September 19, 2013

Reverse evolution

By John Ross

This piece was originally printed in The Australian TAFE Teacher magazine which was published prior to the 2013 Federal Election. As such, when John refers to "the next federal election" it does mean the September 2013 Fedral Election.

When I was at high school in Sydney in the 1970s, technical college loomed large in the life plans of many of my counterparts. They left school typically at the end of fourth form – year 10 in today’s parlance – and found apprenticeships, often working for some friend of the family. Three or four evenings a week they drove, rode or bussed to Brookvale Tech where they studied plumbing or boatbuilding or automotive electrics. Tech was as natural and inevitable as surfing on Saturdays and Thursday pool nights at the Newport Arms.

Twenty years later, as a NSW public servant, I reacquainted myself with the technical colleges I’d been aware of as a teenager. They’d expanded to fill the space between school – now typically studied to year 12 – and what had become known as universities. They were still trade schools, but they were much more, offering an extraordinary range of courses from art, accounting and alternative medicine to warehousing, waste management and winemaking.

They were an inexpensive, accessible and practically focused occupational route for people who hadn’t found their niche in the trades on the one hand, or higher education on the other – the late bloomers, the dabblers, the U-turners, the try-before-you-buyers. They were a re-entry lane for career changers. And they were a second chance for people held back by life circumstances.

Quietly, the techs I’d known in the 70s had become the TAFEs of the 90s. The exclusive provider in a stream of trade schools had become the dominant provider in a far broader educational sector known as vocational education and training.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the transformation was the lack of fanfare. I don’t recall any minister, premier or prime minister standing up and making some bold pronouncement about creating a new style of institution to fill a gaping hole in the post-school educational landscape. The new institutions had simply evolved, it seemed.

Fast-forward another 20 years or so, and the same thing is happening in reverse. Starved of funds, and in the name of competition, the broad-church TAFEs we’ve come to know are silently reverting to something more like the techs of the 70s, catering to a narrower occupational niche.

This devolution is happening in at least six ways. The first is what I think of as the “life raft strategy”. TAFE administrators are reading the tea leaves – the funding settings which favour the hard trades over ‘soft’ occupations and ‘hobby’ courses – and cutting their trade arms loose.

Queensland did this years ago, hiving off trade courses into a standalone institute called SkillsTech Australia. If one of the aims was to quarantine trades training from the funding volatility afflicting TAFEs more broadly, the strategy appears to be working, with SkillsTech spared from some of the radical reforms proposed for the other TAFEs by the Queensland Skills and Training Taskforce.

The Victorian dual sector universities have taken similar steps. At least two acted soon after the 2012 budget changes which slightly increased funding rates for trade courses and slashed them for practically everything else. Victoria University created a Trades Academy while the University of Ballarat established an Industry Skills Centre, both structurally separate from the rest of both universities’ TAFE divisions. Similarly, Swinburne University has corralled its hard skills courses into a Centre for Engineering, Technology and Trades, while RMIT University has a School of Engineering.

NSW hasn’t adopted the life raft strategy so far, but trade courses are increasingly being consolidated in a smaller number of campuses. Key skills such as plumbing or auto electrics, for example, are only available at a handful of Sydney campuses. Similar things have occurred in Melbourne, where TAFEs are opting to specialise in certain trades rather than offering the full bag.

The second sign of devolution is a narrowing of availability of government-funded courses, as jurisdictions give priority to training in areas regarded as ‘vocational’.

In Victoria, funding rates for many hospitality, marketing and business courses – not to mention personal training – have been slashed so low that they’re really only viable as full-fee courses. NSW plans to entirely remove funding for ‘non-vocational’ courses, and has already done so in the case of fine arts.

Queensland plans a similar approach, with priority going to courses servicing the “pillar” industries of mining, tourism, construction and agriculture. The suggestion is that courses outside these areas will be funded at lower rates, if at all. But as with NSW, the details are still to be revealed. And while South Australia is not as restrictive, it suspends subsidies for courses deemed to be over-subscribed.

Increasingly, government funding is only available for courses that state authorities have deemed to lead directly to work. In one sense, this is a reasonable approach. It’s supposed to be ‘vocational’ training, after all. Why should taxpayers shell out for hobby courses?

But in another sense, this approach ignores the reality of work. One person’s hobby can be another person’s vocation. Would Geoffrey Rush, Peter Carey or Gotye have been more productive if they’d knuckled down and become lawyers or surveyors?

Moreover, in many occupational areas, only a minority of people who train for them actually end up working in them. Students graduate with generic skills that can take them practically anywhere along today’s unpredictable career paths. It’s naïve for governments to imagine they’ll solve skill shortages simply by training lots of people in specific areas.

