The Guardian 20 April, 2005
Nelson targets TAFE system
More than one in ten Australians aged 15 and over enrol for vocational education and training each year, including the more than 1.3 million students in the public TAFE system.
The TAFE system is a well established means for young as well as older people to further their education and work opportunities. It also provides second chances for many who, for various reasons, could not complete their secondary education.
But the TAFE system is under threat.
Federal education minister Brendan Nelson is planning to force the TAFE sector to provide profit-making opportunities for private operators in a package which was introduced to the states last week.
Mirroring recent reforms to universities and schools, the new $4.9 million funding deal would force the states to implement "competition policy" — by allowing private sector operators to compete on an equal footing with public providers.
The agreements presented to the states by Dr Nelson tell the states that they have to give third parties, including private operators, access to TAFE infrastructure.
"To improve utilisation of publicly funded infrastructure, institutions in receipt of Australian government infrastructure funding will be required to provide third party access to their premises including outside standard hours of work", Nelson's funding offer states.
TAFE will supposedly have to be more industry focused to address skills shortages.
State governments could face large financial penalties if they fail to fall into line with the federal government's wishes, including ministerial discretion to withdraw funding altogether.
Other "reforms" include a demand that TAFE introduce performance-based pay for staff and the widespread implementation of Australian Workplace Agreements (individual, non-union work contracts). The government attempted to foist this on the university sector but it was strongly resisted and knocked over by staff and university administrations.
A national fee structure would also apply whereby charges would be capped to "limit the extent of any fee rises in publicly funded training institutions" over the course of the agreement.
Funding agreements would be set for renewal every four years.
Under the training "reforms", to be enshrined into legislation, the states would be locked into matching the commonwealth's funding dollar for dollar.
In a statement responding to the latest announcement the Australian Education Union (AEU) called on the federal government to stop the attacks on the public TAFE system and attempts to divert the attention away from its own failures.
"Despite repeated warnings from industry and unions, the Howard government is responsible for the current skills crisis in the Australian economy. Since 1997, commonwealth funding for TAFE has fallen by 10.6 per cent in real terms leaving a legacy to address skills shortages in the traditional trades", said Pat Forward, the Federal TAFE Secretary of the AEU.
Instead, the commonwealth has placed its worker-bashing, privatising funding offer on the table to the state governments, requiring them to stitch TAFE teachers into individual contracts (AWAs) and performance pay in return for no additional commonwealth funds.