The Turnbull government is set to overhaul the TAFE system. News of the move came from a leaked document, marked “in confidence”, circulated to state governments ahead of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting in March.
Under the proposal, the federal government would take over TAFE colleges from the states. Fees would be deregulated and TAFE colleges would receive the same levels of funding as private colleges in a bid to increase competition in the sector.
States could provide additional funding to the TAFE sector, but only enough to ensure “competitive neutrality” with the private sector. These changes, first flagged by former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, would be implemented by January 2018.
Vocational Education and Training Minister Luke Hartsuyker has played down the overhaul, telling The Australian that the COAG paper “was only a draft version”. Turnbull’s proposal shows that, despite abandoning similar reforms to universities last September, the Liberal government is fully committed to a ‘user-pays’ education system.
In some parts of Australia, including Victoria, the proposals outlined by the Turnbull government have already been adopted and have been a catastrophic failure.
In 2008, Victoria became the testing ground for a “voucher-based” funding model for vocational education and training (VET). This was fully supported by the Rudd government. Labor Premier John Brumby’s ‘Securing Jobs for Your Future’ introduced a student-demand driven system. This forced the TAFE sector to vie with private institutions to compete for public money for the delivery of VET. Funding was allocated to institutions, public or private, based on enrolment numbers.
These private education providers are run just like other businesses. Their main aim is to maximise profits and to do things on the cheap wherever they can. They often hand out meaningless qualifications in impossibly short periods. One private provider was handing out diplomas after only 20 hours of tuition even though students were charged for a 400-hour course.
Enrolments to private institutions in Victoria exploded by 308% between 2008 and 2011. During the same period, TAFE enrolments fell from 78% to 45%. For the first time, the private sector outstripped TAFE colleges as the largest providers of training.
But this wasn’t the case for the rest of the country. According to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, the total number of students enrolled in non-TAFE colleges rose by 7.1% in the same period. Meanwhile, the non-TAFE share rose from 16% to 23% nationally.
Between 2008 and 2012, VET expenditure in Victoria grew by 79.6%, three times higher than the rest of Australia. The vast bulk of this additional expenditure went to non-TAFE providers, who accounted for almost 80% of the $863 million increase in expenditure.
A further $400 million was handed over to the private sector, a sum far greater than the state government expected. This prompted the Baillieu Liberal government to slash TAFE funding by $300 million in 2012. Baillieu’s cuts resulted in 2500 job losses and significantly increased fees for students. Around 80% of courses on offer were cut and many campuses closed. These cuts plunged the TAFE sector into a much deeper crisis.
In 2014, The Age newspaper obtained a leaked document from the Victorian Auditor-General stating that state contributions to TAFE had fallen by $119 million, or 159%, in 2013. Capital funding for buildings and equipment fell by $14 million, or 36%. Seven out of fourteen public TAFE colleges were in deficit, with two in doubt “as a going concern”.
Despite the catastrophic failure of the Victorian model, since 2012 this model has been encouraged by both the Liberals and Labor. Since the 1980s both parties have worked for the privatisation of higher education nationally. Of the 5000 registered training providers currently in Australia, almost 3700 are private for-profit enterprises.
Socialists demand that the sector be operated on the basis of providing childcare through to university education as a basic right for all.
There is more than enough wealth to provide free, high-quality education and adequate welfare for all those who want to access it. The fight to beat back privatisation and win free education for all is intertwined with the struggle for a democratic socialist society where the world’s resources are used to improve people’s lives, not make them slaves to the free market.
By Conor Flynn