Tinkering at the edges but little reform for vocational sector

TAFE Directors Australia CEO Craig Robertson in Canberra.TAFE Directors Australia CEO Craig Robertson in Canberra.

The vocational sector will likely be subject to “tinkering at the edges” but enjoy little in the way of fundamental reform as the Morrison government moves ahead with elements of the Joyce review, which was released just before the election campaign began.

While two of the report’s 71 recommendations received funding in the April federal Budget, sector experts say there is a valid question as to how far the newly elected government will go with implementing the entirety of the report from former New Zealand education minister Steven Joyce.

“We are not clear whether the government has accepted all the recommendations or whether the budget announcements are the limit of what they intend to do,” said Craig Robertson, chief executive of TAFE Directors Australia.

One key recommendation is that the federal, state and territory governments “commit over time” to reducing the funding imbalances between qualification-based vocational education and higher education.

So far, the recommendations for a national skills commission and a national careers institute have received a prime ministerial thumbs up after the Joyce report was handed to Mr Morrison in March.

The skills commission is intended to co-ordinate approaches to the funding and resourcing of vocational education and training between federal and state governments. The careers institute, designed to be part of the skills commission, will provide better careers information to students.

Both initiatives have received mixed reactions from experts. The commission has been described as a ‘‘lite’’ version of the Australian National Skills Authority that was disbanded under the Howard government. It would need industry to come to the table to be effective, Mr Robertson said.

The careers institute might offer useful information but it will be using workforce planning and employment outlooks from the commission which have been historically proven to be “unreliable” and “invented to give astrology a good name”, according to Gavin Moodie, an adjunct professor of education at RMIT.

“(The predictions) will be as unreliable as every other central body’s employment projections,” Dr Moodie said.

However, there are serious questions about the government’s ability to deliver on its most prominent budget announcement — 80,000 new apprenticeships over four years via $8000 employer subsidies. Currently, apprenticeships make up just 20 per cent of vocational enrolments, with commencements at their lowest level since 1996.

“Even if we dramatically increase the number of apprenticeships, they will still be a minority of the system. The federal government needs a policy for all vocational education, not just apprenticeships,” said Leesa Wheelahan, the William G. Davis Chair in Community College Leadership at the University of Toronto.

Claire Field, a consultant to private vocational providers, said that in the past employer incentives had been more successful in driving traineeships than apprenticeships.

She said the predecessor Skilling Australians Fund had been criticised as being too narrowly focused on traditional apprenticeships while overlooking the fact that jobs growth was largely centred in services, such as aged and disability care.

Ms Field said that while she rated the Joyce review highly, there was little to suggest that private vocational providers would see any growth in domestic markets under the Morrison government and they would need to look to international students.

There are also questions about whether the Morrison government has any plans to revive the public TAFE sector which has been decimated in recent years by ad hoc, pro-market policies and rampant defunding.

“Unless the federal government recognises the value of TAFE as a key anchor institution of the communities they serve and funds it accordingly, public vocational education is in danger of being reduced to atomistic, just in time and just for now, narrow skills training,” said Professor Wheelahan. “This is exactly what Australia has done to its aged care system and to the job services network.”

John Pardy, an education expert from Monash University, said the Joyce review’s aim for national consistency would need to be built in ways that could balance competing industries and needs on local, state and national levels.

“The challenge in this pivot for consistency is that it does not descend into a series of piecemeal approaches longing for a coherent policy base.”

He said both the skills commission and careers institute might play a role in nationally co-ordinating policy and practice “however slight”.

SourceAAP:www.theaustralian.com.au

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