Victoria’s TAFEs have been fighting a losing battle against cuts, privatisation and market reforms to education since 2009. Their struggles have finally pushed their continued existence as non-corporate education providers into question, heralding major changes to the education landscape in Victoria. Despite the severity of the changes there is no doubt that, up until a few months ago if not now, the issue has been flying under the radar. The release of the Baillieu Government’s 2012-2013 State budget finally drew some public attention to the crisis our TAFEs now find themselves in, and the consequences that we will suffer if we lose our TAFE system (as indeed we might). So why the furore?
In a word, cuts. The AEU (Australian Education Union) has claimed that $300 million of funding and subsidies for TAFEs has been cut from this year’s State budget, affecting 80% of currently available courses. This represents a massive portion of TAFE funding, and it is unlikely that any single TAFE department will be unaffected by this loss. In fact, Gippsland MP and Minister for the Teaching Profession Peter Hall has been unable to rule out the closure of TAFE institutes as a consequence of these cuts. The largest dangers are posed to the Holmesglen Institute, Victoria’s largest Trade’s Vocation provider, and many regional centres. Although quick to register his shock upon receiving news of these cuts along with leading members of the larger TAFEs, Minister Hall has since retracted these comments and fallen in behind his party.
Upon the release of the budget on May 1st, the University of Ballarat was first to detail how the cuts would affect its TAFE department. Receiving the largest cuts of any of the institutes, it has reported a loss of $20 million in State funding, which is 40% of its annual budget and will result in the closure of at least a quarter of TAFE courses with voluntary redundancies being offered to staff as of June this year. The Kangan Institute has reported the closure of the state’s last formally accredited AUSLAN course which, considering that skilled translators are lacking as it is, represents an enormous concern for the deaf community. Swinburne University has also blamed the closure of its Lilydale campus and the likely closure of its Prahran campus on the budget cuts, although many suspect that this is simply the University being opportunistic (or calling ‘Carbon Tax’ as I’m coining it) as the closure of these Campuses has been on the agenda for a while, and Swinburne’s TAFE institutes are usually short-changed when it comes to internal budgeting. Although increases to subsidies have been made to some apprenticeships on the part of the Baillieu Government, they will not outstrip the fee and revenue hikes that will have to be made to keep the TAFEs afloat, as reported by Branch President of the AEU Mary Bluett.
Furthermore, Federal Minister for Tertiary Education Chris Evans has warned that Victoria’s TAFEs stand to lose $435 million of Federal funding if the State can’t give assurances that the training standards these institutions provide will be unaffected.
The reasoning for the cuts on the part of the Baillieu Government seems to be fourfold. First of all, the Baillieu Government claims that this was a budget drafted in the context of a high Australian dollar and lowered GST/revenue intake, and with the intention of reigning in projected expenditure. Investing substantial amounts in public transport and infrastructure overhauls is what this Government believes to be the best investment in the face of these realities. Secondly, there were reported incidents of abuse of taxpayer funds and subsidies by institutions who either provided sub-standard education or lied about the number of students they enrolled, making the market more competitive by pitting these institutions against the big TAFE’s. By the Government’s logic, this trend will be corrected by the cuts. Thirdly, the Baillieu Government estimates that the larger TAFEs have amassed a surplus of $98 million, and therefore can survive without the funds. And finally, because Labor started it. As much as it may surprise some, it was actually the Brumby Government that began the marketization of vocational education back in 2009.
The vision that seems to have been driving these reforms appears to be one that makes our vocational education providers look more like our public secondary. That means overcrowded, underfunded with alternatives prohibitively expensive. Life for Victoria’s 365,000 TAFE students is going to get at the very least much more expensive. For many the costs will simply be too much; for many more the idea of obtaining a TAFE education for a career they want will simply become unattainable. This is not a vision we can reverse simply by voting Labor at the next State election. Get behind the AEU and demand affordable vocational education. We need these people! And besides, if we accept this precedent now, next time money becomes tight, how far behind TAFE funding do you think University funding will be?