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TAFE SA thrown to the wolves

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by Nick G.
TAFE SA is under concerted attack. It is a victim of the same right-wing neoliberal pro-market and user-pays philosophies that have seen a reduction in services and their quality in areas like health, transport, housing and school education.
It is also a reflection of the contradiction between TAFE as a provider of courses that reflect the interests and needs of a very diverse Australian population, on the one hand, and as a provider to employers of a workforce that meets their productivity requirements.
The question of “TAFE for whom?”-  for the community, or for corporations - has led to some big changes in TAFE operations because the corporations have the ear of both major parliamentary parties. They have the upper hand, and it is the initiatives and innovations that serve their needs and their interests that have plunged TAFE into crisis.
The utter irrelevance of parliament
On November 24, 2011 Dr Bob Such, a former TAFE lecturer and Minister in a Liberal state government for Technical and Further Education, moved the following motion in the House of Assembly of the South Australia Parliament:
That this house calls on the state government to ensure that TAFE is not undermined by the introduction of full contestability for VET funding, nor by the South Australian government’s Skills for All policy.
The motion was carried. It was an important motion and was the culmination of intensive lobbying by the Australian Education Union (AEU) of state parliamentarians.
SA AEU members were aware of what was happening in Victoria. And they had felt the breath of the devil on the backs of their necks in March 2011 when the chief executive of Business SA, Peter Vaughan, had savaged TAFE as a “sheltered workshop” for teachers.  
They were protected, he said, by the “dead hand of bureaucracy” and by “inflexible” industrial awards. His chief criticism of lecturers and teachers in the SA TAFE was that they “failed to meet the needs of the business community in filling skills shortages”. He called for it to be made easier to sack permanent teachers and for the removal of the cap on the numbers of casually-employed staff.  Industrial agreements should be created for each area of expertise, he said, echoing John Howard’s AWAs.
Labor sets up TAFE for corporate takeover
How did the state Labor government respond? Minister for Employment, Training and Further Education Jack Snelling said that by 2012-13 he "expected" TAFE would have to compete openly against private training businesses and organisations. "The Office for TAFE will have more autonomy and flexibility to respond to the market and be competing for training revenue."
This was heading in the direction of the Victorian model. That is why Bob Such’s motion, eight months later, was so important. That motion reflected the will of the people. It is what parliaments are supposed to do.
But there is a lesson in this for people who want to confine struggles to defend public interests to the Labor Party and the parliamentary process. Despite the replacement of the Rann-Foley leadership of the government with the ALP Left’s Jay Weatherill in October 2011, Vaughan’s agenda for the commercialisation of TAFE proceeded apace.
Indeed, one year after Weatherill’s new team had been in office, the SA parliament took TAFE out from under the control of the government’s department and handed it over to the private sector. 
Further Education Minister Kenyon proudly announced that TAFE would now be an independent statutory corporation run by an independent Board.  The Board’s inaugural Chair?  Peter Vaughan! The other members of the Board?  Six of the seven represent corporate interests from the big end of town.  They are not educators.
TAFE SA losing market share
There is no doubt that the Skills for All agenda has opened TAFE SA to competition by private training organisations for funding with the same results as in Victoria and elsewhere.  
Since the introduction of Skills for All, TAFE SA market share has dropped by 6% from 75% to 69%. However, the decline is much steeper in areas of high youth employment, like the South of Adelaide, where the TAFE share has dropped by around 12%.
Currently there are around 300 Skills for All training providers contesting funding that would once have supported TAFE courses. Many of these providers are based interstate. Nationally, there are more than 4000 private Registered Training Offices (RTO) seeking to divert funding from TAFE to themselves.
To make it easier for RTOs to compete in the market place with TAFE SA, the State government is planning to remove $30 million in funding from TAFE.  This is to reduce the difference in the payments that go from the State government to TAFE and the RTOs. 
In relation to funding, it is important to realise that both TAFE and RTOs are funded on course completion numbers, not on enrolment numbers. TAFE SA has had instances recently of two courses with 37 and 36 enrolments dropping over the space of four weeks to 6 and 4 students respectively.  And courses are being “capped” – that is, once they reach a certain size they are closed to further enrolments.  
Fightback sure to develop
TAFE SA supporters and staff will be sure to campaign hard to protect TAFE from the ravages of the market. They do not want to see lecturers laid off, courses removed and fees increased.
But there can be no solutions in a system in which both major parliamentary parties are committed to the neoliberal belief that for-profit, private providers should be the beneficiaries of government spending on education.
The defence of TAFE must be part of an independent people’s agenda that leads not towards the bourgeois parliament, but towards anti-imperialist independence and socialism. Only such a system can allow the people to make their own decisions about what a socially useful education system might look like.
They will be continually frustrated in those attempts while the power of the state rests with capital.


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