Letter from Australia: Two sides of the coin

Run a quick search over the recently released Joyce review of vocational education – or read in every word if that’s your thing – and you won’t find a single mention of dual sector universities.

It’s not a huge oversight, but it is an important lapse. After all, Australia’s five dual sector universities – those that have provision for both public vocational and higher education – enrol over half a million students and offer an interesting alternative to the ‘us versus them’ orthodoxy that besets the two sectors.

In recent years, the dual sectors have been forced into a unique experience: of being witness to, and victim of, some of the highs and lows of education policy. As Peter Dawkins, vice-chancellor of Victoria University, tells me these five institutions have felt first hand the enormity of the incoherence between policy settings for the vocational and higher education sectors – and not in a good way.

While the higher education sector has, for the most, part surfed a generous wave of funding increases thanks to the demand driven system, the TAFE sector has been wracked by years of contestable funding agreements and a toxic cocktail of pro-market reforms and savage funding cuts that have left it with fewer enrolments, less money, less staff and a ruined reputation. It hasn’t been much fun – or what the paper describes as the “self-defeating inadequacies of current policy and regulatory settings”.

“We can now feel there is some potential for change and light at the end of the tunnel,” Dawkins says, following the release last week of a discussion paper on reforming post-secondary education in Australia.

Reform, but how much?

A discussion paper from the five dual sectors released last week understandably calls for a dramatic overhaul of the sector, but it is moderate in its proposals. It does not push for a complete reconstruction of the post-secondary sector.

“We’ve suggested a path via which the federal government doesn’t have to overreach itself,” says Dawkins. “We think a fully integrated tertiary education sector is probably a bridge too far. So we are instead talking about connectedness and complementarity.”

The paper says funding should be demand-driven, the tertiary system should be demand neutral and priced to meet diverse needs. Who could argue with that? The states and territories, that’s who!

For UK readers, here’s a super-brief explanation on federal/state responsibilities. While states legislate and effectively “own” universities, the federal government almost wholly funds teaching and research. The states, however, fund TAFEs and vocational education, although the federal government plays a role with various employer incentive programs for apprenticeships and ad hoc large-scale programs (that usually end in tears). It also runs the student loans program (appallingly, for the most part). Schools are primarily funded by the states but also get federal money. It’s complicated folks. Very complicated.

State governments have shown a callous disregard for public vocational provision for 15 years or more now (no votes in TAFEs). At the same time they have played the policy equivalent of Russian roulette. And every now and again, there is talk of a federal takeover of vocational education. And then it goes nowhere. The last attempt was back in 2015. That was when Simon Birmingham was an assistant minister to the glorious G&T-soaked Christopher Pyne. It went precisely nowhere.

Belated attention spike

That said, the hollow shell that public vocational education – TAFE – is starting to attract political attention. Labor announced two or so years ago it would conduct a full review of the post-secondary education system, with a particular focus on TAFE. It has subsequently announced an additional $1bn to throw at it.

The Coalition belatedly got on board late last year when it commissioned the aforementioned Joyce review. There was $500 million in the budget .There might be half a billion dollars in difference. But like an affection-starved puppy, which gets kicked in the guts too many times, anything is welcome.

As the dual sector paper points out, “average per-student hour funding levels in VET fell from $18.20 in 2008 to $13.95 in 2014 and by even greater amounts in some [states].

“As a consequence, public VET providers, including dual sector universities, were forced to cut programs and staffing, close facilities and increase student fees.’

Oh wait it gets better. State governments imposed industrial agreements on TAFEs and then wouldn’t back it up with appropriate funding. (In the dark recesses of my memory, I also seem to recall that the Victorian state government at the time – drunk and giddy on pro-market reform ideology – somehow tried to ban TAFEs from advertising and marketing their wares while throwing them into some wild capitalist experiment. Maybe I’m making it up). You get the drift.

Thinking ahead

My digressions keep digressing. But back to the discussion paper which I assess to be measured, prudent and lays out some principles which, it says, should lay the groundwork for rethinking the tertiary sector.

  • The tertiary education sector should recognise and enable lifelong learning.
  • Students should have access to “comprehensive, informed and accurate advice about the full range of options”. Like doh!
  • Secondary students should be encouraged to follow their interests, not maximise their ATAR score (tertiary admissions rank).
  • The needs of migrants and mature age people need to be considered more fully, especially in relation to lifelong learning.

“Post-secondary education should operate as a continuum of diverse and distinctive offerings through the VET and higher education systems which learners can access at different stages to meet their diverse and changing needs,” the paper says.

And absolutely right, too.

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