Letter from Australia: a parlous position

I stumbled across a report from an outfit called Education International this week. It’s called a Case Study of TAFE and Public Vocational Education in Australia: Preliminary Report and it’s by researchers from the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

(That’s Toronto, Canada. Not Toronto on the shores of Lake Macquarie in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia).

The Canadian-Australian connection is that of researcher Leesa Wheelahan, who moved to from Melbourne to Toronto in 2014. Canada’s gain would have been Australia’s loss except for the fact that Wheelahan has been relentless in keeping up the good fight of proving how “undermined, demonised and diminished” the vocational education sector is in Australia.

This preliminary report was published in October and I apologise for being so late to it. Educational International is “the world’s largest federation of unions, representing thirty million teachers and education employees across the globe”.

In other words, one could assume there is an agenda underpinning the report and indeed it’s there. But I’ll quickly reassure you that this is no second-rate, vested-interest piece with a predetermined conclusion.

Wheelahan and her co-authors Gavin Moodie, Eric Lavigne and Fatima Samji set out a clear, sharp and unassailable argument that the vocational education sector in Australia is in “a parlous position.”

A policy horror show

Since the 1980s onward, governments have sought to redefine the training sector so that public provision competes with the private sector. It was based on a belief, probably justified, that the public TAFE sector, was inward-looking, slow and unresponsive to industry needs.

From the 2000s onwards, things ramped up with TAFEs subjected to a bewildering array of marketisation and privatisation policies that have ultimately led to massive declines in funding and enrolments, a huge reduction in available courses, huge fee hikes, the sacking of thousands of teachers and support staff and the closure of campuses across the country.

There has also been the scabrous fall out of an appallingly implemented national student loans scheme that saw billions of dollars rorted by for-profit rogues and charlatans and it’s replacement scheme that is so restrictive that very few students actually access it.

TAFE is a mere shadow of its former self and the country is not better off as a result.

Against all this is a backdrop of a hyper-sweetened public policy environment for universities (the demand-driven system) with its generous, universal loans scheme.

It’s completely understandable that traditional TAFE students in their tens of thousands have made the rational decision to enrol in university instead.

“Public vocational education is in danger of being reduced to atomistic, just-in-time and just-for-now, narrow skills training by a fragmented population of private for-profit providers and a residual public TAFE system,” the researchers write.

Wheelahan also argues, as she has done so many times in the past, that on the shopping list of issues plaguing the sector is Australia’s competency-based training approach in which “the outcomes of education are aligned with specific workplace tasks, roles and responsibilities”.

I’ll let Wheelahan explain: “Vocational education qualifications are comprised of units of competency that are part of training packages, and there are different training packages for different industries and for different occupations within those industries.”

If that sounds tedious, bureaucratic, expensive and inefficient you’re right.

An incompetency-based system

Of the 3909 qualifications publicly funded and delivered from 2002-2013, 395 (10 per cent) had less than ten enrolments and 894 (23 per cent) had less than 50 enrolments over that period. Yes, there is an entire industry of people creating and updating training packages for students who never use them.

To make matters worse, the “fragmentation of qualifications is matched by the fragmentation of providers”. There are 4600 registered training providers in Australia, of which the biggest 100 teach four out of every five VET students. Indeed, in 2013 only 96 providers had more than 100 equivalent full-time students. A regulatory nightmare, surely.

“Competency-based training and training packages are fatally flawed and they underpin and facilitate a training system that is fragmented, inefficient and ineffective and a market that is riddled with scandals and rorts,” the paper says.

Wheelahan’s argument is that public vocational education systems are a social good, are anchor institutions of the communities in which they are based and should be funded as such. Students are choosing university over TAFE because they don’t have a viable option. I read a statistic last year that said only 4 per cent of 16-year-old girls considered TAFE as destination on finishing school.

There is however a couple of lights on the horizon. A couple of states, Victoria in particular, have made moves to reverse the worst of their privatisation and marketisation policies. And the Labor opposition has promised a full-scale review of the post-school education sector with a particular focus on re-energising TAFEs, should it win the May election.

As Wheelahan and colleagues write, “we need a new system with new qualifications that prepare people for the future”.

Amen to that.

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