No contest: the decade they killed TAFE

TAFE stock photos

Although a new agreement has not been finalised, all Australian governments indicated support for “a viable and robust system of public, private and notfor- profit providers, with contestability in VET (vocational education and training) markets, to ensure high-quality training and student choice” in a 2020 heads of government agreement.

In April 2012, all states and territories and the federal government signed the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development, and the National Partnership Agreement for Skills Reform. The agreements were supposed to deliver almost $9 billion in federal funding to the VET sector over the following five years.

The word “TAFE” was not mentioned once in the 2012 National Agreements, but these agreements changed the TAFE system forever.

States and territories agreed to the introduction of a national training entitlement for the first qualification up to a Certificate III, to be accessible at any registered training organisation. This effectively removed funding from TAFE and attached the funding to individual students, who could then expend “vouchers” at a public or private provider of their choice. Private providers were incentivised to cherrypick cheap and easy-to-deliver training.

Availability of income-contingent loans increased via the VET FEE-HELP scheme, a bipartisan project aimed at shifting the costs of vocational education from governments onto individuals and to encourage the development of a competitive market. Perceived as a mechanism to break TAFE’s monopoly on vocational education, competition for students and the funding attached to them became an overarching condition.

What followed was a wholesale shift in delivery from TAFE to private, for-profit providers, who moved rapidly into the market offering incentives such as laptops and cash to students in return for enrolments.

Students’ hopes and dreams were destroyed, TAFE teachers lost their jobs, and communities lost their TAFE colleges.

The VET FEE-HELP scheme grew exponentially due to the weakening of conditions of access in the 2012 National Agreements, from a $25 million allocation in 2009 to more than $4 billion in 2015. More than 75 per cent of the funding for VET FEE-HELP went to private for-profit providers.

There was no fee regulation in vocational education (providers could charge whatever they wanted), and the only limit students had on what they could be charged, and therefore have to borrow, was the $100,000 individual cap. In plenty of instances, no training was delivered and no qualifications were issued. In many cases it took years for these debts to be cancelled, as a reluctant federal government refused to take responsibility for the fraud.

The resulting punitive and damaging cuts to TAFE undermined the capacity of TAFE colleges to successfully compete for funding and resources in the increasingly deregulated market. In many states, funding cuts to TAFE preceded the implementation of the 2012 National Agreement reforms, further weakening and diminishing the capacity of the public system.

State government budget cuts to TAFE in Victoria were quickly followed by budget cuts to TAFE in NSW, South Australia and Queensland, as these states moved to position their own TAFE institutions to meet the conditions of the then newly signed 2012 National Agreements. Following the lead of Victoria, these jurisdictions actively incentivised the private VET sector at the expense of the public TAFE system.

The impact of the 2012 National Agreements continues to be felt to this day. The proportion of funding allocated contestably was close to 50 per cent in 2020, despite policies such as “free” TAFE places in restricted areas of so-called skills shortage. This is because the mechanisms for allocating funding have changed so dramatically, despite the fact that under some state governments the funding currently favours TAFE.

There is nothing in the current arrangements to give TAFE colleges any certainty over future resourcing, and in many states, funding continues to be cut.

Pat Forward is a former Federal TAFE Secretary of the Australian Education Union