations (RTOs) ranging from large hospitality operations such as Crown Casino to small owner-operated businesses. Valuable workplace-based training certainly occurs and more enlightened employers will continue to support staff development and the recruitment of apprentices.

The private sector has some capacity to expand on-the-job training, but recent experience suggests that some will be the “tick and flick” variety. In contrast, regional TAFEs excel at providing food service environments that welcome locals and accommodate those seeking a trade without having to head for the city. As local institutions, training restaurants are akin to bank branches and post offices and critical for the local retention of learners and for capacity building.

All is not lost for the regions. Emerging partnerships might bring local food producers and entrepreneurs together with TAFE Institutes. But the shorter-term risk is that in seeking quick savings, TAFEs may close their costly training restaurants at the expense of future generations. Training kitchens and restaurants are integral to professional hospitality training, as laboratories are critical for science teaching.

But removing training restaurants and associated courses will accelerate the drift of young people to the city and eliminate an established hub for local suppliers.

Both sides of politics are implicated. Despite its strong emphasis on regional centres, the Brumby Government instigated contestability. However having underestimated the regional implications of its TAFE cuts, the coalition is now experiencing the political fallout.

The Kennett Government bequeathed the legacy of a competitive and service-oriented Victorian tourism industry (think of perfect coffees at Beechworth or Daylesford). This legacy was maintained by successive Labor administrations, a much admired model of bipartisanship interstate.

However the naïve bipartisan conventional wisdom of contestability is unlikely to be emulated elsewhere. It is ironic that constructive bipartisanship has sustained Victoria’s competitiveness as a provider of excellent tourism service, but bungled competition in training will leave a bad regional taste.

The tourism “goose that laid the golden egg” may be yet be sacrificed by a bad case of bipartisan policy failure.

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