May 20, 2018

TAFE in Australia: beyond survival

By John Pardy

TAFE colleges and campuses across Australia have been significant key public education institutions for over four decades.The educational mission and breadth of the important work that TAFE does is unfortunately not well understood or recognised.Most people think about TAFE as the education sector that does trade and apprenticeship education and training.People do undertake trade apprenticeship education and training at TAFE, but this represents just over 10% of the education work of TAFE.

There are somewhat clearer understandings in the community about primary schools, seconday schools and universities. This in many ways ensures they are then able to more fully valued. If something is not well understood, it is often difficult and near impossible for people to value and appreciate its worth. Unfortunately this is definitely the case at this important historical moment of TAFE in Australia.

For young people TAFE education provides a way to continue with their schooling when they find that secondray schools cannot or do not meet their learning needs. For older people, who want to increase their language, literacy, numeracy abilities TAFE offers them education options that are at the same time connected to work and employment options.

Equally, unemployed people, or those who have been retrenched through industry restructuring and change are able to learn the knowledge and skillsin ways that allow the to make a living through a different livelihood. University graduates also access TAFE education to develop those important connectionswith employers, industryand develop occuptaionally relevant capabilities.

TAFE was created as part of the far-reaching and historical enduringreforms of the 1970s Whitlam government. As an outcome, TAFE has grown and developed to became a key institutional basis for sustaining Australiathrough social, economic and technological change. Over the past decades TAFE has been at the forefront of equipping thousands of Australians with the knowledge and capabilities to work with changing technologies in a range of industries, including but not limited, to transport and logistics,cable and internet servicing, agriculture, mechanical and robotic engineering,and renewable energy,including the wind and solar energy fields.

It is not an accident that TAFE has been doing this work, because this was exactly the intention behind the formation of a national newtork of TAFE institutions. In every major Australian city, in many regional centres and in suburbs and country towns, TAFE is a major resource that assists communities and individuals to adapt. TAFE is important as a type of infrastructure that assists the nation, communities and individuals to deal with change. The report, TAFE in Australia released in 1974 argued that,

“The concept of recurrent vocationally oriented education is especially relevant to technical and further education. It offers the best hope whereby the commmunity can cope with shifting job specifications resulting rom technological and social change, and especially with new employment opportunities that open up. Technical college type institutions constitute the widest networks available in Australia for the formal vocational education of adults, and hence are particularly well suited to extend recurrent education practices and procedures.”(Kangan: TAFE in Australia, Volume 1. p7)

Four decades later, TAFE all over Australia is facing a crisis, made by devastating policy failures, that have come from both major polical parties and that have been initiated and enacted by various national and state governments across the country.The reasons for these failures are as numerous as the number ofTAFE campusesthat exist across Australia. But one of the definitive reasons for these policy mistakes has been an impoverished policy imaginary, that does not fully recognise the important work that TAFE does and has been doing since its establishment.

Any time a politician goes to a TAFE to make an annoucement they will often want a promotional media picture standing in a trade education workshop, surrounded by apprentices with their tools and equipment. Very rarely will you see them in classes or laboratorieswhere future aged care workers, linesmen, nurses, electronic technicians, or nail technicians who are gaining the knowledge and capabilities to build a work life.

Often these announcements over the past decade have been about reviews, system reviews, policy reviews, institutional audits or for one-off capital grants for new buildings. There has been so much tinkering,and policy imposition in TAFE that has almost always been characterised by a lack of coordination at the national level let alone at the state or territory level. Governments come and go nationally and in the states and territories leaving legacies of just-in-time policy damage.

The collateral damage of the recent policy failures has been students who have since the introduction of the student loan scheme, VET FEE HELP, been lumbered with unfair debts for courses undertaken at a private provider. The worst and most dire consequence of these policy impositions emerged from the excesses of not truly knowing what TAFE does so not being able to accurately value it. In its worst excesses these recent policy positions that have equated private providers with state government owned and public TAFE institutions.

In spite of these policy failures, TAFE institutions have struggled on, albiet, with depleted resources, severe lack of funding support and as a discounted and demoralised sector of education. For TAFE to move beyond survival, the political and policy will at the national and state level needs to change. This change can only be underpinned by a true and accurate recognition of the breadth of TAFE education activity, so that it can be valued more fully into the future.

Thehope of the ‘market’as the great organisor with its close partner, ‘competition’ as thedriver of TAFEand its education offerings is reflectve of the impoverished policy imaginary that has infected TAFE.

Recentlythe announcement by the Australian Labor Party federally that, if elected would instigate a national Inquiry into Post-Secondary Education, is welcome. Such an inquiry, unlike the one hundred and one that have been conducted over the past decade needs to be coordinated to be credible and politicallyfocused to redress the policy failures that have so severely undermined and damaged the standing of TAFE.

Reviews will come and go, just as politicians do, and the reason TAFE has been so important in the lives of many people and in the communties whereit exists is because it makes a difference.The difference that needs to be made to ensure that TAFE moves beyond survival from 2018 will only occur when the political will exists and is premised upon an accurate account of the breadth of what TAFE does and how it does it. Recentlythere has been a damaging discounting of what TAFE is and its value, with people who have not been to TAFE and who have very poor understandings of TAFE, making decisions and pronouncements that reflect this lack ofunderstanding and ignorance.

John Pardy is Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Monash University