No TAFE fee increases and privatisation!

June 7, 2008

The Victorian state government's TAFE "reform" blueprint Securing our Future Economic Prosperity: Discussion Paper on Skills Reform, released in April, pitches for higher course fees and a Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS)-style payment system spread over a few years. Currently, TAFE students pay their course fees up front.

Also proposed are large-scale funding changes to the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector that would force TAFEs to compete for students with private Registered Training Organisations (RTOs).

The report argues that these measures are needed to address the skills shortfall in Victoria. It says if training continues at its present pace, the shortfall of advanced diploma and diploma-trained people will reach 123,000 by 2015.

Jeremy Smith, branch president of the University of Ballarat National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), doesn't agree that the plans will address the skill shortage. He told Green Left Weekly that they "smack of privatisation by stealth". The University of Ballarat is one of four dual sector universities in Victoria that provide 30% of all TAFE courses.

The plan pushes competition between public TAFEs and private RTOs, which will have the capacity to set prices and fee structures up to a set level. Smith said that this assumes a "level playing field" and does not take into account the maintenance of large infrastructure, such as big campuses, the TAFE sector's IT networks and the employment of a professional work force.

Smith said the private sector was mostly motivated by financial interest. This contrasts with the TAFE sector's public responsibility to provide a service. Because of their large overheads, under the proposals TAFEs will be disadvantaged as smaller private operators cherry pick the most profitable and cheapest courses to run while not being subject to the same accountability level as TAFEs.

Smith said that the NTEU has been in discussions with the state government about the contestability of funding, and the union is concerned about the government's overall plans for the TAFE sector.

"The solution to the skills shortage is not privatisation but a significant increase in public funding to TAFEs, which is currently around 13% lower than the national average. Furthermore, a serious approach to skills development would mean the revising of the purpose of Vocational Education and Training to provide training for socially-useful employment."

The government blueprint promotes a user-pays model, calling for higher up-front fees to be paid because: "Current fee levels for students are unrelated to the level of training or the future financial benefit of undertaking that training".

The introduction of a HECS scheme in public TAFEs will shift the burden away from government towards individual students who will be forced to make ever larger financial contributions towards their education. Since HECS was introduced in the university sector in 1989, changes to the scheme have meant that students' contributions have been substantially increased well above the initially pre-determined level of 20% of their course fee.

The government is concerned about how the plan will be received and is looking at the option of introducing a ceiling for fees plus a sort of concession for "underprivileged students".

Smith disagrees with Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes, who was quoted in the June 2 Melbourne Age supporting the fee increase.

"The report is full of contradictions and government spin. How can the state government honestly talk about increasing students' access to TAFE while, at the same time, suggest large fee increases? TAFE students tend to come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and any fee increase or HECS scheme would immediately disadvantage them", Smith concluded.

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