Meanwhile, arguably a bigger problem than skill shortages is the underbelly of chronically disengaged people who are neither earning nor learning, as the federal government likes to put it. As well as being socially excluded, these people drain billions from the social welfare, health and corrective service budgets. A little training in some area that doesn’t appear particularly vocational – drama, perhaps, or outdoor recreation – could be the magic key that launches some of them into more engaged lifestyles; the educational equivalent of a preventative health program. Cutting out training opportunities for such people could be a false economy. In the long term it could cost taxpayers far more than it saves them.

The third sign of devolution is a tendency to prioritise subsidised training for people who already have jobs. Increasingly, you have to be earning to get access to learning.

There’s an increasingly prevalent view, particularly in large professional services companies, that college-based training has had its day – that the real action is in work-based learning. That may be the case for some of the people who have jobs, but what about those who don’t?

Nevertheless, an increasing slice of government training funding is being channelled exclusively into work-based learning. The federal Productivity Places Program, which was available to both employed and jobless people, has been replaced by the National Workforce Development Fund, which is only for workers.

Corporate providers offering exclusively work-based training have prospered in Victoria’s open training market. Private training colleges are moving in the same direction. The large educational chain Kaplan recently divested itself of the last of its traditional college-based vocational training programs after its subsidiary Carrick moved out of VET.

The fourth sign of devolution of broad-based TAFEs is an increasing reluctance to use the name. Over the past few years most of Western Australia’s TAFEs jettisoned the title in favour of terms such as “polytechnic” or “institute of technology”. The same thing happened years ago in Victoria.

The fifth sign is the removal of the assumption that TAFEs meet community needs such as training economically or educationally disadvantaged people. So far this has happened in Victoria, where the government accepted the TAFE Reform Panel recommendation that TAFEs should not take on community service obligations unless they’re explicitly funded for them.

The sixth sign of devolution of broad-based public training institutes is that privatisation of TAFE is now explicitly on the agenda. The Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission and the Queensland Skills and Training Taskforce have both urged their respective state governments to consider privatising their TAFEs.

The backdrop for all these developments is a funding regime that offers TAFEs little long-term confidence. Base funding for vocational training is constantly sliding, declining most years in most jurisdictions.

VET is the only educational sector where governments routinely claim credit for cutting costs. Funding streams are reduced or discarded altogether and new promises of money are sometimes withdrawn. Little detail is given of forthcoming cuts, making institutional planning difficult.

‘New’ programs are often recycled old ones, sometimes receiving less funding than those they replaced. State and federal governments accuse each other of reneging on their VET funding obligations, sometimes leading both sides to suspend payments.

While all this may sound typical of the difficulties afflicting most public services, VET fares particularly badly. In real terms, it receives about 75 per cent of the funds per student per hour that it was getting in 1999. This compares with about 100 per cent for universities, 120 per cent for government secondary schools and 130 per cent for public primary schools.

TAFEs increasingly find themselves under the stewardship of people who are unsympathetic, if not hostile. TAFE South Australia’s chairman Peter Vaughan, a former business peak group CEO, is on record comparing TAFEs’ employment practices to those of sheltered workshops. Queensland’s influential Skills and Training Taskforce had no TAFE representatives, even though it had two from their private competitors. Half of the chairs of Victoria’s standalone TAFEs were recently sacked, ostensibly for lacking business acumen – a justification nobody outside the state government takes seriously.

Undermining TAFEs appears to be bipartisan policy, proceeding apace under governments of both persuasions. In recent times the different political make-up of the federal and large state governments has put something of a handbrake on the decline, but a change of government at the next federal election could remove this impediment and accelerate the process.

TAFEs, like any public institutions, can be run better. Some legitimate questions underpin reform efforts – for example: what courses they should offer, to what extent students should pay for their training, and whether TAFEs should have a monopoly on government training funds.

But there are equally legitimate questions about the reforms themselves. Why should TAFEs’ future be contingent on their success in a commercial market? Such a situation would be unthinkable in schooling, for example. If it’s right for TAFEs to compete with private competitors for teaching funds, why isn’t it right for universities? If it’s right for them to compete with for-profit companies, why isn’t it right for schools? Why should TAFEs be funded on the same footing as private competitors, with no regard to their extra costs as public employers and full-service providers – a situation that exists practically nowhere else in the developed world? Why do governments insist that the regulators are sufficiently resourced to ensure clean competition in the training market, despite constant evidence to the contrary?

But the big question is whether Australians still want big, broadly focused public training institutions. That question isn’t being asked. Shielded by community and media indifference, governments chip away at TAFEs. People may not notice until they’re gone.