March 22, 2015

Visions for TAFE future lost in dash to private profits

By John Kaye

The struggle for the future of public sector provision of vocational education and training is gearing up for its next big engagement, the NSW election on March 28.

Anecdotal reports suggest that soaring fees and non-functional software have crashed TAFE enrolments. Students with disability are being turned away because of a lack of support. Courses are not running and students and staff are struggling to keep the system viable.

As predicted the competitive market for state funding has taken an immediate and devastating toll on TAFE, with worse to come if it is not stopped, or at least, profoundly tamed.

At stake is not just how much of NSW's $2.3 billion annual VET budget ends up in the hands of training corporations, or even the affordability of education for working class Australians.

These are critical issues that had a determinative bearing on the outcome of the state elections in Queensland and Victoria and are likely to do so again in NSW.

However, even more significant to the future of the state and the nation will be the rebirth of the expectation of a quality public education for every Australian.

According to the NSW Auditor-General, in 2014/15 about 19 percent of the state's total vocational education and training budget was contestable, up from 11 percent the year before. That means that $439 million of public funds are at risk of ending up in the hands of private providers this financial year.

The state's Smart and Skilled training market is only in operation for the second half of 2014/15. All other things being equal, it can be anticipated that the contestable market will consume 27 percent of the training budget, or $624 million, in 2015/16.

Based on a University of Sydney Business School study, about 30 percent of public subsidies paid to corporate RTOs end up as raw profit.

Next year, the big training companies could claw out $190 million in profits from NSW taxpayers.

Smart and Skilled, like its evil siblings in other states, is an open invitation to the corporate sector to reap profits by cutting course hours, undermining teacher professionalism and exploiting students.

With the promise of a $190 million a year reward, the corporate sector is being invited into NSW to debase standards and squeeze down costs.

You can almost hear the claims of "mission accomplished" from the Dr Strangelove bureaucrats and politicians who have dedicated two decades of their best years to the task of turning education for working class Australians into a commodity.

However, another story is told by the voters' revolt against the governments in Queensland and Victoria that were left with the VET reform parcel when the music stopped and the damage to TAFE became obvious.

The Greens believe that this is the time for a new vision for TAFE. The first step is the complete restoration of funding, lost courses and course hours, deleted teaching and student support positions, and impaired equity functions.

The next step is to take back from the private sector not just the money but also the ability to set standards.

The task of restoring the rights of working people to a quality education is completed by dumping training packages and building instead the expectation that every member of the community will have a comprehensive understanding of their political, social, physical, cultural and intellectual environment.

The TAFE-driven election results in eastern Australia will be the beginning of making that future a reality.