The revelation that Victorian VET funding cuts involve somewhat more than the $100 million publicly claimed by the state government is also revelatory of the government’s prosecution of the case for these swingeing cuts. After publicly recanting the misgivings that brought him to the brink of resignation, skills minister Peter Hall has, at times, resembled Comical Ali, as he argued for weeks that it was “too premature” to talk of job cuts and course closures, while all around him TAFE CEOs were lining up to announce job cuts and course closures. In Hall’s own electorate, the local GippsTAFE CEO Peter Whitney described himself as “enraged”, as he announced job cuts of of up to 25, with more to follow.
Not to be distracted, Hall then moved on to the Nietzschian theme of what doesn’t kill you strengthens you, saying that ripping $300 million out of TAFE funding will, some how, make TAFE “better”. The problem with this is that nobody from government has been able to articulate the “how” of getting to “better”. At a meeting of TAFE CEOs with government officials on 29 May, it was apparently revealed that, not only are the actual impact of the cuts being publicly understated (it was conceded that the overall impact would be closer to the $300 mill identified by the sector than the $100 mill suggested by the government), but the government doesn’t know whether or not the market will bear the fees TAFEs will need to charge for those courses for which funding has been slashed. It’s no wonder the government won’t release its “modelling” of the impact of budget measures: there doesn’t appear to be any such modelling. The government has allowed each TAFE $70,000 to engage consultants to work it out for them (helpfully, they were given a list of apparently Victorian government “approved” consultants). But as Bruce Mackenzie CEO of Holmesglen, CEO of Victoria’s largest TAFE, observed:
[That] would possibly pay for the redundancy of one teacher. The last thing I need is a consultant.
OK – no traction here, so the minister then “lashed out at rorters” and accused some (and by implication all) public TAFEs as being equally guilty of rorting as many ( but by no means all) private providers, despite the evidence that overwhelmingly rorting has been a private sector pasttime. John Maddock (CEO of one of the 3 TAFEs so accused, out of 18 ) replied that the inference was highly offensive and showed how exaggerated the accusation is :
The inference that the institute is ”rorting the system” is highly offensive and displays a lack of understanding by the unnamed government source. In 2011 there were 12 students out of 44,370 enrolments across more than 600 courses at Box Hill Institute who were recorded as having a total of eight enrolments in courses, and additional units or skills sets.
In reply to our inquiries, Holmesglen said:
It’s interesting what is being pushed around and by whom. The program is for people who are working currently in the field and who can take the concepts and apply them to problem based exercises. The attendance is for 6 days spread over a period of time. The students have access to [a tutor and online materials for self-paced learning]. It is an excellent example of how classroom, distance and employment based learning can occur.
When all else fails? Industrial relations: TAFE staff have a cossetted, namby pamby existence, was the import of Hall’s comments in Parliament on 23 May. Well, perhaps some do, but you’d sort that out through regular industrial relations processes, rather than wrecking the system, wouldn’t you? In any case, Hall would do well to read back through his own speech. It’s a forensic analysis, from which it is quite clear – when stripped of the diversions and spin – that the unsustainable growth in VET funding was caused by a highly flawed model of “skills reform”, not employment conditions in TAFE institutes.
Hall is now under pressure from another side. The Australian Council for Private Education and Training (ACPET) representing private providers, after being relatively mute in the first weeks of this furore, has now weighed into the debate – and not necessarily to Hall’s advantage. ACPET estimates that up to $90 mill will be cut in funding to private providers (ker-ching – that’s now nearly $400 mill as opposed to the $100 mill the government has claimed) and that it could cost up to 20% or 4800 of their 24,000-strong Victorian workforce (admittedly, largely sessional). ACPET CEO Claire Field agrees with many of the criticisms of the government by TAFE leaders and feels reputable private colleges will be hit just as hard by the cutbacks as government institutions. She agrees that initially the Brumby government – and now the Baillieu government – made it too easy for operators to get accreditation as education providers in Victoria when they did not have expertise in the areas in which they were going to teach.
It’s a right mess and seemingly getting messier. The Baillieu government has compounded the mistake of its predecessor with another mistake. Einstein’s definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result
The only way out of this mess – which has seen a busted budget, misallocation of funding to low priority training, debased qualifications and a destabilised public system, with likely big gaps in provision and stranded public assets – is to backtrack .
It will be difficult, given the dirty big hole into which the Baillieu government has dug itself . But as we have written elsewhere, the game changer – and the Baillieu government’s fig leaf – is the Commonwealth, which has in its purse some $435 million in funding for Victoria under the VET National Partnership Agreement brokered at the Council of Australian Governments in April – an agreement to which Victoria is a signatory. One of the conditions of that funding is that the states and territories develop strategies to help public TAFEs operate effectively in a competitive market.
But the Commonwealth needs to step up to the line and force the issue. This is the sort of issue – preserving the capacity and capability of public education and training – on which Labor would traditionally stand and fight.
Finally let’s spare a thought for Peter Hall. He’s publicly stepped away from the serious misgivings he earlier expressed – misgivings that led him to seriously consider resignation – and is vigorously prosecuting the government’s defence of its funding measures. But one suspects that some time or other, Hall will be able to turn to cabinet colleagues and have an “I told you so” moment.