Faced with reduced funding from the Federal Government, cash-strapped state governments are looking at alternative models for workplace training.

In this new environment, questions are being asked whether government instrumentalities such as TAFE remain relevant.

In South Australia, ABC Online reports 500 job will be axed in the SA TAFE sector over the next four years, with the closure of some campuses “not ruled out”. It comes at the same time as figures suggesting TAFE courses in SA cost up to two and a half times more to run than private training courses.

On June 23, 2015, the Sydney Morning Herald reported a massive 83,000 drop in TAFE enrolments in NSW in the three years since 2012.

In Western Australia, meantime, the West Australian reports the number of students studying at TAFE in WA plummeted by nearly 9,000 between 2013 and 2014. WA Department of Training and Workforce data shows that 8,800 fewer students were attending TAFE by the end of last year, compared with the same time in 2013.

Based on the figures, TAFE is in trouble. Cash-strapped states and territories are increasingly looking for alternatives to infrastructure-heavy government bodies. Channelling the public purse to registered training organisations (RTOs) could be the answer.

Why are TAFE numbers falling?
With TAFE numbers in freefall, the obvious question is: Why?

Faced with mounting costs and uncertain Federal Government funding, states in recent years have opened TAFE to private competition. The long-term benefit for governments is obvious – reduced infrastructure costs, as increased responsibility for education is placed on private providers.

Opening VET to the private sector had its genesis in Victoria under the former Brumby Labor government, SMH reports. The private providers were paid according to their course enrolments and the number of hours taught.

The privatisation push, however, has not been without problems, with some training providers accused of rorting the system. Eligibility was tightened in a revised model picked up by NSW and launched this year.

Dissent in the ranks
Not everyone agrees TAFE’s fate is sealed. Federal secretary for TAFE at the Australian Education Union Pat Forward is a former member of the National Skills Standards Council (now the Australian Industry and Skills Committee) that sets down the standards VET providers must meet before they can be registered.

In a statement on June 25, 2015, Forward welcomed Federal Labor‘s announcement it would guarantee a “proportion” of vocational education funding to TAFE if elected to government.
“Unfortunately what we have seen from governments is the pursuit of a privatisation agenda, that on any measure, has been an abject failure,” Forward said.

“We have seen the proliferation of unscrupulous operators looking to cash in by charging exorbitant fees for poor quality training. This broken system is leaving students the victims: without the skills they need to get secure jobs and saddled with huge debts they will struggle to pay off.”

Forward’s model proposes limiting the proportion of government funding tendered to the private sector to 30 per cent “to ensure TAFEs retain their capacity to provide quality training to all Australians who need it”.

“We also need immediate action to regulate fees in the VET sector, and to more closely control the massive growth in student debt through VET Fee Help.
“Standards must be improved urgently, including minimum hours for courses, a ban on contracting out training to unregistered third parties, and further restrictions on how private providers are able to market themselves.”

RTOs defend position
While unions say too much government education money is going to private providers, registered training organisations (RTOs) claim the opposite.

Training and workplace development consultant Mark Jones says governments in some states have been busy clawing back money for TAFE at the expense of private providers.
In South Australia, this includes providing subsidised training places to TAFE.

While the government has denied propping up TAFE at the expense of private providers, employer body Business SA says giving TAFE the monopoly of subsidised training places “will not only severely damage private training providers, but it will also significantly harm job creation, trainees and business, particularly small business”.

“It would appear that the real reason for the State Government’s decision is to prop up TAFE after it reduced TAFE’s budget and workforce,” its spokesperson says.

“But in doing so it appears that the government is not concerned that private sector training providers will shed hundreds of jobs with some facing closure of their business.”

Business SA said the adverse impact of the TAFE monopoly was much wider than just private sector training providers.

“Business, and in particular small business, may not be able to obtain the training they need, nor afford it, given that TAFE is not equipped to provide some of the training and is typically more than twice as expensive as private providers.

Business SA said there would be widespread adverse impacts across many critical industries including agribusiness, mining, retail, tourism, food and beverage manufacturing, building and construction and civil construction.

“No one is saying that TAFE should not exist but private training providers, businesses and just as importantly jobs should not be the sacrificial lambs to ensure TAFE’s survival.”
With numbers at TAFE collages falling, and RTOs moving into their space, the future of TAFE may have already been decided. Looking forward, governments appear to be looking to a largely private model.

AlertForce believes closer consultation with all the stakeholders is needed, regardless of which way governments go.

AlertForce provides a range of work health and safety training courses for industry. For more details go to http://alertforce.com.au/ohs-training-courses/

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