October 19, 2018

TAFE: a fundamental cornerstone

By Mark Burgess

For far too long, TAFE and the broader VET sector has been neglected by State and Federal Liberal governments. The push to privatise essential education services through contestable funding models, and the rampant and systemic rorting through the VET FEE-HELP loans program has bred a lack of confidence in the system. Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, this has also had an undesired effect on some TAFE institutions caught up in the ideological agenda. It’s time for change, it’s time to fix the system before irreparable damage is done.

The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) stands with the AEU and supports the Stop TAFE Cuts campaign for a quality vocational training sector, with TAFE as the fundamental cornerstone that the sector so desperately needs.

Of course, it is well documented that this along with other poor policy settings has led to a substantial decrease in the number of students undertaking vocational training. According to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) from September 2011 to September 2017 there has been a decline or 195,196 students undertaking vocational training. This represents a whopping 43% across all industries and AQF levels.

At Certificate III apprenticeship level in the electrical trades, the decline while still substantial, has thankfully not been as dramatic. Over the same period, we have seen a drop of 3,612 apprentices in training or 10% less than 2011 levels.

Diminished confidence in our TAFE system comes not only from skewed funding models and private provider rorts, but also to the $2.5 billion cut in funding. Add to that an unwillingness from employers to invest in the system, inadequate policy settings and dangerously low wages for workers undertaking study through an apprenticeship and you can see how wide the crisis has spread.

One inherently flawed policy setting is the non-existence of a National Partnership Agreement on Skills, which expired in June 2017. A new “Skilling Australians Fund” was meant to replace the expired agreement, however to date not one State or Territory has signed up to it. Government policies are not only defective; they are grossly neglected.

The Skilling Australians Fund’s objective is to provide 300,000 new training places across the system through a $1.5 billion fund, which would be matched by the States.

However, there is no minimum amount of money attached to the fund and the fund itself is reliant on the amount of visa workers entering the country. This creates a perverse incentive for the Australian Government to increase the volume of visa entries into Australia at the expense of Australian workers and students.

The decline in apprenticeships, particularly in construction related trades, is further exacerbated by the introduction of the Code for Tendering and Performance of Building work (“The Code”) and the reinstatement of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). The code outlaws the ability of employers and unions to negotiate ratios of apprentices to tradespeople or to set minimum targets for First Nations Australians, women or mature-age apprentices.

The current model for training package development is also flawed. Systemic restructures have had the intentional effect of smothering union influence at certain levels within the system have proven somewhat successful. There is currently no dedicated union representative on the peak Australian Industry and Skills Committee (AISC), and while some students and workers have had representation on many Industry Reference Committees (IRCs) through their unions, in many cases this is limited to a single member.

It isn’t all bad news though. The electrotechnology industry is excited about the radical changes taking place across the sector. Renewable energy, advanced programming, the “Internet of Things”, robots and mechatronics will require electricians to upgrade with new and specialised skills while new apprentices will have to meet higher competency standards.

These advances in technology will shape the electricians of the future. It’s up to us to ensure these skills remain portable in nature, so workers are not held captive within narrow tracts of one business. Enterprise specific skills should be the responsibility of that particular enterprise. After all, they are the ones benefiting directly from the labour which our members supply.

We must ensure that TAFE is ready for the technological advancements our industry faces and our electricians are trained with the necessary skills they and our nation will need. Although TAFE has copped some knocks in recent times, it still remains as a trusted institution with the capabilities to deliver what is required. I certainly look forward to working with you over the coming weeks, months and years to ensure this happens.

In recent years, we are finding that there has been an increase in the number of apprentices who are being mistreated at work. This includes things such as bullying, underpayment, lack of supervision and employers not being able to fulfil their requirements of the training contract. Not surprisingly, many apprentices are not equipped with the life skills to be able to handle this sort of conflict in the workplace, which results in many leaving the trade. The only people that will stand up and protect apprentices in these situations is their union.

TAFE teachers are well respected and often hear these stories of mistreatment on a daily or weekly basis. I would encourage you all to point them in the direction of the appropriate union. The ETU is committed to apprentices and they are valuable members of our union. They are the future of our industry and we will always stand up and fight for them.

Over recent years the ETU and AEU have been collaborating on a number of issues and we look forward to this the relationship further strengthening in the coming years, including National TAFE Day.

Mark Burgess is the National Apprentice and Training Officer at the Electrical Trades Union. This piece is an edited version of a speech given to the 2018 AEU National TAFE Council AGM.

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