New South Wales’ world-class public TAFE system is on its knees. The state government’s savage funding cuts and ongoing neglect has seen enrolments plummet and TAFE campuses, particularly in regional areas, fall into disrepair.
But the Coalition government’s “solution” is to further cut funding and replace practical learning with glorified internet cafes in already isolated regional areas.
Since becoming a state MP in February, I have been questioning the government about the impacts of their TAFE agenda. Specifically, I have asked which TAFE colleges they intend to shut down and replace with new Connected Learning Centres, which will result in shifting courses to online modules at the expense of practical, face-to-face vocational training. The government has ducked and weaved at every turn: never once have I had a straight answer.
So I decided to hit the road and see the impacts of the government’s TAFE changes for myself in what I called my Teachers not Terminals TAFE tour, in which I visited the TAFE colleges the government is replacing with Connected Learning Centres.
The first stop was Dapto, near Wollongong where the government has built their first Connected Learning Centre. A wall of computers in a room the size of a takeaway shop has replaced what was once a thriving TAFE of 650 students. There was no library, no support staff, no permanent teachers and no toilets in the facility; students had to go across the road to the railway station to use the toilet.
Tenterfield TAFE looked abandoned, with thistles growing over community art works, the front entrance sign falling off and no students or teachers in sight. This TAFE campus is now derelict. Behind it was a construction site for another small Connected Learning Centre. Locals say the rest of the TAFE campus will be leased to business or community groups and many items of learning equipment have already been given away.
The case was all too familiar in Quirindi, Glen Innes and Murwillumbah, where leaked documents revealed the government’s plans to sell TAFE campuses and replace them with small Connected Learning Centres that will result in a downgrading of vital opportunities for practical skills training.
The consequences for these regional communities will be severe. Skills gaps will foster unemployment and young people will be driven from their home town in search of quality vocational training previously provided by TAFE campuses.
Anyone who truly believes that plumbing, welding or other practical skills, like barista work or animal husbandry can be learnt from a computer screen is kidding themselves.
It’s clear that the Connected Learning Centre model is a thinly veiled attempt to drive down costs, cut teaching staff and replace once-vibrant TAFE campuses with inadequate and poorly-designed facilities. It’s a classic case of deliberately running the system down before selling it off entirely when it becomes completely dysfunctional.
As we face a national skills drought, our TAFE system needs to be restored to provide practical, vocational training to help young people gain employment and assist older Australians to re-enter the workforce. Of course, online learning can augment teaching, but it can never replace face-to-face skills training or provide the range of learning support services that many students, especially those from disadvantaged or non-English speaking backgrounds typically require.
While the National Party continues to support the Liberals in abandoning regional Australians and ripping vital services away, the Greens will continue to speak out. Across NSW and in every regional town where the government wants to cut costs by replacing a TAFE campus with a tacky Connected Learning Centre, the Greens will be there to stand with the community to defend TAFE.
[Dawn Walker is the NSW Greens spokesperson on TAFE.]