Despite the Prime Minister’s plans for a skills-led COVID-19 economic recovery, Australia’s biggest and oldest vocational education provider, TAFE, has had courses and budgets slashed, a new survey has found, with students saying it resembles a “ghost town”.
A once-in-a-decade State of our TAFE survey of more than 1000 staff from all of the provider’s institutions has laid bare the real impacts, with staff “demoralised”, students missing out on classes and funding reduced to a decade low.
The survey, conducted by the Australian Education Union (AEU), reported that 68 per cent of TAFE staff had courses cut, while 81 per cent had departmental budgets slashed.
About half of respondents said class sizes had increased.
“[It] has had a direct impact on staff morale in terms of course closures, campus closures and loss of opportunities for our students,” AEU national president Corenna Haythorpe said.
“What we know is TAFE is the trusted brand.
“Scott Morrison has said very clearly that he wants to see over a million Australians back in work and yet his rhetoric around vocational education simply omits to mention TAFE.”
‘Tumbleweeds blowing through the park’
For Greg Keenan, the survey results came as no surprise.
The 60-year-old has 13 TAFE certificates hanging in his auto workshop in south-western Sydney. His first dates back to 1987.
Adding to his panel-beater and car-sprayer qualifications, he is now studying to become a licensed mechanic, to set himself up for his final decade of work.
“When I first started at TAFE it was a busy place packed full of people, everyone doing courses,” Mr Kennan said.
Now it’s just like a ghost town, you can just about see the tumbleweeds blowing through the car park.”
Mr Keenan, a former train driver, locomotive inspector and police officer, is an expert at reskilling.
He even worked at Campbelltown TAFE as a storeman from 2011 until losing his job in 2018.
He said courses like panel beating had been cut back so much that students may have to travel hours each day to get to a specific campus.
I’ve just seen it deteriorate, [it’s just] gone downhill,” he said.
TAFE funding at decade low
Australia’s biggest skills trainer for more than 130 years, TAFE, is funded via a mix of state and federal government support.
The Productivity Commission’s 2020 Report on Government Services (ROGS) found that while vocational education had better employment outcomes than those of universities, its money had been cut.
The ROGS report found expenditure by all governments dropped by more than 20 per cent, or $1.6 billion, from its 2012 peak of $7.65 billion.
Spending per student is also at a decade low in every state except Tasmania.
In May, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he saw skills as the key to Australia’s economic recovery but there have been few details on how the Government will support that vision.
A report released by Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute in December last year also found vocational education was unsustainable, with funding at its lowest level since 2008 and state contributions shrinking.
“Most states and territories are spending less in real terms on VET recurrent funding than they did 10 years ago … overall investment in VET is still trending downwards,” the report found.
Public versus private
Employment and Skills Minister Michaelia Cash declined an interview but, in a statement, pointed to the states and the previous Labor government seven years ago for the sector’s position.
“TAFEs are fully administered by the states and territories, with the Commonwealth providing states with $1.5 billion every year to run vocational education and training including TAFEs,” Senator Cash said.
Since the Prime Minister’s May announcement, there has been no extra money allocated to the sector. But the Government did announce a $1.3 billion plan directly subsidising businesses to employ apprentices.
The ABC understands the Government is now working with the states to develop a new national skills agreement that could include a new vocational funding model, similar to that which exists for hospitals.
Experts would like any agreement with the states to include obligations for them to increase their spending.
The Minister did not address questions about what role the Government sees for TAFE in this new agreement but the Productivity Commission is taking submissions for a final report due out in November.
In its interim report on the current scheme, the commission favoured a greater role for private providers, despite the rorting that came with a Federal Labor scheme in 2012.
The report cited better outcomes for students, flexibility and increased competition as the policy rationale.
The skills to transition
While governments consider their options, the demand for reskilling continues to grow, as the national economy goes through its first recession in decades and its biggest contraction since the 1930s, according to the Reserve Bank.