Beware the rise of worthless training

by Adele Horin
June 16, 2012

<em>Illustration: Simon Bosch</em>

People who went to university and whose children go, or are destined to go, to university usually have little interest in the plebeian matters of skills training or the fate of TAFE, an institution erroneously associated with blue singlets and tools.

No matter that 600,000 more people go to TAFE than to university and that the nation’s productivity will be dependent on the quality of this sector as much as on the quality of our universities, ignorance and indifference about it abound.

But let me warn you: remember the fracas and national shame caused by dodgy English language colleges that mushroomed around the country and ripped off overseas students? Well, we have learnt too little. Under the mantra of choice and competition in vocational education, a mass expansion of private vocational training colleges for domestic students, this time backed by government funds, is apace.

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The results are clearest in Victoria, where the free market philosophy has gone the furthest in treating vocational education like clothes or television sets: it is a good to be offered by a variety of private outlets competing on price.

What transpired was that colleges pumped out a huge oversupply of fitness trainers as private providers moved en masse into offering cheap, quick courses, some of dubious quality and usefulness. Backed by government largesse, some colleges even offered iPads and cash inducements to students who enrolled.

And as the state’s money poured into the plethora of small, sometimes opportunistic for-profit providers, it drained out of TAFE colleges at a calamitous rate. Victoria is considered something of a horror story, a warning to those who believe the public needs a viable public provider of vocational training and second-chance education; once destroyed such an institution is hard to rebuild.

The man considered the brains behind the Victorian upheaval, Chris Eccles, is now in NSW. He moved here last year to head the Department of Premier and Cabinet, prompting widespread concern that NSW might be destined to go down the Victorian path.

The budget cuts meted out to TAFE this week may be the first significant step with a real cut of $67 million for 2012-13, or 3.4 per cent. Unlike school teachers, police and nurses, TAFE teachers will not be protected in the coming public service blitzkrieg, with the Greens’ John Kaye estimating TAFE will shoulder a disproportionate share of 10,000 public service staff cuts.

It is not just Eccles, expenditure-averse state treasurers and free market ideologues who favour opening up the state training budget to all bidders and cut TAFE down to size. Making the training dollar “contestable” – putting it out to tender – is part of the Council of Australian Governments agreement the states have signed with the federal government.

In the world of contestable funding TAFE is hard-pressed to compete. With its campuses and buildings, sometimes heritage-listed that are expensive to maintain, its award-waged staff, its commitment to disadvantaged and Aboriginal students, to students with disabilities who require special support staff, and to people in regional Australia, it finds itself on an unlevel playing field in costing its courses and bidding for business.

And though jobs requiring heavy tools and singlets are a small part of its business these days, TAFE is still the major trainer of people learning trades that require expensive equipment or laboratories. So this, too, is an added cost to the public institution.

TAFE cannot do all the skills training the nation needs; good private providers are essential. For decades private colleges have been in the business of training fee-paying students in everything from secretarial studies to hospitality courses. And for more than two decades private providers have helped produce apprentices and trainees with state money.

Australia has about 5000 private training providers, arguably too many already. So TAFE’s near-monopoly is long gone and only diehards want it back. The private providers have forced TAFE to address inflexibilities and begin the long process of reining in the perks enjoyed by its full-time teachers; more needs to be done.

What is at stake now is the 80 per cent of the state’s training budget that is not open to tender. What is yet to be decided is how much of this pot of gold that keeps TAFE afloat will be opened to private providers to run thousands of courses in everything from fitness training to business studies.

The explosion of private colleges and the emaciation of TAFE in Victoria is not something to be emulated here, not while the means to control quality is still so elusive.

There is a national regulator doing its best after the scandal of the dodgy English language colleges. The rules have tightened to ensure only a “fit and proper person” is in charge, but nothing has changed to ensure the provider delivers, as claimed in its brochures, a quality course in, say, four weekends that TAFE delivers in three months; or that the qualifications are really equivalent.

When consumers buy a faulty television, they can take it back on warranty. But there is no comeback for job seekers with a worthless certificate from a dodgy provider that testifies to skills they do not possess, a fact that will be exposed soon enough.

The NSW government is in the throes of deciding how far it will go down the Victorian path. A tussle is on between wets and dries.

Scorched earth is not the way to go. The point of reform is not to give money to private providers but to provide quality training.

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