This year has already seen the launch of two reports on the vocational education and training (VET) sector, reflecting notably different agendas, both with potentially significant implications for the future of TAFE in Victoria, and nationally.
Under the current contestable funding model, the public TAFE system has been forced to compete with private providers, which have been free to operate with minimal regulation or oversight, causing widespread rorting and serious damage to the standing and quality of VET, including TAFE. The final report from the Macklin review into ‘Skills for Victoria’s Growing Economy’, which landed on 3 February, identifies the abject failure of this market model of VET funding, which has driven down quality at the expense of students, taxpayers and the economy.
In stark contrast, the Productivity Commission’s delayed review into the ‘National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development’, released in late January, argues that the VET system is not in crisis and that the federal government should continue to promote a more efficient and competitive VET market through “informed user choice”, with quality achieved through a “provider agnostic approach”. It even criticises state governments offering free TAFE courses for distorting contestable market conditions!
While the Productivity Commission is focused on funding arrangements, the Macklin report has a broader vision for improving the VET sector, which recognises the central role of TAFE in safeguarding a strong and sustainable public education system. Among its proposals is a ‘Quality TAFE Network’ similar to the AEU’s push for a ‘Unified TAFE network’ – a remodelled, more cohesive and collaborative TAFE system promoted and supported by government to become the quality benchmark for the entire VET sector.
Also key to Macklin’s vision is the creation of ‘Future Skills Victoria’, an independent body to “act as a champion and steward of the skills system” and coordinate collaboration across the sector. This is the result of calls from numerous stakeholders, including the AEU, for a more unified approach to leading the sector.
The Macklin report recognises the central role of TAFE in safeguarding a strong and sustainable public education system.
Government would still determine policy, regulation and funding, while Future Skills Victoria would oversee collaboration on monitoring skills supply and demand; the costs of course provision; ensuring high-quality curriculum; teacher professional development; and meeting the needs of students and the community through expanded skills and jobs centres.
Future Skills Victoria is central to other key recommendations from the Macklin review, including the establishment of ‘Future Skills Insight’ – to collect and share relevant data that can improve planning and decision making; and ‘Future Skills Labs’ – centres of innovation in specialised areas, initially including clean economy, care economy and digital economy, to be located at particular TAFEs.
Developing a thorough understanding of the “costs, subsidies, process, loadings and concessions” is among the Macklin review’s immediate recommendations to help the Victorian government create a fairer VET funding model. It also argues the need for a published set of principles seeking to “strengthen the quality, efficiency, stability, transparency and equity of funding”; regularly review the actual costs of delivery; develop a transparent method for setting the base costs for all publicly funded qualifications; and address the cost differentials between public and private providers, with the “unique role of TAFE to be recognised”.
Macklin’s recommendations should pave the way for further positive reform in Victoria’s VET sector, but this will rely on government investment. While the Andrews government has brought TAFE back from the brink, the most recent Report of Government Services showed that Victoria’s hourly funding rate for VET remains the lowest of any state in Australia.
It is imperative our state government recognises that the competitive system of VET funding is broken – and develops a funding policy that delivers the high-quality education required to ensure students gain the skills they need to enter the job market.
If it instead bows to the market-driven agenda of the Morrison government, wedded to the failed policies of the past, we will not have the VET system we urgently need to support our community and rebuild the economy as we recover from COVID-19.