The stupid death of Australian TAFE

By Leith van Onselen

The Age has run a disturbing report on the collapse of TAFE enrollments, driven in part by the uncapping of university places and the bubble in dodgy private Vocational Education and Training (VET) providers:

…[Tafe] enrolments [are] down by up to 40 per cent at some providers, two years after [Victorian] Premier Daniel Andrews promised to “rebuild” TAFE…

Some TAFE buildings resemble ghost campuses, rather than thriving centres of learning…

According to the Education Union, 3300 teachers have left the Victorian TAFE system in the past five years.

…annual reports also reveal that in the past year alone, enrolments have plummeted: Sunraysia Institute had a 21 per cent drop, student numbers were down 12 per cent at GOTAFE, and Melbourne Polytechnic experienced a staggering 40 per cent drop in enrolments…

Bruce Mackenzie, who led the state government’s review into the training sector… says private training college scandals have unfairly tarnished TAFE’s reputation, while a decline in apprenticeships and the uncapping of university places has also driven students away.

“The second tier universities take anyone into their course whether they are suitable or not, which rips the heart out of TAFE institutes,” he says…

But that mess, according to the AEU, started when the Brumby government created an open market system in 2008, paving the way for an explosion in private providers and rorting.

“The contestable policy will always undermine the TAFE system,” says Mr Barclay…

The collapse in TAFE numbers is worrying on several levels.

Recent data released by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) revealed that traineeship and apprenticeship commencements have fallen by more than 45% over the past four years:

ScreenHunter_13756 Jun. 29 08.03

Apprenticeship completions have also fallen heavily, down by 24.0% in the 12 months to March 2016.

Meanwhile, the Department of Employment’s most recent skills shortages report showed that “skills shortages”, while low overall, are far more widespread for technicians and tradespeople:

ScreenHunter_14586 Aug. 24 11.19

Because they are experiencing relatively few commencements and completions of apprenticeships:

ScreenHunter_14587 Aug. 24 11.21

By contrast, the economy is awash with university students, with nearly 730,000 enrolled in a bachelor degree:

ScreenHunter_14572 Aug. 23 15.44

Despite graduate employment outcomes falling to “historically low levels”:

ScreenHunter_14575 Aug. 23 16.01

Students numbers studying at private VET colleges also soared, guzzling-up public funds via VET FEE-HELP loans and diverting students away from public TAFEs.

The below graphics, which come from the 2015 VET FEE-HELP Statistical Report, tell the story.

As shown below, nearly three-quarters of VET students were enrolled in private colleges in 2015:

And these private colleges charged an average loan amount well above that of public TAFEs:

They also charged average tuition fees of $18,290 versus $7,642 for public TAFEs, as well as accumulated total VET FEE-HELP loans of $2,400 million in 2015, versus just $402 million for public TAFEs:

However, despite the huge imbalance between student numbers, fees charged, and funding, only 14,400 students managed to complete courses at private colleges in 2014, compared with 18,400 students at TAFE and other public providers.

Clearly, Australia’s higher education system is a complete mess. The implementation of demand-driven training systems across Australia has effectively led to an explosion of students studying at university – creating a glut of bachelor-qualified people – as well as students studying expensive diplomas at dodgy private providers. At the same time, a commensurate shortage in people with trade skills has developed, due in part to the decline in TAFE.

What has been delivered is a wasteful, rorted higher education system that has delivered a huge Budget blow-out, poor educational outcomes, and the wrong skills for the nation.

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  1. bolstroodMEMBER

    The demise of TAFE has been plotted by both major parties at a federal and State level for nearly 20 years .
    A victim of the privatise everything mania beloved of failed Neoliberal thought bubble.
    Vale TAFE.

    • Yep, another (predictable) outcome of the Neoliberal experiment. The drop in apprentices will have effects years down the track as older tradesmen retire – but hey, just bring in 457’s instead of training the some of the rather large pool of young unemployed Australians.

      This doesn’t show the dumbing down of the TAFE courses themselves as they’ve had to contend with budget cuts and try to “compete” with the private providers.

    • Yep I am going tonight to my Tafe course (Panel Beating and Vehicle Restoration) and every time I go (it’s been a couple of years now) I’m told the course may not run again next semester. The course i’m currently doing was originally a short course (no certificate or qualifications, just to get experience and maybe help up-skill trades folk type of thing) but they managed to turn it into a certificate now which gives us another year or so before it’s likely to be shit canned.

