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TAFE: the essential ingredient

8  September 2014

TAFE and other govt

Non Tafe Students by state

Click images to enlarge

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In late April 2012, the Victorian Coalition government, building on the skills reform initiative of its Labor predecessor, unleashed its own radical model of vocational education and training (VET) market reforms.  Basically, these reforms opened up the public funding of VET to virtually all comers and removed any dedicated funding to sustain the public character of TAFE (the public VET provider network).  Most commentators predicted that these reforms would undermine the TAFE sector and, with it, the whole VET system.  After the passage of a couple of years, those commentators can say, on the available evidence, “we told you so”.

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Now, I’m relatively agnostic as to the efficacy – or otherwise – of a market orientation in VET provision: in policy terms, it doesn’t matter what institution is delivering a qualification – public or private, TAFE or university, domiciled in a particular jurisdiction or some other – so long as it represents value in terms of both cost and quality.

So I don’t come from the perspective of denigrating training provision by private registered training organisations (RTOs) nor seek to insulate TAFE from competition from RTOs:  RTOs can and do add useful diversity, innovation and choice to the overall system.

It follows that governments should be equally agnostic but that appears not always to be the case.

TAFE, as the public provider network, underpins the whole VET system (which is widely acknowledged by industry) and contributes to the public good in numerous tangible and intangible ways that private RTOs do not, to which some governments appear largely or entirely  blind.

Present moves to contestability of public VET funding do present fundamental challenges for the public TAFE sector which need to recognised and addressed in appropriate ways.  In Victoria, which is most advanced of the jurisdictions along the path of contestability and with its radical outlier model, the TAFE system is wobbling mightily, with declining overall enrolments, mounting financial losses and incipient signs of market failure.

One TAFE leader has expressed doubts that TAFE can survive in Victoria.

Publicly provided TAFE will survive, for the time being at least, but it in greatly diminished form.  We can see already that many of the TAFEs have become “residualised”, with underutilised assets and need special assistance to cover declining revenues.  This runs counter, of course, to the logic of “marketisation” and it runs counter to Australia’s economic and social interests.

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In the past, TAFEs have been instruments of public policy, in a way that private RTOs have not been and, I would suggest, never will be. TAFEs have also been described as “bulwarks against market failure.

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