Vocational training is more than a procurement tool

THE current vocational education marketisation policies are nothing more than crude, blunt and ineffectual procurement policies. This is most clearly seen in Victoria and South Australia, but is evident in every state.

Those governments use market signals — an increase in public funding for particular qualifications — to increase provision in some areas. And then when they decide they have enough, they decrease funding, sometimes significantly, with little notice.

This ad hoc policy environment affects not just TAFE but also the serious private providers. It would be fine if it were a market in hamburgers. But it’s not — it’s a market in the provision of education and training, in people’s ­futures.

So governments are laying the foundation for a sector that can respond to short-term demand only by providing shallow, mass-produced, off-the-shelf courses. This doesn’t help the sector anticipate what future demand will be and build the knowledge, skills, staffing and infrastructure required for the future.

It also focuses efforts on profitable programs that can be run cheaply and in high volume, whether they are important to the economy or not. We don’t need to look too far back to see the massive spike in personal training courses in Victoria.

These procurement policies are also a form of social engineering. If you are broke and don’t meet the requirements to get into a university fine arts degree, then too bad. But if you are to receive government funding (such as it is) for a VET program, you have to do the qualifications the government tells you to do in areas where it decides training is needed.

In other words, labour force planning, which is a dismal science that rarely works — yesterday’s crisis in the engineering skills shortage is today’s over­supply. But those who elect to go to university can do what they like, provided they meet the university’s entry requirements. All of this is resulting in the dismantling of TAFE, which is much more than just a short-term provider for narrowly focused, profitable programs. It is a community-owned asset that contributes to building social infrastructure, social inclusion and social cohesion and it provides the mechanism for social mobility.

Its job is to be accountable to the community and to implement public policy objectives. Its job is to anticipate what people, industry and Australia will need in the future, and to build the programs and capacity to make that happen.

It is unimaginable that the government would cut the base funding of universities so that the only funding they got was for programs they offered. It’s unimaginable any government would take their buildings and assets and put them out to tender. It’s unimaginable they would change the funding rates willy-nilly because they think there are too many graduates in particular programs.

While governments want to subject universities to more competition, they still think the institutions matter. Obviously, state and federal governments don’t think TAFE matters. They are wrong.

Leesa Wheelahan is the William G. Davis chair in community college leadership at the University of Toronto.