      The thing that I keep seeing, is that everything is being de-funded and cut short/consolidated etc.. not to mention the whole enrollment system revamp was a complete joke. (As part of their “Smart & Skilled” initiative). I must say, it’s criminal to watch it go down the gurgler whilst there is all these ponzi based colleges that have popped up over night leeching off the public teet and delivering shite outcomes.

      And for what? To produce students who have a degree in Gender studies? So they can tell everyone our street signs are sexist?

      I started my computer science degree through Swinburne Tafe and then went onto Swinburne University to finish a degree obtaining credit for my previous studies at Tafe. I felt that my time spent at Tafe was far more hands on (more classroom based approach than lecture – sit there and listen for 2 hours).

      Both were good experiences but I felt Tafe was actually better value. Part of the reason I’m doing panel beating was that I felt I wanted to work more with my hands and develop that sort of skills as a sort of wedge from what I perceived as a flood of immigrants all claiming to be IT experts and diluting jobs and lowering wages.

      I’ve often thought about doing a trade in the day time and possibly moonlighting in IT writing programs, websites etc..rather than a full time job. Simply because many IT jobs force you to work on otherwise boring products or software etc.. stuff I have no real passion or interest in.

      Anyway point is, it’s a shame to see education system being used to milk students and turn them into debt slaves and churn them out with qualification which means in theory their all experts, but in practice they have no idea what they are doing.

      • Not looking for an argument but WHY would you do a course in Panel beating, honestly WHY?
        I have some friends in the industry and they all say the same thing that since the 2011 changes to the rules on Statutory Write Offs their business has been in terminal decline.
        The basic problem In NSW is that any car with more than superficial Panel damage is a Statutory Write off (It can never be re-registered anywhere in Australia ever again) . This might sound good, as in keep the junkers off the road, but it also means that practically every car younger than 2001 that goes to Salvage auction is a Statuary write off. This means you just cant buy cars to repair and doing this was a critical filler task for every Panel beater.
        The cars that get repaired have no more than 2 panels damaged and are usually repaired by simply swapping the affected panel and respraying, the modern metallic paints are so complex that they’re just purchased from the car manufacturer, it’s the only way to get a good match. so Panel beating today is nothing more than undoing a half a dozen bolts positioning the new panel and tightening said bolts, sometimes their might be a spot weld (but even that is unusual).
        The new laws have totally F’ed up the car repair industry, most of the newer damaged (but still repairable) cars are getting exported….it’s a total cluster F.

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        Not looking for an argument but WHY would you do a course in Panel beating, honestly WHY?

        I suspect this has something to do with it:

        “Yep I am going tonight to my Tafe course (Panel Beating and Vehicle Restoration) […]”

      • @Smart – I agree it’s not a great industry if you’re looking to work on newer stuff. My interests as Dr Smithy mentioned are in restoration of the older stuff. It’s a shame the NSW laws mean you throw stuff out (even when it’s still got life in it). We live in a disposable society, no doubt the automotive industry lobbied those rules into play so they could sell more cars.

        In some ways I understand given the substandard repairs I’ve seen over the years but there is different degrees of damage and I guess modern cars with all their electronics and sensors could be a nightmare to put right.

        I’m not doing the course strictly to become a panel beater, but just get better at working with my hands in general, when I started I couldn’t use tin snips properly. I’ve come a long way and I kind of view these skills as life skills. If I ever own my own home (which seems unlikely given the way things are going right now) I’ll be able to do a lot of the renovation work on my own etc..

        Besides being a handy man turns the missus on. πŸ˜€

      • @Gavin, thanks for the reply, makes sense, learn some old school Restoration skills to repair/restore older cars. I also understand the attraction of working with your hands and making something. Several years ago when I retired from the corporate seen I was totally burntout, I had panic attacks so bad that dying seemed like an attractive option that I seriously considered on more than one occasion. My shrink sister-in-law convinced me that drugs were useless, if I wanted to lick this I needed to find some task / hobby that addressed the source of my angst. In the end I found that I never had panic attacks if I put in a long day of working with my hands, building something tangible. It didn’t seem to matter what the task was, a little carpentry, car repair…digging post holes…. I got a good nights sleep if I did a solid days work and had something tangible to show for my time and effort.
        In a way this is the exact opposite to my corporate life….maybe this is how our brains repair the years of damage that corporate group think cause.

