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Issue #1546      9 May 2012

Council of Australian Governments

Part 2: TAFE undermined

Commitments given by the federal government to TAFE as recently as a month prior to the meeting of Council of Australian Governments (COAG) were overturned, setting the government on a course of privatising vocational education and training programs.

The power of big business which lobbied the government in the lead-up to the COAG meeting was evident in the government’s about-turn on training. The government’s blueprint for training is Skills for All Australians. The Skills for All Australians policy, which was publicly released on March 19, was quite categorical in its support of the public sector and TAFE in particular:

“Governments need to ensure that TAFEs are able to operate effectively in an environment where some states and territories choose to move to a more contestable training market. It is in the public and taxpayer interest to ensure that the long term investment of public funds in a strong TAFE sector continues to be productive and contributes further to the skilling task facing the nation. Building a skilled economy and society must rest on a bedrock of public institutions committed to the long term advancement and capacity of citizens.

“The states and territories will be asked to agree on strategies with the Commonwealth government to continue to support and strengthen their public providers of vocational education and training over the next five years. These could include recognition of the additional costs that public providers incur as the key provider of capital intensive training and the support services required for disadvantaged students and for students in regional Australia.”

The federal government did not call for support for public providers. As seen from the COAG decision, it threw to the wind any concerns about the impact on TAFE of “a more contestable training market” or the importance of investing public funds “in a strong TAFE sector”. It is a neo-liberal recipe for the destruction of TAFE and the promotion of second-rate private training institutions.

The aim of the COAG decision is to develop a highly competitive training market, one where private institutions will be eligible on the same basis as public TAFE colleges to subsidised student places up to Diploma III level and for HECS type loans for students doing higher levels of study.

It leaves it to the states to decide whether to apply commonwealth funding to public or private colleges or both.

The private sector lobby group, the Australian Council for Private Education and Training said the COAG agreement marked “a fundamental day in the history of the Australian vocational education and training sector.” It is right. It is an historic decision that lays the basis for the privatisation of the important and quality training presently being carried out by TAFE.

States with pro-privatisation governments and strapped budgets will put training programs out to tender to the cheapest (private sector) bidders. It will put pressure on salaries, job security, class sizes, resources and quality of teaching in TAFE colleges attempting to compete with unregulated private operators.

As TAFE secretary of the Australian Education Union (AEU), Pat Forward said, “This agreement will give the green light to unscrupulous private providers to flourish … with no protection for students who will have only one chance to access a government-funded place up to certificate III.”

The Spring 2011 edition of the AEU’s The Australian TAFE Teacher, reports that training under recent reforms in Victoria “has been skewed towards high volume, low cost areas in private providers, leaving TAFEs with the high cost, low volume vocational education required to overcome skills shortages.”

In a period of less than two years, in Victoria:

  • The number of private for-profit providers has grown from 225 to 528
  • TAFE share of the market has dropped from 75% to 52%
  • Private provider share of the market has grown from 14% to 32%.

This is what lies ahead for the rest of Australia if the federal government’s emphasis on “contestable markets” and its “equal playing field”, deregulated approach to public and private as adopted by COAG goes ahead. Starving TAFE won’t solve the skills shortages or result in quality training. The private, for-profit sector is incapable of doing it.  

Next article – Toxic threat looms again for Newcastle

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