On August 11, thousands of TAFE teachers met at statewide stop-work meetings. Ninety-nine point nine percent voted for further industrial action if there is no satisfactory progress in the dispute. This includes a possible 24-hour strike in the week commencing August 31.
The teachers angrily rejected proposals from the Department of Education and Training to increase teaching hours by more than 10%, to reduce professional development and to impose other adverse changes to working conditions.
The turnout at the meetings reached record numbers. Many carried extra resolutions for even stronger industrial action.
The proposed increase in teaching hours alone is equal to more than 500 full-time teaching positions. However, this claim is many times more than the cost of the unfunded 1.5% average salary increase a year.
Furthermore, the proposal would mean thousands of part-time casuals would lose their jobs or have their hours and income drastically reduced.
Teachers are extremely disappointed the premier and education minister have not intervened to resolve this matter in a fair and mutually agreeable way. Unions NSW has agreed to ask them to do so.
So what are the causes of this dispute? The current problems can be credited to 12 years of federal and NSW government neglect. The costs of running TAFE has been shifted onto students, through big fee and charge increases, and onto teachers, by increasing their workload and employing mostly casuals.
Since 1997, the NSW and federal governments have made huge productivity "savings" by progressively reducing funding to TAFE NSW in real terms. Now, there is an annual shortfall of nearly $600 million.
The government-funding share of TAFE revenue has dropped by nearly 10% in this time. Meanwhile, student charges and the commercial income share of revenue have increased by the same percentage.
As if all this wasn't enough, last year the education department started to deny new full-time permanent teachers the previously available release time to complete a university level teacher education qualification.
This was to make counter-productive "savings" of no more than $7 million a year. Fifty key positions in the "Doing Business" restructure were cut to "save" about $4 million a year.
All these enormous "savings" have occurred despite what the then NSW education minister Carmel Tebbutt said in 2006. Then, she proudly announced the finding by Allen Consulting Group that each dollar invested in TAFE returned $6.40 to the economy over 20 years.
So given the annual productivity "savings" of $600 million already being made each year, why has the NSW government tried to enforce extreme increases in teaching workload?
At first, the department insisted on a 23% increase in teaching workload. Then it wanted 17%. Now, after much industrial disruption by angry teachers, a still excessive 10% increase in workload is demanded to pay for a 1.5% a year average salary rise.
Why does the government also want to cut the professional development time of TAFE teachers, eliminate the requirement for them to have university level teacher education qualifications, and exert micro-control over their daily work so they spend less time educating students and more time on administrative trivia?
It's because too many short-sighted politicians and bean-counting Treasury bureaucrats fail to recognise the enormous six-fold return on investment (referred to above) that comes from properly funding TAFE to deliver high quality vocational education and training.
TAFE teachers, students and our NSW economy deserve an investment in a fair salary rise for teachers without sacrificing teaching and learning conditions to pay for it.
[Phil Bradley is the NSW Teachers Federation assistant general secretary (Post School Education).]