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TAFE versus private providers: Union backlash to VET funding

The Productivity Commission review into skills and workforce development is failing to ensure the public TAFE system’s future as the pre-eminent provider of high-quality vocational education and training (VET) across Australia, claims the Australian Education Union. 

AEU Federal’s submission to the review process highlights a decade of VET marketisation, contestability and privatisation by governments at all levels:

  • VET funding was cut by more than 15% in the decade from 2007 to 2016 and government expenditure declined by 31.5% over that time.
  • As a result of this continual assault, TAFE enrolments have declined steadily in recent years, from nearly 800,000 in 2015 to 680,000 in 2017.
  • There are now over 4,600 active registered training providers, but only 96 of these providers have more than 100 full time students.
  • In 2018, states, territories and the Commonwealth spent a combined total of $6.1 billion on vocational education, a decrease of $135 million when compared to 2017.
  • In 2018, the Commonwealth contribution to all vocational education fell by $326 million (10.6%) , while Commonwealth contributions to public VET delivery fell by more than double that total, by 23.2%, in that year.
  • The number of government funded vocational education students has fallen by almost 17% since 2012 across all jurisdictions, but in TAFE, student numbers have fallen by 25%. Meanwhile, students enrolled in subjects not delivered as part of a nationally-recognised program (private providers) increased by 4.9% to 2.5 million people in 2018, compared with 2017.
  • Overall VET student numbers have also decreased by 1.5% to 4.1 million people in 2018, compared with 2017.

What is the new VET funding?

Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business, Senator Michaelia Cash explained that the JobTrainer Fund is the government’s response to COVID, aiming to provide an additional 340,700 training places for school leavers and to help upskill and retrain jobseekers.

JobTrainer is a significant joint investment by the Commonwealth and states and territories in skills and in supporting people into jobs.

“It will not only be central to providing Australians with new opportunities, but it will be central to our economic recovery.”

The Skills Council met this week to further discussions around the package. Cash said they discussed new architecture for Commonwealth-State relations under National Cabinet and the National Federation Reform Council. The National Cabinet Review of COAG Councils and Ministerial Forums is currently underway, with recommendations on the best model for Commonwealth-State relations expected in September 2020.

While additional funding is sorely needed following decades of cuts, many are concerned about how much funding will be directed towards private, corporate providers rather than TAFE, which is tightly regulated, standardised, and held in high regard by employers. 

AEU Federal president Correna Haythorpe said:

TAFE is the only institution with the infrastructure, the workforce and the trusted reputation to be able to provide high quality VET qualifications across the country today.

The AEU is calling on governments to prioritise investment in TAFE as the anchor institution of vocational education, ensuring that it is the centrepiece of rebuilding Australia’s economy. 

“History has shown that private providers do not provide the skilled and highly qualified workforce to meet the needs of a changing economy,” says Ms Haythorpe. “TAFE offers high quality vocational education at all levels, with nationally accredited programs, a highly qualified and experienced workforce, campuses across Australia, and it has the trust and respect of employers and the community.”

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