October 8, 2013

TAFE: Does it have any distinctive value?

By Virginia Simmons

Practitioners in TAFE may be surprised or even affronted by this question, but not so a number of State governments. Increasingly the answer seems to be a resounding ‘no’.

Detractors of TAFE claim it:

  • Has no exclusive role to play in VET provision
  • Has no intrinsic public value
  • Is too expensive
  • Is wasteful of its funds and assets
  • Has enjoyed the luxury of competitive advantage in terms of the use of expensive government-owned facilities
  • Is inflexible and unresponsive to industry needs.

The TAFE Reform Panel contracted by the Victorian Government concluded that ‘with the move to a competitively neutral training market there is not an exclusive role for public providers’.[1]

Similarly, the Queensland Taskforce found that being a public provider is not a requirement to maintain community service obligations, provide services to target groups or deliver on Government priorities.[2]

This is not consistent with a number of recent studies, including a recent Newspoll of 1,905 people conducted for the NSW TAFE Commission which found that:

  • 90% of respondents described TAFE as valuable to NSW, with 80% describing it as extremely valuable or very valuable
  • 86% of respondents from all geographic and demographic segments regarded TAFE NSW as valuable to their local community
  • 94% believed that TAFE NSW makes a valuable contribution to business and industry. [3]

Nonetheless, with competitive neutrality being seen as the be-all and end-all ideology to underpin policy for VET, some TAFE Institutes have recently faced such measures as:

  • unprecedented funding cuts, with very limited notice
  • no redundancy funding to support staffing reductions resulting from budget cuts
  • no ‘full service provision’ funding to enable institutes to support students and contribute to their communities
  • no salary supplementation funding for salary increases under government awards
  • a requirement to deliver a return on assets
  • removal of Institutes’ control of assets in favour of centralised control by a managing entity in charge of providing private providers as well as TAFE institutes with access to public training facilities
  • implementation of full contestability of public funding before quality issues were fully resolved.

Commencing in the 1990’s, Government has supported a policy construct that now corrals 10 arguably incompatible categories of training providers and 16 sub-categories within one ‘training market’. The result is that TAFE has lost its voice and its advocates and is rapidly losing market share. Rules that apply to profit-oriented businesses are assumed to be identical to those applying to providers with a long history of allegiance to communities and regions.

In numerical terms, TAFE institutes now represent just over 1% of the total of over 4,800 providers and this will be further reduced with impending amalgamations. By contrast, the main players are private RTO’s (66%), schools (11%), community-based RTO’s (7%) and government/non-government RTOs (6%).[4]

Whereas industry and enterprises might once have supported a strong TAFE sector, they now have comparatively easy access to government-funding for undertaking their own training and supporting TAFE is against their own best interests. On the other hand, characterising TAFE as unresponsive is expedient. An industry-driven system has put both policy priorities for VET and government training funds into the hands of industry itself.

Perversely, Government often sees its role as supporting the competitors of the Institutes it owns, not as promoting the sustainability of its owned assets. While claiming to be in favour of greater autonomy for Institutes so that they can survive in a competitive market, the reality is too often tighter controls and constraints.

With the States seemingly in a race to see how quickly they can marginalise their publicly-owned providers, TAFE is clearly being singled out among all the categories of VET providers and all the public providers of education more generally for special attention. Nothing comparable is occurring in the Higher Education or Schools sectors and while many arguments have been put by experts for governments to reconsider the approaches they are taking, all are falling on deaf ears.

Against this rather bleak background, why then produce yet another article that seeks to affirm TAFE’s worth?

Well, it may be that competitive neutrality results in cheaper VET provision, at least in the short term, but the question still remains whether that is all that VET learners deserve.

