Australia’s vocational education and training (VET) policy discussion space has just become a lot more intense with the announcement by the Federal Australian Labor Party of a national inquiry.
On 23 February, Deputy ALP Leader (and Shadow Education Minister) Tanya Plibersek announced a “shake up of TAFE and uni”, stating that “Labor wants prospective students to see TAFE and uni as equally attractive study options.” She also announced, “a once in generation National Inquiry into Post-Secondary Education that will look at every aspect of the vocational and higher education systems, to ensure they can best respond to the needs of Australia’s economy and society.”
The inquiry is to be “ready to go in the first 100 days of a Labor Government.” Labor followed the announcement up by inviting submissions on the scope and terms of reference for the inquiry, which is to be conducted within the existing resources of the Australian Government Department of Education and Training.
The Labor announcement – which received extensive coverage in the press (The Guardian, Australian Financial Review and The Australian. Ross Gittins in The Sydney Morning Herald (28 February) pointed out that there is a long history to the current state of VET stuff ups, recommending that the Turnbull Government should simply join Labor’s call for an inquiry. He notes that the problem goes way back to mistakes by then education minister Julia Gillard), “made worse by state governments of both colours.” While a university demand-funded system went into place, Ross Gittins writes:
TAFE was being hit by sharp cuts in federal funding … and subjected to the disastrous VET experiment…. Parts of the states' union-dominated TAFE systems had become outdated and inflexible …. Rather than reform TAFE directly, however, someone … got the bright idea of forcing TAFE to shape up by exposing it to cleansing competition from private providers.
The feds extended to the VET sector a version of the uni system of deferred loans to cover tuition fees. State governments happily played their part in this cost-saving magic…. The result was to attract a host of fly-by-night rip-off merchants …. Eventually … the present government overreacted. Now it's much harder to get federal help with TAFE fees than uni fees.
Far too little is being done to get TAFE training properly back in business after most of the for-profit providers have faded into the night…. Last year's budget established an (inadequate) Skilling Australians Fund.
The Labor announcement follows on the October 2017 release of a report by the Business Council of Australia (BCA) entitled Future-Proof: Protecting Australians Through Education and Skills.
“When both the ACTU and the BCA – not exactly happy bed-fellows – agree that an inquiry is welcome and overdue, you know that important something is going on,” said Dr Don Perlgut, CEO of Community Colleges Australia (CCA).
“CCA welcomes this attention being paid to the problems of Australian VET. We have been saying for some time that Australia’s lack of a national VET policy is a recipe for disaster,” said Dr Perlgut.
“The problem we see with both the BCA report and Labor’s announcement is that neither of them acknowledge Australia’s community education sector. In 2016, some 378,000 people studied VET with community providers; that’s a full 9 percent of the national total that year,” said Dr Perlgut.
“Both Labor and the BCA have the right idea – Australian VET is in crisis and will not self-correct – but neither of them see the whole picture. CCA believes in the centrality of TAFE to Australia’s VET system, but the complementarity of the not-for-profit community sector is a part of the answer. Our sector has the flexibility, capacity and integrity to do more and expand its role, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged workers and potential workers.
“At CCA’s Annual Conference in Melbourne last July, Senator Cameron – Labor’s Skills spokesperson – acknowledged the importance of the community VET sector. This needs to be incorporated into Labor’s proposed inquiry’s terms of reference,” said Dr Perlgut.