The issues caused by the boost in enrolments in the vocational training system only months into Labor’s marquee free TAFE scheme are not simply those of managing the problems of success, as the state government claims.
‘‘Saving TAFE’’ was a key plank of Labor’s policy platform ahead of the 2014 Victorian election and part of its ambitious Education State agenda. But rebuilding the system hasn’t been easy, with private training college scandals damaging the reputation of the vocational education sector.
With enrolments down 40 per cent at some providers, the government had to find a way of luring students back to the beleaguered sector. Unfortunately, while the free TAFE policy has good intentions and benefited large numbers of people, it has been rushed and, as reported in The Agethis week, some institutions have been unprepared for the influx of students.
This is not about whether vocational training is a crucial part of the education sector, but how it might be best provided.
The aims were to increase enrolments within the capacity of the system and respond to skills shortages, but the free TAFE initiative failed to cap places, and a surge of 19,000 has swamped the system, creating a critical lack of teachers and class sizes that inhibit effective learning.
The TAFEs should not have allowed such a flood without first ensuring adequate resources and an effective structure in which supply of teachers adequately meets demand. The funds are available – the government has budgeted $1.3billion.
It should not have been a surprise that the supply of free education at a time of relatively high youth unemployment would substantially increase demand for those courses. Enrolments in the more than 50 courses the Andrews government has made free have doubled. They include mental health, disability, nursing and education support.
Training and Skills Minister Gayle Tierney’s assertion that the initiative is an ‘‘undeniable success’’ tells only half the story. ‘‘We knew it was going to be challenging and take time, but it’s a challenge we are up for,’’ she said.
The challenge should have been met head-on with the hiring of extra teachers – or at least evidence that enough teachers were available – before enrolments were thrown open so widely.
The consistent element of the sector’s seemingly endless swinging between urgent expansion and existential crisis is a concern and suggests politicians, public servants and service providers have not fully heeded lessons from previous problems and failed policies in the sector. And, as ever, a lack of due diligence is fuelled by a lack of transparency and accountability.
Governments’ attempts to boost vocational training have in some cases undermined it, damaging students’ trust and the credibility of some providers, saddling young people with undue debts, enriching rorters and costing billions of taxpayer dollars.
There are many fine educators in vocational training, and free TAFE is an excellent initiative, but only if it is rolled out with an effective and holistic strategy in place. A training sector lacking in skills is unlikely to solve the nation’s lack of skills.