In Victoria, the first state to introduce contestable funding, the impact is becoming clear and is published in Victorian Training Market Reports[5]. As academic Leesa Wheelahan recently highlighted, private providers in Victoria now dominate in industries where programs can be run cheaply and in high volume, such as financial and insurance services, where they have 92 % of publicly funded enrolments. But they are poorly represented in areas that involve commitment and investment but may yield limited profits, such as mining or information and telecommunications, where they have 4% and 11% of enrolments respectively.[6]

Previously TAFE institutes would have managed a mix of programs to serve a community that allowed a balance of provision, taking into account high and low cost and high and low demand programs. But this can no longer occur. The financial environment demands that each program is separately and fully costed and cross-subsidising is frowned upon. The future of comprehensive service provision and of high cost and specialist VET programs is at stake in this market environment. They require specialist facilities and well-qualified staff, both of which entail cost and impact on profit. This is part of the public value that TAFE should be well-placed to offer. Metaphorically, it is the difference between ‘cherry-picking’ for quick gain and holistic service provision.

There is little to no argument about the value of the university sector. Particularly through its research role it is seen to contribute to knowledge creation and therefore innovation. The ‘university’ brand is highly protected and, of the 40 universities, 37 are public. Other Higher Education providers struggle to gain access to Commonwealth supported places. Recently announced budget cuts to universities aimed at funding the Gonski reforms in schools met with an outcry that Government could not afford to ignore. All of this is in sharp contrast to the TAFE sector which has no such political clout.

Certainly Higher Education plays a very important role in Australian society and it is pleasing to see the progress achieved in climbing the world rankings in recent years. The concept of a ‘social contract’ between universities and the broader society has existed for many centuries and rightfully remains fundamentally unchallenged.

Recent work by TAFE Directors Australia[7] identified a paper in which Burawoy (2012) presents a useful matrix of four ‘knowledges’ as a vision for the public university. This is depicted below and explained as follows:

This vision of the public university recognizes four functions of the university. At the heart is professional knowledge, the knowledge produced in research programmes defined in the academic world evaluated by fellow academics. The knowledge can then be applied to the world beyond in the policy realm, but recognizes the interdependence of the two knowledges.[i]

The functions of universities




Academic Audience


Extra-Academic Audience









Whereas Burawoy’s emphasis is on universities’ role in research and knowledge development, it is contended that TAFE providers play an equally important role in supporting businesses and enterprises in economic development. Using Burawoy’s approach, a matrix can therefore also be developed to describe the functions of TAFE:

The functions of TAFE




Student/Community Audience


Enterprise/Industry Audience

Technical skills and


Quadrant 1


Quadrant 2


Further education

and specialisation

Quadrant 3


Quadrant 4


This vision of TAFE also recognizes four functions. As broad-based institutions, TAFE providers are well placed to ensure a balance between the needs of individual students and the needs of enterprises in a demand driven system. Central to this are competencies and skills that are essential for individuals to gain employment (quadrant1) and for enterprises to be viable and sustainable (quadrant 2). In addition, further education and specialisations are available to assist individuals to advance within employment or with pathways to further study as part of becoming rounded, effective and career-mobile citizens (quadrant 3). This also assists in building labour market productivity for Australia as a whole (quadrant 4).

Capacity to cover all four quadrants is a particular strength of TAFE, with the emphasis on the quadrants varying according to the location and mission of the providers concerned.

The future for TAFE is therefore envisaged as one where its role is increasingly in quadrants 3 and 4 as Institutes respond to workforce development needs, facilitate pathways and build capability.

This model also anticipates the potential to form national groupings of TAFE providers and universities with similar missions and/or specialisations, along the lines of the recently-formed Polytechnic consortium. Differentiation of TAFE has so far proved difficult to achieve in an open and fragmented market, but is possible through specialisation and partnering.

In conclusion, this future rests in the hands of TAFE, which undoubtedly has the necessary talent and resilience at its disposal. Communities, enterprises and individual learners deserve it and it is important for a knowledge society. It involves developing greater financial independence and less reliance on government, because sadly, Government lacks the will and vision to achieve it.

[1] Report of the Victorian TAFE Reform Panel, p. vi

[2] Report of the Queensland Taskforce, p. 56-7

[3] NSW TAFE Commission, Let’s Talk About TAFE, July 2013

[4] www.training.gov.au

[5] http://www.education.vic.gov.au/training/providers/market/Pages/reports.aspx

[6] Wheelahan, L. The Marketisation of TAFE, Campus Review, July 15, 2013

[7] TAFE Directors Australia, 2013, Public Technical and Further Education Providers in the Tertiary Sector - Unleashing the Capability (unpublished)