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August 14, 2015

TAFE, Equality and Democracy

By Maree O'Halloran

TAFE is a beacon of hope and opportunity for the client base of the National Welfare Rights Network. The attempted dismantling of TAFE by conservative governments must be resisted if we are to maintain a society which is founded on equality and opportunity.

The National Welfare Rights Network is the peak body for community organisations which specialise in social security law, family assistance and employment assistance. Our membership includes community legal centres across Australia and Aboriginal legal aid services operating in the Northern Territory.

Who are our clients? They are, for example:

  • young people with no family support;
  • people who are jobless;
  • people with disabilities;
  • older workers recently retrenched
  • casual workers trying to gain a foothold in a secure job; and,
  • single parents caring for their family and seeking employment.

They are all people we may know, friends, family and colleagues who may, from time to time in their life need access to Australia’s strong and important social security system. They understand poverty in an affluent nation. They budget with precision and yet are told on a daily basis through the mainstream media that they hapless and hopeless and just need to get a “job”. That is why I use the word “jobless” advisedly in this article because I want to emphasise that unemployment is a structural issue and not merely an individual deficit. The reality is that there are simply not enough jobs to go around for every person who wants one. In December 2014, there were nearly 795,000 job seekers registered as seeking work with Job Service Australia providers and around 152,000 advertised vacancies per month. That is five registered job seekers competing for each advertised position.

Young people who need the assistance of our member centres are often escaping from family violence or simply have no family support structure. Often they are studying or want to do so. Youth unemployment (15 to 24 year olds) represents about 40% of all unemployment in Australia with some regions currently seeing 20% youth unemployment.[i] Furthermore, 38% of students on Youth Allowance are currently forking out more than half their weekly income for housing. These young people are doing it tough. The fact that governments in this environment would be raising TAFE course fees astronomically and closing TAFES is counterproductive and driven by a deeply ideological belief in a market economy for education. It’s not like we don’t know about the critical importance of education at all levels to help redress deep and persistent disadvantage. Indeed the Productivity Commission on 11 June 2013 said:

Education is a foundation capability. It improves a person’s employment prospectsand earning capacity, and the evidence points to a relationship between education and better health and raised civic and social engagement.

For many of our clients, TAFE is the clear alternative to a lifetime of insecure work or perhaps no work at all. It’s the alternative to being hectored and hassled by those in society who are more privileged and more powerful. I believe that TAFE is the bulwark in our nation against those who are already privileged arrogating to themselves not only wealth but the secure jobs of the future, those jobs that are autonomous and not highly supervised. As we embrace the digital revolution, the greatest change in workplace life since the industrial revolution, the class struggle may well be about who has access to the secure jobs of the future.

In such a world, TAFE as a well-funded, predominant provider of VET is critical for access and equity. At the National Welfare Rights Network, we watch with dismay as some private providers prey on our client base and we watch the significant transfer of public money into private hands with 30% profit margins in the For Profit sector, according to the University of Sydney’s Workplace Research Centre.

Media reports of poor quality in the For Profit sector serves to undermine the public’s confidence generally when it is important that TAFE remains as the custodian of quality. Recently in NSW we have seen reports of private providers charging us to four times as much as TAFE for a course; for example, $27,880 for a one year salon management course. [ii]

In the welfare sector, we have seen the effect of outsourcing and contestability in the employment services area and the consequent diminution of quality in some cases as well as the churning of jobseekers through the books and the imposition of increased numbers of financial penalties on jobseekers. Our clients need and deserve education and training of the highest quality and the support services provided by TAFE.

In 2013, John Falzon, CEO of St Vincent de Paul’s said:

We believe TAFEs are one of the core educational pillars of our society, which provide both instrumental benefits to the economy and enormous benefits to the 1,000,000 Australians studying there.

I wholeheartedly accord with that view and would add a dimension about the importance of TAFE in reducing inequality and building democracy. TAFE is for everyone. It builds the nation’s skill base, support communities and offers individuals opportunity. If everyone has the ability to participate both economically and socially, then our democracy is strengthened.