Union fears government will ignore lessons of failed TAFE reforms

Posted By TEU on Apr 19, 2018 | 1 comment

Sandra Grey, national president of the Tertiary Education Union, shares her experience of last week’s Australian Education Union’s technical and further education Council – and draws alarming parallels between reforms in Australia and ideas put forward in a Cabinet paper on the future of Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics.

The beauty of the global education reform movement – the GERM – is how simple it seems to have been to roll out. The horror of the GERM is the harm it does to students, communities, and staff.

Last week, Sharn Riggs, national secretary, and I represented the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) at the Annual General Meeting of the Australian Education Union’s technical and further education (TAFE) Council.

Whilst there we heard how the GERM was at the heart of the Australian Government’s education reforms that had savagely eaten away at public vocational education provision.

During one of the first presentations, researcher Don Zoellner reminded the meeting that the GERM is based on a position advanced by economist Milton Freidman that education “is not a valid government activity.” In other words, governments are working to shift provision from the public to private sectors, thereby moving the risk of cost from the state to individual students and their families.

We then discussed what this meant for students, staff, and communities in Australia. Put simply, it has meant a decline in TAFE’s real recurrent expenditure per hour from $18.02 in 2007 to $15.29 in 2016. TAFE teachers present noted that this has led to casual staff being exploited and others being exhausted from overwork.

The government’s GERM reforms of vocational education have also resulted in major cuts in staffing – 44 per cent in Victoria and 35 per cent in New South Wales TAFEs respectively. Teachers spoke of how they were are no longer proud of their institutions because of the aberrant performance targets which distort daily activities.

Sadly, it all sounded rather familiar.

Strains of the GERM can be seen in a recently released Cabinet paper setting out a review of our Institutes of Technology and Polytechnic sector. The Cabinet paper notes that tertiary education institutions should be able to use staff “more efficiently” and suggests the need to “offer more programmes outside work hours.”

The Cabinet paper even notes the Minister is “exploring recent TAFE transformations in Australia” mentioning interest in two systems – those of Victoria and New South Wales – to help inform the reform of the ITP sector here.

This would contradict the Minister of Education’s commitment to ensure “a high quality, fair, and inclusive education system that provides all New Zealanders with learning opportunities and prepares them for the future.”

TEU has acted swiftly to respond to the elements of the GERM that are in the ITP Roadmap 2020 project and we are pleased that the government has responded to our initial concerns. Education Minister Chris Hipkins and the Chief Executive of the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC), Tim Fowler, will also address our annual conference early next month.

Ministry officials have also ensured tertiary education staff are invited to take part in one of the Minister’s two Education Summits being held in May.

The TEC has also invited us to an Integrated Working Group on the ITP roadmap project, a group that will, we were advised yesterday, also include Chief Executives of ITPs. The inclusion of senior leaders on this group will make a big difference to our ability to discuss as a sector what we need to do for the future of ITPs, rather than the TEC hearing from Chief Executives separately.

AEU members demonstrated in their conversations the need to keep talking, campaigning, and lobbying against the GERM. The TEU will continue to do the same here to ensure quality public tertiary education is one of the core elements of education policy.

While public provision of vocational education and training (VET) in Australia has been savagely cut and thousands of jobs lost (in Victoria alone 8,048 people have lost their jobs), union members are continuing to speak out for their students, communities, and families. As a result of their work the Australian Labour Party has committed to ensure that 70 per cent of all public tertiary education funding for vocational education goes to the public institutions.

The AEU has also ensured they have a place in the major working party reviewing the VET sector.

But it doesn’t stop there. AEU TAFE Federal Secretary Pat Forward noted that members needed to be bold and determined if they wanted to turn around the harm done to TAFEs. She said they needed to be bold because public tertiary education represents hope to ordinary working people and we must ensure they have the opportunity to get into education.

The same message applies here – we need members to intensify the efforts to defend accessible and quality public tertiary education. We need our members to ensure that the Minister of Education remains true to his overall vision of an education system that is accessible for all.

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