Education funding and the skills crisis


Phil Bradley

It would be no surprise to most that the Howard government is continuing its ideological attack on the public TAFE system, including through the so-called Skilling Australia's Workforce Act and the May 9 federal budget.

With billions of dollars to give away, most has gone to the relatively well-off, with no serious effort to address the national skills shortage. The four-year forward estimates provide an increase for vocational and other training/education expenses of about 1.5% per annum, much less than the expected inflation rate, never mind rectifying the Coalition's horrendous funding cuts since 1997.

The latest National Centre for Vocational Education Research

statistics reveal that Commonwealth real funding per student hour for vocational education and training (VET) was cut by 24% between 1997 and 2004 — a federal funding shortfall of about $330 million in 2004 alone.

Spending is to be cut further as a percentage of federal expenditure, from 0.75% in 2005-06 to 0.67% in 2009-10. TAFE's cuts will be much more than the overall cuts due to the government's privatisation agenda.

In an address to the World Skills Leaders Forum in Melbourne on May 7, former prime minister Bob Hawke quoted the following OECD statistic: "This federal government has decreased spending on tertiary education by 8%, including vocational education and training, over the last decade, when all other OECD countries have increased such spending, on average by 38%."

Hawke noted that this is a figure this country should be truly ashamed of, especially given that a recent international survey of businesses found the skills shortage crisis in Australia was second only to Botswana! The federal funding neglect of VET has even caused protestations from the Reserve Bank and the Australian Industry Group.

Of course, the government will refer to the budget increases as if inflation and growth in student demand are non-existent, and refer to some increases, such as an additional $107 million over four years for New Apprenticeships Centres. In NSW, however, none of this NAC funding will go to the Department of Education and Training (DET)/TAFE because the federal minister for vocational and technical education, Gary Hardgrave, cancelled the new DETNAC contract from June 30. This was despite the federal government giving DETNAC a 98% quality service rating and a 93% satisfaction rating among apprentices and employers that had used its services.

The DETNACs provide probably the best training support service in Australia, and in NSW they assist more than 100,000 apprentices and trainees, and 37,000 employers. The federal government's list of 30 approved new NAC contractors does not include one public provider. Many individual employers and Group Training NSW have written to the Coalition seeking the reversal of the decision to cut DETNAC's contract.

The federal budget provision to increase funding to a National Approach to Apprenticeships, Training and Skills Recognition is unlikely to benefit TAFE, and as for the $350 million originally allocated to the "fabulous" Australian Technical Colleges, it appears that only four of these are now operational and only about 100 students have enrolled. With that funding, TAFE could have already trained tens of thousands to address critical skills shortages.

The NSW Labor government cannot escape blame, with its TAFE funding cuts and efforts to shed the costs to students with excessive increases in TAFE fees and charges.

NSW provides about 70% of government funds for TAFE NSW. Since 1998, NSW government funding in real terms per student hour has been cut by about 10%, equivalent to a shortfall of $110 million per year now. Coupled with the federal government's even greater cuts, the effect for TAFE NSW is a shortfall of about $250 million per year.

The national skills shortage crisis will inevitably worsen unless federal and state governments accept their responsibility to invest in the skills education base of Australia, by reversing their massive funding cuts of the last 10 years.

[The unabridged version of this article is posted at . Phil Bradley is assistant general secretary (post-school education) of the NSW Teachers Federation.]

From Green Left Weekly, June 14, 2006.
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