While Victoria is experiencing a boom in TAFE enrolments in response to the state Labor government’s launch of its subsidised Free TAFE program, the national picture is increasingly grim.
The federal Morrison government has compounded years of funding cuts to the vocational education (VET) sector by failing to invest almost a billion dollars budgeted for TAFE and training programs over the past five years. Some $5.27b was earmarked for apprenticeship, skills and training initiatives between 2014–15 and 2018–19, according to a federal Department of Education report. Instead, the government spent only $4.35b over this period.
On top of this, the Morrison government recently slashed $3.9b from the Education Investment Fund – money intended for desperately needed infrastructure improvements in the TAFE and higher education sector.
“State governments cannot be expected to go it alone when it comes to something as important as developing Australia’s skilled workforce.”
Meredith Peace, branch president
All this despite a significant skills shortage currently affecting the Australian economy, with a recent survey by the Australian Industry Group showing three-quarters of businesses cannot find the skilled workers they need.
The shortfall in spending is yet more evidence of the Coalition’s plan to starve the public TAFE system into oblivion and force ever more students into the severely under-regulated private training market. Since 2013, the year the federal Coalition was elected, the number of students in government-funded vocational education has fallen by 25%, including 140,000 fewer apprentices, nationally.
Under Morrison, the National Skills Commission gives industry free reign over VET qualification design, further undermining TAFE’s role in the VET sector and reinforcing the government’s privatisation agenda.
By contrast, Labor opposition leader Anthony Albanese has announced his commitment to restoring TAFE’s place at the heart of a revitalised vocational education sector. In his first major announcement since the election, Albanese revealed plans to establish an independent government adviser, ‘Jobs and Skills Australia’, which would work with business and unions to ensure Australia’s training system met the needs of industry and adequately prepared Australians for the future economy.
“Essentially there’s got to be a systemic approach to building work-based learning for young people and also for re-skilling the current workforce,” said Albanese. TAFE – which has “always been very work and employment-facing … would have to be the centre of that”.
Jim Stanford, economist and director of the Centre for Future Work, agrees that Australia’s labour market relies on TAFE. The decision to defund “world-class, stable, reliable public colleges – the TAFEs – and use public money to fund fly-by-night private operators, who predictably got caught in all kinds of scams and rorts … has laid waste to our vocational training infrastructure,” he told The New Daily.
Dr Standford has called for TAFEs to be rebuilt – “and quickly” – to restore confidence in the value of TAFE certificates.
The AEU is maintaining its campaign for governments to guarantee 70% of funding to the public TAFE system.
“The best way to reverse the fall in enrolments is to restore funding to TAFE and re-establish its place as Australia’s primary VET provider,” says AEU Victoria president Meredith Peace.
“The Morrison government has failed to appreciate the vital role TAFE graduates play in keeping our economy viable, especially in tough economic times.
“With high unemployment and drought impacting on jobs and training opportunities for young people in rural and remote areas, we should be increasing investment in TAFE in these areas, not cutting it.”
Peace says the Morrison government has been “nothing short of a disaster” for TAFE and for vocational education. “State governments cannot be expected to go it alone when it comes to something as important as developing Australia’s skilled workforce.”