      • @Smart – I know that feeling of being burnt out, as someone who has been in a large multinational for close to 10 years now. I do feel burnt out by corporate group think. I am hoping to last 10 years so I can take long service leave for 2 months. I might dedicate the 2months to working on my restoration project and getting it much closer to ready or finished. (Although they are never finished).

        I’ve found that doing practical work and owning a dog has helped me destress. I hate mowing the lawn for example but part of me also enjoys the physical work and pride that comes with seeing the lawn looking good when done. That’s why I don’t pay someone to do it. Working on the car also gives me satisfaction, as you say being able to see the input/output of your work. It’s something that gets lost in the sea of emails and corporate meetings. I once read a book called “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.” basically saying the same thing. We should be working more with our hands.

        Having the dog is also great for my well being, sure he’s caused stress at times but the unconditional love that comes with it and seeing them happy after something as simple as a walk makes me happy.

  2. Anecdotally, there are stories of the private operators sales people setting up outside of TAFEs selling their snake oil. A lot of those private online courses were very attractive as you didn’t need to go to class (which is understandable in some cases and less in others).

  3. Torchwood1979

    Good point about Gillard’s idiotic demand driven university system sucking TAFE standard students straight into university. Too many students who are not university ready are getting in and our already shaky degrees are being watered down to laughable levels.

    Case in point – my Sister in Law tutors at a QLD uni which is enrolling students with OP scores as low as 20 (25 is the lowest!!!!!!!!) and the tutors are under a ton of pressure to pass students who can barely structure an essay and who even include no references. She’s been told to always let them resubmit, and as long as they have 3 or 4 references and rewrite a few sentences so that “i think” becomes Smith (2005) states… give them a 4. If the students aren’t capable of this research or referencing she’s been told to “guide them through the process, each time”. In other words – do it for them.

    Before the demand driven system was implemented this particular course had an OP entrance score of 9.

    • Like our population, there seems to be a cargo cult mentality with Uni enrolments of just make it bigger without any real coherent reason as to why this is a good thing, or will make things better.

    • drsmithyMEMBER

      The problem there sounds more like a failure to maintain academic standards.

      How to properly incentivise academic standards, however ?

      • Torchwood1979

        Let’s just say getting kicked out of the course for getting a GPA <3 didn't work. Any other suggestions?

        Seriously, attrition rates for this particular course spiked in the first semester of the demand driven system so they just pressured the lecturers and tutors to lower the bar and lift as many under performing students as possible over it.

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        Let’s just say getting kicked out of the course for getting a GPA <3 didn't work.

        Why not ?

        Any other suggestions?

        To address the problem of systemic organisational pressure to reduce academic standards in favour of high recruitment levels ?

        No, hence the reason I asked “how to incentivise maintaining academic standards”.

        I suspect a big part is taking away the profit motive for the organisation in maximising enrolments. But it’s obviously not just as simple as focusing on graduations, either, because that leads the the scenario you describe where staff are pressured to pass people who should not pass.

        Seriously, attrition rates for this particular course spiked in the first semester of the demand driven system so they just pressured the lecturers and tutors to lower the bar and lift as many under performing students as possible over it.

        Sure. But the problem there isn’t that anyone can enroll, it’s that people who don’t have the ability are led to believe they’ll be successful if they do enroll, and are.

        Should students capable of being doctors, engineers, etc be turned away because the annual quota for those degrees are reached ? I say no. But equally, people who are likely to lack to ability should be discouraged from enrolling, and most certainly should not be waved through if they are not capable.

      • The universities are being used as holding tanks to hide the real extent of unemployment among young people, and to avoid public anger about shortages of apprenticeships. They also offer a fig leaf for the selling of permanent residence visas in the guise of offering an education. In both cases, high academic standards would be highly detrimental to these objectives. If you talk to academics, plenty of them will tell you about pressures to pass domestic students who don’t deserve to pass and international students who don’t know enough English to cope.

      • Torchwood1979

        Your comment shows we’re in complete agreement about the nature and cause of this problem. Some universities are over enrolling unsuitable students simply to pull a profit, and watering down pass requirements is the easiest way to achieve this.

