July 22, 2013

TAFE students the big losers as the market agenda rolls on

By Pat Forward

In the last few weeks, there were several stories in the mainstream media which shone a light on the debacle unfolding in the TAFE system in Australia. The Australian ran a story called “Graphic illustration of fee madness” about the escalation of fees for higher level qualifications in TAFE in the ACT - $27,000 for an Advanced Diploma in Graphic Design. It also ran a story about “providers” – public and private - “gaming” the VET system in Victoria by inflating study loads in order to increase government funding.

A third story about findings from a survey conducted by Universities Australia into the financial circumstances of domestic and international students in Australia’s universities showed a growth in the numbers of students experiencing financial distress as a result of inadequate income. While the UA report was restricted to university students, it highlights the fact that little is publicly known about the financial circumstances of TAFE and VET students. And with Federal Government policy to withdraw government support for higher level VET qualifications now being enacted across the country, we got a glimpse this week into the future for TAFE students in Australia.

How is it possible for TAFE students in the ACT to be charged $27,000 for an Advanced Diploma qualification when a bachelors degree at the nearby University of Canberra would cost half that much? Why should students have to pay full fees at a tax-payer funded entity, as parent Bill Dudley asked? And how is it that government policy in VET precludes government subsidies for qualifications eligible for VET FEE HELP, whereas undergraduate degrees at universities are heavily subsidised (as they should be) even though they are eligible for income contingent loans?

By the end of 2014, an entitlement, or voucher system in VET will be implemented across every state and territory in Australia. All state and territory governments have signed up to this in the 2012 National Agreement on Skills and Workforce Development. At the same time, every state and territory will be removing publicly subsidy for their higher level VET qualifications, and students will then be required to pay full fees for these qualification, but offered access to VET FEE HELP. Every state and territory in the country is moving towards charging students full fees for “higher level” VET qualifications in the same way as CIT has just done for its Advanced Diploma in Graphic Design. At this stage, this means some CIV qualification, and all Diplomas and Advanced Diplomas.

The TAFE system in Australia is the worst funded education system in the country. The Productivity Commission says that funding in the sector has declined by 14% since 2004, and by 25% since 1998. Australia’s 59 TAFE institutes must now compete with 4,300 private RTOs who can access increasing amounts of government VET funding, without having to deliver the same range or depth of service to their students. Private VET providers are notorious for cherry picking the system, and many have been caught offering incentives to enrol in qualifications for which no training has been delivered.

Cash strapped TAFE institutes will have little choice but to contemplate the type of “gaming” of the system which is currently occurring in Victoria and revealed in the Australian this week, if they are to survive. The recent Victorian Auditor Generals’ report showed that 10 out of the states’ 14 standalone TAFE institutes had a deteriorating financial position. Indeed, the Auditor General’s advice to Victorian TAFEs was that “if they do not change their operations to cut costs and increase student revenue, they may become unsustainable.”

Victorian TAFEs have cut costs, but they can only increase student revenue by charging the sorts of fees that we are now seeing across the country in TAFE. And make no mistake – CIT’s $27,000 Advanced Diploma was not “charging what a qualification costs”, it was “charging what they can get away with”. That’s what happens when you try to run education as if it was a market.

We now have TAFE policy based on a hope that students continue to enrol in the TAFE courses. TAFE enrolments in Victoria continue to decline – TAFE market share has plummeted from 66% in 2008 to 40% in 2012. This trend is duplicated nationally, where TAFE share of the market has declined by from 70% in 2008 to 58% in 2012.

Why do governments at federal and state and territory level treat students in TAFE and vocational education so differently than students in higher education? Why are VET institutions, including TAFEs being encouraged to profit from students, many of whom are the most disadvantaged in the country?

Governments nationally and at state and territory level must commit to guaranteed funding and support for TAFE now.