TAFE & Adult Provision A TAFE-led recovery

If the COVID crisis has shown us anything, it’s the urgent need for qualified workers across all industries to be able to adapt quickly to changing environments and new opportunities. Hundreds of thousands of Victorians and over a million Australians have lost their jobs during this pandemic.

A clear, fully supported workforce strategy is required to rebuild Australia’s economy – and this can only be achieved through national investment in our public TAFE system. TAFE is the one institution that has the infrastructure, workforce, reputation and longstanding partnerships with industry to produce the adaptable and highly skilled workforce this country needs.

The benefits of a strong public VET system are reinforced in a new report from the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, An Investment in Productivity and Inclusion: The Economic and Social Benefits of the TAFE System, which reveals that TAFE contributes an estimated $92.5 billion to the economy each year, many times more than the cost of its annual funding. 

As Federal AEU president Correna Haythorpe says, “TAFE has made a huge contribution to Australia’s economic prosperity, despite years of what can only be described as policy vandalism of the vocational education sector.”

And yet, despite the catastrophic damage privatisation has wrought on the sector, a recent Productivity Commission report has endorsed giving private for-profit training providers greater access to public VET funding via increased contestability, vouchers and a new student loan system.

We know regional Victorians, in particular, rely on their local TAFE institutes, which not only provide an education pathway but also opportunity and purpose

The Productivity Commission National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development Review Interim Report not only fails to support the public TAFE system’s future as the pre-eminent provider of vocational education; any increase in contestability would make it even more difficult for Australian students, workers and apprentices to access high-quality public vocational education at a time when it’s urgently needed to rebuild the economy.

The AEU is continuing to campaign for public TAFE at every level. We are focused on industrial, professional and funding objectives to meet the needs of our members and the wider community. Teacher workload, attacks on professional autonomy, salaries and career structures, and national reform agreements are among the issues we want to see addressed.

AEU Federal’s submission to the Productivity Commission review shows the abject failure of a decade of VET marketisation, contestability and privatisation by governments at all levels. VET funding was cut by more than 15% in the decade from 2007 to 2016, and government expenditure declined by 31.5% over that time. As a result of this continual assault, TAFE enrolments have declined steadily in recent years.

In Victoria, the Andrews government is conducting a major review into post-secondary education, headed up by former federal Labor minister Jenny Macklin, with a report expected later this year. The initial discussion paper has a strong focus on TAFE being at the centre of the vocational education system.

We know regional Victorians, in particular, rely on their local TAFE institutes, which not only provide an education pathway but also opportunity and purpose. They help countless apprentices learn their trade, allow immigrants to find a place in new communities and enable residents to advance their careers through upskilling.

Unfortunately, despite recent investment from the Andrews government, the latest annual reports from Victoria’s TAFE institutes show a combined net deficit of around $30 million. More concerning is that the impact of COVID-19 is not yet factored in to these figures, and additional funding provided by the state government to ensure institutes would get through this crisis will soon be exhausted. This worrying financial trend, combined with the global fallout from the pandemic, could have a disastrous outcome for TAFE.

Nationally, since the election of the Coalition government in 2013, there has been $3 billion cut from vocational education, a national decline in TAFE enrolments of 24.5%, and 140,000 fewer apprentices. The continued reliance on failed competition-based policies, which drive privatisation and profit ahead of the public good, are failing Australian students and the economy. It is now well-established that marketisation does not produce the highly skilled, qualified workforce we need.

The AEU has been campaigning for TAFE for many years. We know the wider Australian community trusts TAFE to deliver accessible, high-quality education. As governments look to rebuild – economically and socially – following the COVID-19 pandemic, we will be promoting the crucial role of TAFE in supporting those who have lost their jobs to upskill or retrain.

The Victorian government will play a crucial role in providing continued funding to the sector, but also ensuring that the federal government’s privatisation agenda does not undermine TAFE’s critical role in the provision of high-quality vocational education to our community.

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