The Baird Government claims Smart and Skilled is about improving the diversity and quality of training but the reality is that state governments implemented market reform in vocational education simply to set up a user-pays system.
Under Smart and Skilled, a student loan scheme, VET Fee Help, allows training providers and TAFEs to charge students the full cost of a course but unlike students in higher education students in VET are also charged a hefty 20 per cent administrative fee for the privilege of not paying all of their course fees upfront.
When the VET Fee Help scheme was implemented in Victoria fees increased dramatically overnight with many training companies signing up as many students as possible with total disregard for their potential to complete a course of study.
Indeed, I have known students who have intellectual disabilities who have been signed up to do diplomas in business and/or management that they do not have the ability to complete, and this has left them with VET Fee Help debts in excess of $35,000.
In March this year, the total expenditure on VET Fee help loans was reported to be more than $1.6 billion. What this means is that $1.6bn of revenue raised from the taxpayer has been paid into the pockets of for-profit training providers to deliver courses that many students will not complete.
Education is now a commodity traded on the stock market. The share price of Vocation, a private training company, went from $1.50 to about $3.80 and dropped to below 20 cents after the Victorian Government withdrew its funding late last year due to problems with the training provided.
Vocation has been placed under administration and is facing class actions from disgruntled investors and possible investigation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
But what about the 7000 students who invested money, time and effort taking Vocation courses to find their qualifications to be worthless and not recognised by many employers? Who is representing their interests?
Vocation was on the list of private training providers preferred by the NSW Government.
There are a number of other training providers currently also under investigation by ACCC for targeting areas of Sydney that have high rates of public housing and residents whose first language is not English, signing people up to expensive government loans, sometimes even without their knowledge.
TAFE institutes and ethical private training companies in NSW are having to look at ways to minimise costs so they can tender for courses and win government contracts. The reality is that they are being forced into cutting the time that students spend face-to-face with teachers and access to resources and equipment.
Courses are being condensed: trades courses are being cut from three years to two-and-a-half years or even two years, or students are receiving fewer hours of training on a weekly basis.
That might appeal to some employers or students but it will inevitably mean that students get rushed through their training, and this will affect their skill level and capacity to produce high standards of work.
This could have disastrous results for competency levels of electricians, motor mechanics, engineers, hairdressers, nurses, childcare workers, aged care workers etc.
Some courses are being offered online as a way of cutting costs. While online learning works for some areas of study this style of delivering courses has been found not to be successful in the VET sector as very low numbers of students finish courses; not all students can learn how to do things from reading a manual or watching a video — they need to be taught and supported by a teacher.
There is increasing pressure on training providers to pass students in order to obtain more government funding. With a funding model based on “bums on seats” and course outcomes it is in a provider’s interests to lower standards and use tick-and-flick assessments.
TAFE was always about working-class public education; it was about opportunities for those who were marginalised or dispossessed. TAFE was about lifelong learning, not lifelong debt. It was about giving people who did not do well at school a second chance to gain an education and a job, and giving students with disabilities and those who are from non-English-speaking backgrounds access to courses and the support needed to assist them to complete qualifications.
Unless something is done to prevent the destruction of TAFE in NSW the Australians of today and tomorrow, our children or grandchildren, the marginalised and the disadvantaged will not have the opportunity to gain skills, recognised qualifications and employment.
This is the crisis facing vocational education.
This is an edited version of a speech given by Lorraine Watson, Federation Representative, Wollongong TAFE, on May Day