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The future role of TAFE in Australian tertiary education

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State governments need to build up TAFE institutions as a more equal partner in Australian tertiary education (Screenshot via YouTube)

Vocational education institutions aren't being considered as equals to universities, despite the Government's rhetoric to the contrary, writes Dr John Pardy.

RECENTLY, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s speech at the National Press Club focused on industrial relations and vocational education. He established that his government's expectations were that vocational education should become a “first best option”. This is a lofty ambition given the presiding context of Australian tertiary education, where greater social value and esteem is attributed to higher education and university learning. 

There are approximately 1.5 million students enrolled in higher education and 4.1 million students enrolled in vocational education in Australia. This enrolment figure in Vocational Education and Training (V.E.T.) would include those studying full courses together with those pursuing a short course of a single unit, which in recent years has been growing. The majority of V.E.T. students undertaking a full course of study are often in TAFE.  

Around $13.6 billion of government investment is made in higher education, with approximately $5.4 billion is invested in vocational education. These approximations do not include fee-for-service private monies and much of the government investment in higher education is issued in the form of income-contingent loans.

For vocational education to become a “first best option” in Australia’s tertiary education, policy needs to move the two key sectors closer to some semblance of parity. Whilst the enrolment patterns and government investment in the two sectors differ, the two key public institutions – universities and TAFE – are foundational to the trust and confidence placed in Australian tertiary education. Effective and fair policy and funding are a significant element in sustaining the esteem of Australian tertiary education.

These institutions are subject to uncertainties that have been heightened and made more visible by the challenges of the present COVID-19 pandemic. The threat to international student markets is already affecting Australian tertiary education, placing more pressure on already resource-strapped institutions.

The recent higher education policy reform directions announced by Education Minister Dan Tehan point to policy intentions that seek to shape what students study and, more importantly, what they pay and how much government subsidy will be allocated. It seems from the recent Productivity Commission review that a similar policy direction will be pursued for vocational education by progressing more nationally consistent and coherent funding arrangements.

This implies a streamlining of subsidies and/or seeking to determine through national agreement consistent course subsidy rates. This will reshape the financing of V.E.T. with implications for state governments and their funding of TAFE. 

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What’s the future for TAFE?

Policy intentions focused on consistency and coherence are not new to V.E.T. The national training reform agenda in the 1990s sought to better connect V.E.T. to industry and was done in the context of the broader microeconomic reforms of award restructuring and the accord. A key plank of those reforms was the creation of a national training market. The training market, like much of the microeconomic reforms at that time, was reinforced by the policy of competitive neutrality. This was a significant plank in Australia’s turn to national competition policy.

Competitive neutrality means that TAFE institutions are prevented from having any market advantage over a private or independent registered training organisation. In principle, it renders TAFE institutions as equal to and no different from a private training organisation. This is instead of treating TAFE as a public institution that fulfils public policy objectives.

TAFE institutions play a significant role in their local and regional settings. TAFE personnel, including directors, managers and teachers are involved in regional economic development committees, act as representatives on local hospital boards, chambers of industry and commerce and are actively involved in social and cultural initiatives in their local settings. Misrecognising the significant value and purposes of TAFE institutions, the national policy of competition stymies the development of the systemic and institutional capacities of TAFE by state governments.

As the owners of TAFE institutions, state governments enter into a National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development with the Federal Government which provides $1.5 billion of investment annually in V.E.T. The principle of competitive neutrality underpins these national agreements and binds state governments to arrangements that ensure that TAFE institutions are not advantaged against private training organisations. This does not happen in school education or in Australia’s marketised higher education sector, or indeed in health and the funding of public and private hospitals.

TAFE, in the context of competitive neutrality, has become the somewhat unwanted and expensive appendage in state education departments. Competitive neutrality hampers state government investment in TAFE made more difficult by national partnership agreements that insist on neutrality. Institutions, public or private, can never be neutral in an economic and market sense — they have interests to uphold and defend. This was evident in the shambolic actions that occurred with V.E.T. FEE-HELP that dramatically undermined trust in vocational education.  

For state governments to really build up TAFE institutions as a more equal partner in Australian tertiary education, they need to be able to invest in these important public institutions without being subject to cries of giving an unfair advantage to them by other vested interests. If state governments are undermined by national partnership agreements from properly resourcing TAFE institutions, building up V.E.T. as a “first best option” becomes a faraway possibility.

Dr John Pardy lectures in education at the Faculty of Education at Monash University. He researches technical education and vocational education training policy with a specific interest in the social histories and curriculum traditions of these types of education. 

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The future role of TAFE in Australian tertiary education

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