Students say TAFE must be free

April 27, 2021
The fee for the Farriery Certificate IV is up to $3240.

It seems that everybody’s opinion about TAFE matters except that of us — TAFE students.

No one asked, from example, for my views on the proposed deletion of 43 Student Services jobs from the Newcastle campuses.

The security guards, the class support workers and the front office person do a great job and, from my interactions with them, are hard-working, friendly and essential.

They are my go-to people, especially as there is no TAFE Students Association in the Hunter.

The recent sale of Scone TAFE is another example of us students being ignored.

Apparently, the government and Racing NSW stitched up the sale last August.

It shows a profound lack of concern for students that Minister for TAFE Geoff Lee, would endorse the sale and then permit new enrolments at Scone TAFE, knowing that these students wouldn’t be able to finish their courses there.

Racing NSW has promised to deliver the “right mix of courses” on the site so that the region has the “necessary skilled labour”. As a show of good faith, they should allow currently enrolled students the option of completing their studies with existing resources and facilities at Scone TAFE.

Perhaps the board member of Racing NSW who leads a regional university could follow-up on this?

Let’s look at another area where students’ opinions aren’t sought or considered: fees.

Scone TAFE still offers enrolment in the Farriery Certificate IV. The fee is up to $3240. The Certificate III in Agriculture costs up to $2620 and Veterinary Nursing Certificate IV can set you back a whopping $12,600!

In 2015, a new fee system — Smart and Skilled — brought in huge fee increases under the guise of offering students choice.

If that was the choice, then more than 30,000 students chose to say “Forget it!”

Student numbers, currently around 141,000, are still down from the 176,000 who were enrolled in 2014 before Smart and Skilled was introduced.

We now have another report in which David Gonski and Peter Shergold claim that a Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) in TAFE would “level the playing field for students.”

Level the playing field for whom?

Did the authors sit down with students in the cafeteria or the library and ask them about how Smart and Skilled TAFE’s enrolment and fee system really is?

A HECS-style debt would most likely start low, but the fees would increase, interest rates would creep up and the payment threshold would go down.

Within a few years, lower income students, who are more likely to attend TAFE, would be accumulating interest payments and debts to burden them for years.

With a HECS-style loan would the Certificate IV in Veterinary Nursing cost even more than $12,600?

The vocational education and training (VET) loans scheme previously introduced led to students being saddled with $80,000 debts.

If the government wants to know what’s wrong with TAFE, then it should read last year’s NSW Auditor General report.

That report found that TAFE was poorly managed as it tried to balance “commercial, competitive and efficient” goals with the social objectives of the TAFE Act which states that TAFE should focus on providing ‘educationally or vocationally disadvantaged groups (such as women, Aborigines, persons of non-English speaking background, persons with disabilities and persons in rural areas) with access to technical and further education services”.

Given the government is prioritising turning a profit from students, no wonder it does not want to hear our voices about sell-offs and fees, or see us organised in a strong and independent student association.

Despite all this, I love learning at TAFE.

Students and workers know that we will have to continually retrain, reinvent ourselves and adapt to the new economies, such as the shift to renewables.

Given this reality, it is good the Community and Public Sector Union is calling for TAFE to be fully funded, with no student fees.

Similarly, the Hunter Jobs Alliance is calling for TAFE to make more courses free as a way of supporting workers to transition into new jobs in new economies.

At least someone is listening.

[Wayne Barret is a former welfare worker and member of Socialist Alliance.]

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