September 8, 2020

The VET system needs informed reform, not more spin

By Correna Haythorpe, AEU Federal President

Listening to teachers would be a great first step for the prime minister in his rush to restructure the VET system and revive the economy. While no one could disagree with his analysis in his speech to the National Press Club in May that the vocational education and training (VET) sector is ‘marred by inconsistencies and incoherence’, we could shed some light on the real reasons why and prevent the policy mistakes of the past being repeated.

Time for Change
The VET system does need changing. It has been marred by years of poor policy decisions by successive governments who have consistently tied funding to their neoliberal ideology. For the past forty years, TAFE has been starved of billions of dollars in funding and forced to compete for government resources in an increasingly competitive and fractured market where the odds of survival were stacked against it. Time and time again, private providers have been allowed to line their own pockets at the expense of both TAFE and the taxpayer.

Australia is still paying the price for the VET FEE-HELP student loan scheme debacle, where private providers were given subsidies upfront from the Federal Government for enrolling students on courses of questionable quality, regardless of whether the course was completed or even ran at all.

Rorting of the scheme was widespread. Reports of ‘ghost colleges’ are still being investigated today as private providers enrolled students for courses that didn’t exist.Students were left with thousands of dollars in loan repayments and often no education to show for it.In just three years, the VET FEE-HELP scheme blew out from millions to billions of taxpayer money. The Federal Government are now mopping up these debts, courtesy of the taxpayer, through a redress scheme. According to the latest figures from the VET Ombudsman, $462 million of bad debts have been wiped from 36,000 students since the redress scheme started, and with over 7,000 active complaints yet to be investigated, that figure is set to rise. Little wonder this scheme is now considered one of the biggest policy scandals in Australia’s history.

Lipstick on a pig
The system does need the promised overhaul, but instead, the prime minister, has stayed true to his marketing roots and re-badged the same tired neoliberal solutions to give them a new sheen.

It’s clear the government doesn’t want to invest in quality education, but rather to just run the system like a business. This lack of vision and refusal to learn from mistakes of the past can be seen in the prime minister’s new marketing slogan ‘ industry to define the quals’, essentially keeping the market in charge of education. In his own words again: ‘ it is all about the money.”

Industry is already defining qualifications. The Australian Industry Skills Committee is made up of Australian industry leaders who are responsible for national training package product development for the VET sector and there has been no shortage of reviews over the last ten years into VET, fully informed by businesses.

As TAFE Directors Australia, CEO Craig Robertson says course direction is largely out of the hands of TAFE, with industry pulling the levers. “Industry has really been driving the curriculum for VET for the last 10 to 15 years and this is the point that we’ve got to,” he said. Yet, despite industry involvement, this Government has overseen a critical shortage of apprentices during its time in office.

Allowing industry to define qualifications is diminishing the role of TAFE teachers, taking the power and autonomy of curriculum design away and leaving many experienced teachers to feel more like trainers than teachers. Vocational education has been reduced to narrow unit of competency-based skills training set by industry, rather than educating students with the critical skills they will need for an uncertain future of work.

The prime minister’s comments that funding will be based on what business needs sounds the death knoll on the broad range of creative, vocational courses offered by TAFEs and signals an increased shift towards tying vocational education funding with employability targets.

Putting the fox in charge of the chicken coup
The prime minister made no mention of providing any additional Commonwealth funding for his ‘reforms’, which can only mean that he is attempting to subjugate TAFE to the demands of big business and private training providers.

The marketisation of vocational education and the boom in private providers has been a disaster for skills based education in this country.The recent scandals have proved that private providers cannot be trusted and they are largely unsuitable for this vital task.

The pandemic has created a pivotal point in history. We have the opportunity to learn from the past and realise that the public money that has flowed to private providers has not improved education or led to better employment outcomes.

As Australia looks for ways to revive the economy, we should look for new bold ideas, not rely on ideology that we know doesn’t work. It took just a few weeks for our capitalist system to break down as the pandemic took hold and the Federal Government was forced to use public money to bail out businesses. We need to realise as a nation that the best use of public money is for outcomes that have a public benefit. Investing in robust and trusted public institutions is the best method to deliver this.

Agile TAFE
If the prime minister had taken the time to speak to teachers, he would have discovered how agile TAFE has been recently in adapting teaching and learning to community needs. TAFE NSW is offering bushfire relief short courses to provide the skills needed to rebuild communities devastated by bushfires in recent months. TAFEs are well placed in regional communities to provide this training; as opposed to private providers motivated by profit that tend to be situated in the more populous, urban areas.

During Covid-19 TAFE teachers worked around the clock to adapt practical courses to remote learning and coming up with innovative solutions. Meanwhile, many private providers closed down and relied on government subsidies.

Reward success
The preferential treatment for private providers over the past decades has seen their share of government funding soar and has undermined TAFE as the leading vocational education institution in Australia.This favouritism is so overt, that the Prime Minister made no direct reference to TAFE throughout his entire speech, a clear indication that TAFE is not part of the reform agenda.

As Professor Michelle Simons of Western Sydney University commented the day after the Prime Ministers address: "Firstly, the road to recovery needs to build on the very best that the current vocational education and training system has to offer. We need to promote a strong student-centred approach that recognises the diversity of people who turn to the VET sector for their skill development.”

Australia’s world leading TAFE has proved itself to be the best and its highly qualified workforce can offer tailored education to a diverse range of student needs, backed up by comprehensive support systems. TAFE should be rewarded for its success by being the government’s preferred solution for providing the vocational education to assist the escalating number of Australians who are now out of work.

Vision for reform
Investment into TAFE is the best road out of this crisis. But TAFEs need to be given control, not have the purse strings tied to employment prospects. TAFEs should not be expected to run like businesses. They are a public good and we should treasure them as such.

TAFEs should not be thought of as jobs factories – that only serves to diminish opportunities for people to follow their vocation and choose the education path that they want to follow. Life is not about serving the economy, there is a diverse range of courses that people should be able to pursue to broaden their perspectives or just to socialise and integrate in the community.

Teachers need autonomy to teach, not be treated like trainers of content agreed by industry, but back in charge of the curriculum. Just like universities are able to design their own courses and work with industry to get them industry certified. They should be treated as equal partners with industry.

Capable people
The future is becoming increasingly uncertain, but we can be sure that a VET system that continues to be based on competency-based training will only create students that are ‘competent’ in handling a defined set of tasks.A VET system that is publicly funded as a public good and puts the emphasis back on education will create capable students that are better able to handle whatever life throws at them in this uncertain future.

Any TAFE teacher could tell the prime minister that.

This article was originally published in The Australia TAFE Teacher Magazine, Winter 2020.

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