        One solution to ensuring decent academic standards in the demand driven system is for the Federal Government to have rigorous quality control, which is fair enough considering they’re paying the bills. The overpaid Vice Chancellors from universities rorting the system will scream blue murder, yell that it’s an assault on academic liberty, right to a university education and free donuts.

        The other solution is to go back to the capped system, which seemed to work quite well before. Once again, VCs will scream once the lollipop is being taken away.

  4. well of course, it takes 5 mins to learn how to pour a coffee, no need for vocational training for that.

  5. I contend that the death of the CES/TAFE is the single worst thing that neoliberals have done to this country.

    • Torchwood1979

      It’s a contest with a lot of contenders but killing TAFE/CES is definitely up there.

      However if we have a housing meltdown and banking disaster costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars everything else will seem like small fry in comparison.

      • Of course, it could be said that the destruction of TAFE is simply a side effect of the ‘put everything on housing’ approach to running the economy.

  6. ErmingtonPlumbingMEMBER

    I’ve got plenty of mates who are still working for the largest, still partially unionised, counstruction plumbing Companies in the country on both the East and West coast (I left this sector in 2007 after being a forman for over 10 years in one of the largest contractors), and these guys are telling me that these companies employ almost no Apprentices anymore.

    Where as they were once considered cheap labor and the Union was once powerful enough to demand certain Tradesman to Apprentice ratios, they (Apprentices) are considered “to risky” due to a punitive, insurance company written OH&S regime and fears of the increased likelihood, of ending up having to payout a “bullied”youngster at a fair work Australia hearing.
    Compare this to the unlikelihood of having to payout an Irish or English backpacker, hired through, Hays, a body hire company, like Axis Contracting (largest plumbing company in the country) does at the Northern Beaches hospital build at Frenches forrest. They are much easier to sack.

    Fuck all Apprentices on this “Union” EBA project, but heaps of Hays body hire TAs.

    In my time in large construction on hospital builds and multi storey towers, between 1987 and 2007 working for half a dozen of the largest firms in the country,. I never once came across a TA or a body hire employee. It was always just tradesmen or Apprentices on wages.

    Not anymore,…”Union EBA company” that Axis is,…they are now employing quite a lot of these body hire TAs and ABN subcontractors on their jobs.

    The backward steps our country is making are absurd.

  7. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

    There’s a whole heap of land tied up in TAFEs which state governments could more productively sell off to developers for unit developments. OK the state may get a bit less than market price but that’s the cost of business. Just like all the schools got sold off in Sydney and suddenly there’s a shortage.

    On another note:

    ErmingtonPlumbing blames OH&S and a variation of “snowflake syndrome” for the downturn in apprentices. That may be part of the story but I don’t really buy it. The simple fact is that business expects that the perfect workforce should be available to them at no cost (either government or employee pays for their own training). The idea that they should contribute any sort of social good has completely gone out the window. That’s a big part of what 457s are for.

    The destruction of TAFE has been a tacit partnership between government and industry. Too many uni places, and uni has been debauched anyway (see Gittins’ spot on takedown in the papers today). Too many 457s. Too many fraudulent private operators (did nobody learn from the pink batts fiasco?). Too much short-termism and entitlement mentality from business.

    • Yep. In 2008 it was finally getting easier to get a job and there were ads on Melbourne trams by QLD Health saying “come up to sunny QLD and work as a nurse”.

      There were ads in the local newspaper saying “work as a bus driver and get paid $60k/year (including overtime)”.

      Now in 2016, one of my mates had an interview for an office job and the pay is $40k. That is how much office staff were paid in 2005!

      What kind of society do we want to live in?

    • ‘The destruction of TAFE has been a tacit partnership between government and industry.’; and TAFE management.

      Started in the ’80s when universities corporatised then both education and nursing degrees emerged, the latter was a core TAFE area. Meanwhile any hollowing out requires cooperation with the management and there have been some very expensive TAFE adventures, universities too, when they view themselves as entrepreneurs and autonomous, but with state guarantees, may lead to complacency?

      Issue with private providers is that like TAFE quality can be patchy because it’s a paper based assessment, many courses are excellent but many fly under the quality radar. Meanwhile rorting of state funds is made too easy by lack of checks and balances in tenders and compliance, and inability to notice red flags.

      Like other commenters, any school leaver should look at TAFE first, then transfer over to university, if needed. The latter is another issue, schools now seem to be set up as feeders for universities, while one has no idea what careers advice students get from school, peers and family, presumably university without any experience of life?

