The Victorian state government has begun a neoliberal experiment with the Victorian public as its guinea pigs.
After the Jeff Kennett-led Coalition state government in the 1990s privatised electricity, gas, public transport, roads, prisons, prisoner transport and much else, one of the few things left to be privatised is vocational education.
Job losses of 2000 permanent workers have been reported. However, adding all sessional teachers who won't have their contracts renewed, the number who will lose their job tallies to about 10,000, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) says.
Hundreds of courses are being cut. Some of the courses being cut are not offered in any other public TAFE in Victoria. For example, printing apprenticeships will not be available at public TAFEs any more. The only Victorian TAFE diploma in Auslan, Australia's sign language for the deaf community, will be axed. This course is essential for training Auslan interpreters.
Most of the agricultural courses will be cut from the University of Ballarat's Horsham and Ararat TAFE campuses in the Wimmera, an important agricultural region.
Building unions are worried about the de-skilling of their industry. Workers are getting certificates in less than half the time it takes to get equivalent certificates at TAFE, a real danger to safety in the building industry.
There have been protests around the state organised by the Australian Education Union (AEU) and the NTEU. If the campaign to Save our TAFEs is to succeed, other unions and the community need to be more involved from this point.
It isn't possible for the current staff and students of TAFE to mount a sufficient campaign alone. The TAFE student unions were viciously attacked by the Kennett government and dismantled by the Steve Bracks Labor government.
It is also harder for TAFE students to be politically active. They don't have the same level of rights to organise as university students, and many TAFE students study part-time or are at TAFE for only short courses, making it harder to organise an effective campaign.
A high proportion of teaching staff are employed casually as well, making it harder for the TAFE unions to organise a strong campaign.
The campaign to save TAFEs has been strongest where the campaign has involved the local community and other unions in the organising of the campaign. This is more so in regional communities where the cuts are a blow against the whole community.
In Ballarat, where the history of the SMB campus goes back to 1870, a community group has been meeting to organise the campaign.
The Geelong City Council organised a 150-strong public meeting, which voted to back a Geelong Trades Hall-initiated action group to save the local TAFE. In the La Trobe Valley, Bendigo and Mildura there is whole-of-community opposition.
In metropolitan Melbourne, the strongest campaigns have been those to save the Swinburne University TAFE campuses at Lilydale and Prahran.
Lilydale has had two rallies involving the local community, including people from the original campaign that fought for a university in the outer eastern suburbs.
In Prahran, a public protest meeting of up to 200 people voted to set up campaign working groups. This protest meeting also involved local traders and residents as well as graduates of the Theatre Arts course who now work in the entertainment industry.
There is potential in the untapped public concern to build a huge campaign. Premier Ted Baillieu's government rules with only a one-seat majority. The NTEU says only one Coalition MP needs to change their vote to stop the cuts. Done now, this would reverse the cuts and save TAFE.
TAFEs are the lifeline in public education opportunities for working-class people. They are too important to lose. Only a huge community revolt can save them.
A state-wide day of protest action is needed involving industrial and community action. There has not been any industrial action yet, because the AEU and NTEU are not in a bargaining period.
But both unions are in a strong position. A day of widespread strike and protest action with broader and sustained involvement of other unions and communities would show the extent of the opposition.
Only the most courageous, or suicidal, government would try to use anti-union laws against such a campaign to continue this agenda of wanton destruction of public vocation education.
[Jeremy Smith is a Socialist Alliance member and branch president of the NTEU's University of Ballarat branch.]