The Rudd government is proposing to make funding for vocational training "contestable", the Sydney Morning Herald revealed on October 29. The proposal, effectively a privatisation of TAFE colleges, was drafted by state and federal bureaucrats and will be discussed at the November 17 Council of Australian Governments meeting.
The SMH revealed that the report advocated that TAFE students be saddled with the cost of their education via a deferred payment system, similar to the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, that forces university students to pay for their education via the tax system when their income reaches a certain threshold.
The Australian Education Union, which covers TAFE teachers, has condemned the privatisation push. "TAFE providers need to have guaranteed funding in order to be able to provide affordable training for all Australians. If these changes go ahead we will see quality decline and TAFEs will be forced to increase student fees, worsening the skills crisis", AEU federal president Angelo Gavrielatos said on October 29.
The proposal was also condemned by NSW Greens MLC John Kaye. "On the cusp of a global recession and with a skills shortage this is no time to be experimenting with market-based solutions to make sure we solve the skills crisis", Kaye said on October 29. "The state Premiers and Prime Minister [Kevin Rudd] are colluding in secret to push through one of Australia's biggest privatisations since Telstra."
NSW education minister Verity Firth has attempted to side-step the issue by denying that the NSW government had already decided to privatise TAFE. "No final decisions have yet been made", he statement said.
At the same time as claiming that they are committed to a well-funded TAFE system, the NSW government is also attacking the wages and conditions of TAFE staff.
The government has already served the NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF) with a demand for significant "productivity" gains — including a 23% teaching load increase and the slashing of teachers' sick leave provisions — in order to receive a 1.5% pay increase above the 2.5% on offer in negotiations underway for a new award.
In addition, the government has issued a demand that TAFE staff forgo four weeks' annual leave and extend teaching by four weeks a year.
One of the NSWTF's assistant general secretaries, Phil Bradley, told Green Left Weekly that "government funding cuts to TAFE NSW since 1997 are now 'saving' $500 million in real terms each year, so teachers have already increased productivity enough to deserve a 62% salary increase."
The NSWTF is pursuing a claim for a 5% wage increase through the NSW Industrial Relations Commission.