Free TAFE courses coming to Victoria

A protest against TAFE cuts, in Ballarat in 2012.

The Victorian Labor government’s final budget before the November state election is strong on spending — for health, education and public transport, but unfortunately also for toll roads and law and order.

One of the highlights of the budget’s investment in education was the announcement of an extra $172 million for Technical and Further Education (TAFE). This money will go towards providing free-of-charge courses in 30 “key priority” areas from 2019. Although the Department of Education and Training already subsidises 994 TAFE courses, those outlined by Premier Daniel Andrews will be completely tuition-free.

TAFE courses provide a diverse range of vocational education for students seeking to enter the workforce with a more “hands-on” approach. It includes courses from Certificate I to Advanced Diploma levels.

After severe neglect by the previous Coalition state government, the quality of courses dropped, the number of enrolled students decreased and some campuses, such as Lilydale, closed entirely.

The Labor government has certainly been more progressive on this issue. It has provided important support for students, through its $820 million in funding for training and skills in this year’s budget, and for teachers, by agreeing to a new enterprise bargaining agreement which includes a 5.4% pay rise up front. Their recent policy to provide free TAFE courses seeks to better equip graduates for in demand jobs, in order to boost employment figures.

Recognition of the need for affordable and quality education by the state government is welcome. Education is an undeniable right and one of the few methods in which equality of opportunity can be achieved in the cruel capitalist system, which continues to plague society.

A recent Ipsos poll showed 90% of the Australian population believes education should be free, confirming the popularity of policies such as free university education.

Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go. While some state governments have taken the initiative on education and training issues, the federal government displays a grotesque contempt for public education. Watering-down of needs-based schools funding was not enough for them, they now want to lower the HECS repayment threshold to $42,000, while freezing university funding for the next three years entirely.

Federal Labor offers no positive alternative either, committing broadly to only “stop Malcolm Turnbull’s attacks on students” and “prevent $100,000 degrees”.

This occurs while giant tax cuts are proposed for big businesses, subsidies for the private sector are increased and ever more imperialist conflicts in the Middle East continue to be bankrolled. The impact of such an approach can already be seen, with the National Union of Students President Mark Pace saying “opportunities for future students … are being killed”.

Even on a state level, the ostensibly universally-available secondary education is slowly becoming less and less accessible. Fees for government schools are increasing, with many families struggling to meet rising yearly costs, such as books and devices a student requires.

It is equally depressing that a significant amount of investment and funding for public services only occurs in a pre-election budget — a trend confirmed by this year’s Victorian and federal budgets.

Similarly, free TAFE courses should not only be based on what is “in demand” and accommodates the wishes of businesses. Funding for education, like all public services, must be unconditional and serve the community’s interests, rather than that of corporations.

What is clear is that free, quality and public education is a right, not a privilege. Governments, both state and federal, must take responsibility for ensuring that everybody who wishes to undertake further study is able to do so.

Those in power must never forget that when students’ rights are under attack, we fight back.

[Leo Crnogorcevic is a Year 11 student and a member of Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance]

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