The TAFE campus Ultimo. Photo: Flickr serviceindustriestac

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By Maire Sheehan

Education and training used to be the great leveller, developing and empowering people to contribute to society. Then it became a commodity; bought and sold in the marketplace.

NSW held out against commodification. Then the federal government told the NSW government that TAFE had a monopoly and that must stop or NSW will not get funds.

Why did NSW hold out? Because marketisation of TAFE in other states was a disaster. TAFE colleges closed, student numbers plummeted, millions of dollars were spent and no education and training was delivered, students were left with debts and no qualifications.

But NSW caved in. The new market system, Smart and Skilled, began; called Dumb and Dumber by those dealing with it on the front line.

Guess what? Enrolments plummeted, fees increased beyond affordability for most, courses were reduced, and confusion reigned.

In a panic, the government began throwing money around for ‘fee free’ short courses. How does that work? Split a course into three or four short courses and guess what you have three or four enrolments for each student instead of one.

Loan scam boil bursts

Meanwhile the loan scam boil burst. The fountain of easy money closed and enrolments dropped again.

So what are candidates in the federal election promising?

Will they restore vocational education and training as the great leveller?

Advocacy group TAFE Alliance wrote to all candidates asking them three questions.

Would you support

  1. increased core funding for local TAFEs?
  2. winding back the contestable training market?
  3. increasing investment in TAFE teachers as educational and industry experts

Labor candidates answered “yes” to all using its party statements.

“We will work with the states and territories to rebalance the contestable and non-contestable funding model to ensure it delivers the outcomes that are intended.”

“Labor believes the market must find stability through a predominant public provider.”

The Liberals and Nationals sent a standard letter that did not even mention TAFE.

The Greens candidates answered “yes” to all questions and emphasised abolishing contestable funding.

“The Greens believe that TAFE should be the first priority for all federal funding for Vocational Education and Training. There should be no government funding for providers that operate for private profit.”

The right-wing micro parties did not reply.

Independents replied and were generally supportive of TAFE. Those in regional areas were especially aware of the loss of education and training opportunities as colleges close, course offering is reduced and fees increase.

So what to make of it? All understand the market has been a disaster for education and training.

The Greens make a clear statement but will the next the government be persuaded? Can they join with cross-benchers to do a deal?

Labor will start negotiating with the players in the market. Could this mean rebranding, minor changes, moving the deck chairs or maybe more?

The Libs and the Nationals are rushing around, smiling, kicking balls down the road… seriously?

Will Independents be able to negotiate, join with others to get positive results?

The political shenanigans are far from over.

Is this how Australia should treat its education and training?