Vocational Education has hit the headlines again recently when the Prime Minister made it a key issue at the August meeting of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). It seems to have finally dawned on our political leaders that high-quality post-secondary education is vital if we are to meet the demands of a radically changing economy and an increased need for a skilled workforce.
The outcome of the COAG meeting was an agreement on seven principles for reform (available at coag.gov.au). At this point these are very broad principles, encompassing issues such as relevant qualifications, high quality education, career information, responsiveness to industry, public sector pathways for secondary students, and universal access.
The skills ministers will provide advice to government leaders later this year, with a view to developing a more concrete proposal in early 2020. While these are currently broad level discussions, we do have some insight into the possible plans of the federal government in relation to vocational education. The 2019-20 federal budget outlined ideas drawn from the 2019 Joyce Review on ‘Strengthening Skills: Expert Review of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training Systems’.
The Joyce review proposed a six point plan: strengthen quality assurance; speed up qualification development; simpler funding and skills matching; better careers information; clearer secondary school pathways and greater access for disadvantaged Australians. In addition, the review outlined some early actions the Commonwealth government could take without involving state and territory governments. Of most concern in this list was the reference to publishing a new business-led model of skills organisations for qualification development, which would give industry much greater control and influence.
AEU Federal Branch summed up its concerns in a recent article:
“this plan represents a further narrowing of curriculum and qualifications for TAFE and vocational education, the further shrinking of TAFE’s presence in Australia’s vocational education sector and further entrenchment of competency- based training as the default in vocational education.”
This is hard to deny, given the 2019-20 federal budget failed to mention TAFE once. In addition, the supposed $525m ‘Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow’ package was a sleight of hand as $417m of this was taken from the Skilling Australians Fund, meaning the package actually amounted to a cut of $80million to vocational education funding.
Without careful planning, it will be too easy for governments and institutions to take short cuts in relation to the vocational and teaching experience and qualifications of teachers, which can undermine quality.
We’ve seen considerable investment in TAFE by the Andrews government through the finalisation of the new agreement,the rescue fund, new and upgraded infrastructure and more recently the free TAFE courses. But if we want TAFE to regain its standing as the pre-eminent provider of high-quality vocational education, more needs to be done.
The free TAFE courses program has been a popular and positive initiative, bringing tens of thousands of students into TAFE. It has, however, placed considerable stress on the system, as well as the workforce. We need to have better and more detailed research and planning on ‘what and where’ staff are needed in both the short and long term.
This planning must include incentives to attract new staff into TAFE, as well as retaining and supporting the existing workforce. Without careful planning, it will be too easy for governments and institutions to take short cuts in relation to the vocational and teaching experience and qualifications of teachers, which can undermine quality.
Rather than entrenching competency-based training for teachers, driven by employers whose interests lie in their own specific needs, we must develop a comprehensive curriculum across all qualifications. If we don’t, it will result in students not being job ready or, more importantly, equipped with a range of skills to respond to a changing employment environment.
We also need to consider governance. There is no doubt that the regulatory burden, largely carried by teachers, cannot be sustained if we want teachers to have the time to focus on quality teaching and learning. Government should consider bringing all our TAFEs together under one structure, not for the purpose of economic efficiency, but rather to see a genuinely co-operative and collaborative approach to high quality provision of vocational education.
The Andrews government has an opportunity to build on their reforms. They can ensure we have a strong, viable and high quality TAFE system at the centre of vocational education in this state. Let’s hope they are up for the challenge!