Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Free TAFE scheme shows need for planned public education

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Hundreds of students who signed up for the State Labor government’s “Free TAFE” scheme have been left in the cold after having their courses cancelled. It is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems that plague the TAFE sector.

The Free TAFE scheme has clearly been implemented without any real planning. This is now having an impact on both TAFE workers and students. To justify course cancellations, TAFE institutions are citing a lack of available placements, an indication that there won’t be enough jobs for all graduates. This scheme will end up qualifying more workers than the bosses are willing to give jobs to.

TAFEs have been overburdened with students, with class sizes ballooning to over 100 students in some cases. There is a desperate need for more teachers to cope with the demand. The scheme has also led to disrupted courses, with many students dropping out over questions about the quality of the courses.

The Australian Community Workers Association also raised concerns that there would be “a lot of graduates who have diplomas that are not as useful as other graduates’ qualifications.”

This scheme comes on the back of years of deep cuts to TAFE funding, made by both Labor and Liberal governments. Alongside the cuts was a push to privatise parts of the sector. This has led to a rise in shonky for-profit providers, who have rorted the VET FEE-HELP loans program.

While the investments by the Daniel Andrews government are a welcome change from cuts to the sector, they still do not come close to making up for the decimation that has taken place.

Part of the issue with the free TAFE scheme is that it doesn’t actually spring from an underlying commitment to providing free education to working class people. The courses where free tuition is being offered are largely in areas where big business deems there to be a skills shortage.

The government is footing the bill for training up a new layer of workers, not based on what the community needs, but on what big business is demanding. This scheme is, at root, a handout to big business.

Where possible, big business will seek to have an oversupply of workers to ensure that there is a layer who remain unemployed. This pool of unemployed workers can be used to hold down wage growth. A “reserve” of unemployed workers means bosses can threaten to sack and replace anyone fighting for better wages and conditions.

Some of the Free TAFE courses are related to building and construction. There has been a boom in housing construction on the east coast of Australia, leading to some growth in employment.

But after two years of house prices declining it is unlikely that housing construction will keep booming in the years to come. Just in the last few months, two east coast apartment developers have gone bust. More jobs could be at risk.

Even though state governments have ramped up infrastructure spending, it is not guaranteed that jobs will be provided to all construction workers. This is especially true if problems in the housing sector worsen, or looming global economic problems hit Australia hard.

As well as construction, a number of free courses are offered in mental health, disability, aged care and community services. It is these courses that have been cancelled due to a lack of placements.

The public health system is in desperate need of more funding. Any investment into TAFE courses must go hand in hand with real investment into the public health system in order to address the crisis in this sector. This could provide decent jobs to graduates, with trade union conditions and pay.

Under capitalism, education is dictated by a haphazard “market driven” approach. Education is treated as a commodity to be profited from. Students are treated as cash cows. We need to fight for a different, more far-sighted approach to education.

Unions and organisations that represent students, teachers, and all TAFE workers should work together to build a fighting movement. This movement should demand that everyone has access to high quality, free, public education with a guaranteed job at the end, and to ensure that teachers and all TAFE workers have decent wages and conditions.

Education should be organised to meet the social needs of the many, not deliver profits for the few. This approach – the opposite to the chaos of the market – would need to be part of a broader plan for the economy and society as a whole.

The fight for a free, public education system needs to be linked to to the public ownership of the major companies and a democratically decided economic plan.

By a TAFE worker