It seems like a lifetime ago now that the Andrews government handed down the state budget on 20 May. Victoria subsequently went back into lockdown, estimated to cost the bottom line around
$1 billion a week, with as yet unknown effects on budget commitments.
Assuming all education-related promises are upheld, the 2021 budget brought good news for the early childhood sector, with $167.1 million to expand the roll-out of 15 hours of three-year-old preschool for all children state-wide.
Accompanying the significant wins for members covered by the new VECTEA and EEEA, once they come into effect, there will be a $38.1m investment in the early childhood workforce in this year’s budget, covering pay increases and backdated entitlements.
The budget also makes a substantial investment in projects related to early years education, at a cost of $44.8m; and $32.3m for the attraction and retention of staff in the sector. The funds will also bolster initiatives such as Deakin’s fast-tracked course for diploma-qualified educators.
While the overall investment is welcome, the AEU was disappointed that the state government did not commit to expanding free preschool beyond the end of this year. Given the turbulence of the pandemic recovery – and the clear benefits of this expanded access, especially for vulnerable and disadvantaged children – the union will continue to push for clarity on plans to continue the free provision of early years education beyond 2021.
Big wins for schools included a further $1.6 billion for new schools, upgrades and maintenance, which reflects the state government’s average yearly spend on capital works throughout its seven years in government. Of the new schools, 12 are set to open in 2023, plus upgraded facilities for 35 metropolitan and 17 regional schools.
The budget did not contain concrete plans to address, head on, the funding crisis engulfing TAFE.
In response to the recommendations of the Mental Health Royal Commission, the state government has directed $278 million towards schools – $200m of this for a school mental health fund that schools can access to provide support to students. Importantly, given problems with accessing services outside of metropolitan Melbourne, regional and rural schools will be able to access this fund from Term 3 in 2022, with metro schools starting in 2023.
The current Mental Health in Primary Schools pilot, a partnership with the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, will be expanded from 26 to 100 schools.
Funding for students with disability grew by 14%, though this was largely due to previous funding committed last year.
Unfortunately, despite increased support since coming into office, the state government is failing to adequately invest in TAFE. The budget did not contain concrete plans to address, head on, the funding crisis engulfing the vocational education and training (VET) sector. In real terms, funding for vocational education declined.
The state budget included $99m over four years to increase the hourly funding rate for courses by 25 cents. Victoria’s hourly rate of funding remains the lowest in the country: $3.43 behind the national average, and this small increase in subsidy rates will not help TAFEs meet the actual costs of delivery.
A significant number of TAFE institutes were in deficit in the most recent annual reports. The government cannot continue to leave our TAFE system in this precarious situation. Two major reviews into Victoria’s VET sector – MacKenzie’s and now Macklin’s – have highlighted the adversities and the additional costs our public TAFE system carries in a competitive market. ‘Free TAFE’ is not enough to save this essential plank in our public education system.
The AEU has continually promoted the importance of a strong and healthy VET sector, with TAFE at its centre, in fostering the highly skilled workforce our community needs. This is more vital than ever as we negotiate the impact of the pandemic and rebuild our economy. Victoria cannot claim to be the education state without proper investment in our public TAFE system.