23 July 2014
Skills reform in Australia is an “absolute shemozzle” and is jeopardising a world-class vocational education and training system, says Jeff Gunningham, recently retired chief executive of TAFE South Australia. But the apparent troubles besetting TAFE are the invention of a “misinformed media”, according to the Victorian minister.
Gunningham told the Victorian TAFE Association conference that bureaucratic bungling and an obsession with the bottom line is degrading training and threatening the existence of public TAFE institutes.
TAFE is at risk in Australia, driven by a Council of Australian Governments policy on entitlement which is simply not working. It’s a dog’s breakfast.
Gunningham, who has run colleges in Australia, Britain and the United Arab Emirates told the conference he supported competition, which “has been with me my entire life”.
But the “ad hoc” implementation of the COAG policy, which allows private RTOs to compete for government training funds, was hurting students, employers and TAFEs.
On paper the entitlement model is sound policy, but it’s been poorly implemented across Australia. TAFE in Australia has taken over 100 years to evolve into a world-class VET system, but the way things are going it will be brought to its knees in just a few short years.
You should be under absolutely no illusion: TAFE as we know it is definitely at risk.
Gunningham said skills reform in South Australia was a good example. Within 15 months, the 2012 reforms had generated almost 150,000 extra training places — almost 50% above the government’s target, and three years ahead of schedule — while reducing training costs, making South Australia the cheapest state on a per-place basis.
But this “great set of headlines” belied the reality, which was that the Further Education Department had “spent too much money too quickly” on the reforms. “It has been the major cause of non-stop tampering with the training market ever since,” he said.
The government is about to unveil the ninth version of its training market in two years. Caps had been imposed on the courses it funded, the number and types of students who could take them and the money TAFEs could expend.
The training market in SA is highly managed and a million miles from being truly open and competitive.
TAFEs in SA had lost 18% of their revenue and 15% of their staff over the first 18 months of the reform, and now faced further losses.
Gunningham said the reforms were being driven by Treasury and were “all about reducing costs … Is it really that good to be bottom of the barrel on costs? At the end of the day, quality costs money.”
Raymond Garrand, chief executive of what is now the Department of State Development, said the government had taken “active steps” to ensure its skills funding was closely aligned to industry demands. Garrand said the government had maintained a strong focus on quality, with SA boasting among the highest student satisfaction levels in the country
….what Mr Gunningham fails to point out is that TAFE SA is supported through additional subsidy support.
Victorian skills minister Nick Wakeling told the conference that “negative, misinformed media” is shackling TAFEs in the competitive marketplace.
He said that young people in the state are becoming accustomed to choice and they will know nothing other than a training market where different providers compete for their enrolments.
If we allow ourselves to run down the TAFE brand, we are competing with our strongest asset effectively wasted.
Wakeling told TAFE executives that preserving and strengthening the TAFE brand was as important as delivering effective training and getting the best out of their staff.
Let’s all work together to stop the cycle of negative, misinformed media coverage that damages confidence in the TAFE sector, and leads to students or employers making decisions based on spin rather than evidence. Students don’t choose to leave training, they just choose to train somewhere else.
This is a fine sentiment but to assert that the TAFE brand is being talked down and damaged by media misreporting and myth-making is simply fatuous and belied by the facts. In Victoria – and now South Australia – the public TAFE network is tottering, with a declining share of enrolments and mounting financial losses. As expressed in the LH Martin submission* to a recent House of Representatives inquiry:
Under current settings, many TAFEs risk becoming residualised, needing “special assistance” to cover declining revenues. This runs counter to the logic of “marketisation” and it runs counter to Australia’s economic and social interests.
The capability and reach of the VET system is being rundown and what is now a diverse and polychromatic system will be reduced to a disturbingly homogenous and monochromatic system.
* Brendan Sheehan was involved in making the submission.