  8. i went thru tafe in 2013-2014, did a uni preparation course. it was pretty crud. obviously underfunded, the teachers obviously didnt really care about their jobs and the standards were really low. everyone in the class was lazy and didn’t care or outright disruptive but they still passed anyway. lots of really weird people as well, TAFE seemed to be a lightning rod in attracting really dysfunctional individuals (me).

    • stag
      Read “”Wilt”” by Tom Sharpe. πŸ™‚ Great take on TAFE’s. πŸ™‚

    • I did a Uni prep course in 2003, and it was brilliant. It had lecturers and tutors giving me insight that was clearly put forward by virtue of them being practitioners instead of academics.

      When I weighed up the cost at the time. my opionion was it was a brilliant institute that delivered societal value that cost the government very little.

      This is (was?) the cert I-VI accreditation (Well CAE’s devliered VI’s and maybe V’s ??) up until the mid-80’s that offered this the most.

      An enchanced skill set for workers to improve their earning capacity. Pissed up the wall so some spivs get some unearned gain.

      A country that devalues education like this, will utliamtely be surpassed by the country that doe snot devalue it.

      Thanks Boomers!

  9. Pfffft!!!!
    You don’t need no damned TAFE course to be a Life Coach or Real Estate agent or, as pointed out by others, pour coffee. TAFE is irrelevant to a modern service based economy in Australia.

    We’re so much better off with people with Arts, Social Science or Theology degrees than competency in real stuff and TAFE Certificates.

    • We still need TAFEs to keep the youngsters from inflating the headline UE numbers. But, for selling real estates or pouring coffee, the privatized versions can be counted on to do the job.

      • Yes…silly me…I’d forgotten about the necessity to fudge the unemployment number. Every department has to play a role in this!

  10. While universities HAVE become bloated with well paid administrators/managers and have over-paid vice chancellors, front line staff that deliver services to students have been progressively cut back with voluntary retrenchments, restructures and “Business Improvement Plans” (see The University of Melbourne).
    The remaining front line staff find it increasingly difficult to deal with the demands of a burgeoning student population while administrators/management keep thinking up new and “innovative” means of improving the quality of services; which immediately goes down the toilet once you have a minimal number of staff off work on legitimate sick leave etc.
    Yet an inordinate amount of money (for the University of Melbourne at least) is being spent on acquiring more property around the University precinct.

    • See? One of the best unis in this great country is leading the way by example. Their renowned economics department must have finally figured out the 21st century way of doing things. After all, the front line staff are replaceable and hence dispensable whereas the beautiful looking real estates near the CBD is not!!!

  11. It is as if governments at some point asked big business for a trades/tertiary education policy plan when all business really want is cheaper labour ie access to 457 visa Chinese/Indians. As long as that pool of educated poor people exist, the last thing business wants is higher skilled Australians pressuring wages growth. So the plan is – stop funding TAFE under the old fables of “market is more efficient” and “user pays”, or put practically – create private debts downhill to account for the privatisation of the TAFE budget uphill. What we get is a new and “legitimate” skills shortage and a future where our children will face 30-40% unemployment, once automation/robots add to the million or so cheap new Australians. But – take care not to be racist.

    Then there’s all these corporate rent seekers that claimed $3-5000 per employee more rent from the government for “Educating Australia” – issuing colourful but valueless bits of paper with titles like “Certificate III in Metalliferous Mining” for duties performed throughout years of service. Thing is, on a mine site you only need one “Operator” for often up to 10 or more “Steering Technicians” ie truckies. You sure as hell don’t want to train EVERYONE on a face shovel, loader, grader, bull dozer and all the other stuff we got excited about when they handed out the pre-filled enrolement forms for us to sign. So you have to negotiate a dumbing down of the curriculum with the hoaxy RTO (registered training org) – because now – you CAN. So we end up being “educated” through reiteration of our existing highly remunerable and transferable skills such as “Effective Communication Using a Two Way Radio” and “Driving a Light Vehicle Safely on a Minesite” – pure tick and flick. Along with the diesel rebate, that money went straight onto the bottom line. I think Rio had a $6.8b profit that year, so they certainly needed it. The guy thought all that up would be a Divisional Value Adding 5 Point Profit Vice Presidential LEAN Black Belt by now. And that’s an education in itself.