Reviving TAFE

I’ve just been invited to make a submission to a Senate inquiry into TAFE in South Australia. From what I can glean, this is a politically motivated exercise by the Turnbull government to make capital out of some embarrassing failures in a Labor state. But it gives me the incentive to write something about the catastrophic failure of vocational education and training in Australia, a failure for which there is plenty of blame to go around. Rather than making political capital out of such incidents, we need to rebuild the TAFE system as the core of a greatly expanded vocational education and training system, including public and non-profit institutions, free from the discredited ideology of markets and competition.

Among the points I want to cover

* The impact of decades of cuts in public support for vocational training
* The disastrous effects of subsidising for-profit providers
* The goal of universal participation in post-school education and training
* Integration of technical/vocational and university education

26 thoughts on “Reviving TAFE

  1. “The goal of universal participation in post-school education and training”

    Why is this a goal? What is it that everyone *has* to be taught, that they don’t learn in school?

  2. @Mitchell Porter
    Sure, straight up post-school aim for about half of ’em to be barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. Make much of the remainder unemployable gaol fodder or worse, but look after the various elites. And if any of the elite members ever need retraining in a future (or present) where people are to necessarily have several careers… tough. Or have I got the sense of your queries wrong and you are instead rhetorically suggesting schools produce cosmologists, carpenters and cardiologists, but they go light on teaching pupils to be life long learners imbued with well developed critical thinking skills?

  3. Different things for different people, of course, but the number of jobs you can do well with no special training and general education ending at Year 12 is declining all the time. Jobs that require only year 10 have already disappeared almost completely.

  4. It is not just the for-profit providers that are the problem, there are plenty of senior administrators in education- university and school – that have made a business out of government and not-for-profits, selling not only education but also visas.

  5. Please have a look at any recent professional evaluation of France. Last I looked (some time ago), it’s built on a payroll obligation on employers: spend 2% or whatever on training, or pay the difference in an earmarked levy that funds public provision. Employers could hire for-profit training firms, and there was inevitably some nepotistic abuse, but on the whole self-interest pushed firms to hire competent providers. The French economy has its problems and rigidities, but poor skills is not usually listed among the main ones. It does seem less dependent on culture than the German apprenticeship model.

  6. This might be a bit nit-picky.

    Should not “free from the discredited ideology of markets and competition” read more like “free from the discredited ideology of markets and competition in the education sector”?

    Even a dyed-in-the-wool “Marxian Autonomist” like me recognises that regulated markets and competition would have their place (preferably under some form of market socialism) and can function usefully in some sectors of the economy.

  7. The job I have now was advertised as requiring a relevant degree or an equivalent level of knowledge, but I am at a loss to explain how my performance of the job calls on the knowledge I acquired from my university education, or even my Year 12 education, and I think the same is true of the other jobs in my department. And my job is actually in a university! (This does mean that some of my knowledge about universities comes in useful from time to time; but I don’t recall acquiring that knowledge as a student.)

  8. @7 “This might be a bit nit-picky.” Yes it might. Rather than make the sentence even longer, I assume charitable readers who will fill in such obvious qualifications.

    @8 The point isn’t knowledge, but skills, such as writing a coherent sentence, organizing an argument and so on.

  9. @James Wimberley
    Re: training obligations
    I seem to remember that Australia had a 2% training obligation some years ago (the 80’s?) and the immediate response was a boom in training for executives in exotic locations.

    Australian business seems to love driving a truck through any loophole left in well intentioned concessions or regulations.

  10. John Quiggin :
    @8 The point isn’t knowledge, but skills, such as writing a coherent sentence, organizing an argument and so on.

    Which I would have thought would have been more than adequately obtained by Year 12 ?

    The issue of vocational training ties in with your other work on UBI. Not much point in vocational training for jobs that will never exist.

  11. bjb, I was educated in Queensland and I had to find out what an argument was from Monty Python:

    M: An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.

    O: No it isn’t!

    M: Yes it is! It isn’t just contradiction.

    O: Look, if I *argue* with you, I must take up a contrary position!

    M: Yes but it isn’t just saying ‘no it isn’t’.

    O: Yes it is!

    M: No it isn’t!

    O: Yes it is!

    M: No it isn’t!

    O: Yes it is!

    M: No it ISN’T! Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.

  12. @Blair Phillips
    As the tax officer in charge of the implementation of the Training Guarantee, I know that it was only a 2% of total payroll to be spent on total training (of a sufficiently rigorous kind). But the executive junket to exotic locations basically couldn’t meet the requirements and didn’t.
    The Training Guarantee was removed, officially, because it had had the intended effect and business behaviour had changed. I doubt many observers now see much sign of a consistent culture of rigorous training for employees, but nowadays I use reading glasses.

  13. The problem with training guarantees is not the headline cases of wastefraudandabuse, which will exist in some form under any imaginable system. It’s that the training provided will be too tightly geared to the short-term needs of employers. In practice they can’t capture all the benefits. Train an employee to write macros in Excel, and they can sell the skill elsewhere. Still, there is a bias, and employers won’t fund career-changing skills. So you will still need a second leg of public provision. Or specific incentives to provide long-term forms of training like apprenticeships.

  14. @James Wimberley
    Addendum: And the scheme is biased towards existing jobs and the skills they call for,xnot those of the future, represented by smaller fast-growing companies not big declining ones. State planning bodies should in principle be able to foresee general trends in employment better than the blind market, but that is not a certainty.

  15. The platform from which this wole subject must be viewed is that conservative governemnts hate ordinary people, especially in Australia. Where is the proof of this? from Howard on LNP have

    Steadily driven up the cost of Tertiary Education

    Attempted to make education a profit making opportunity for big business

    Engineered a property ownership environment that works as a Ponzi scheme making non entrepreneurial skills based earning power an impossible basis for owning any kind of decent property while also having a family.

    Done nothing at all to elevate the social standing of skills as a valued way if life. Skills based occupations are perceived as bottom feeding dead end outcomes.

    Steadily engineered an economy in which all non agricultural or service skills based activities are exported to other lower paid nations.

    Worked agressively to minimise skills based incomes with persistent erosion of working conditions and basic incomes, and demolishing as far as possible organistions that work to hore up basic incomes (unions) while at the same time excusing massive extortions from the economy by an executive elite.

    Undermined the national social contract by progressively defunding it.

    Beligerantly demonised Indiginous people through self righteous agressive paternalistic treatment (akin to that of an abusive father), culminating in the poorest of educational and occupational outcomes for these people.

    Effectively crippled and derated the National Broad Band network to the extent that it is incapable of being used as a universal educational platform available to all Australians in a fully comprehensive way.

    I personally condemn the Liberal National Party as being as being a government for the few at the expense of the many, the environment, and future economic stability. The party claiming to be the “good economic managers” have demonstrated themselves to be a disaster for Australia in nearly every possible way.

  16. When I applied for my current job, ‘degree or associate diploma’ was listed as part of one selection criterion and ‘oral and written communication skills’ as part of another, so they weren’t using one as a proxy for the other. In any case, I’m fairly sure I was writing coherent sentences before I had a degree, and indeed before I finished high school; and I have no recollection of anybody at high school or at university trying to teach the class how to write coherent sentences.

  17. @BilB
    “The party claiming to be the “good economic managers” have demonstrated themselves to be a disaster for Australia in nearly every possible way.”

    When I read that CEO salaries are 78 times average workers, and there is a corporate tax cut in the offing, the LNP are good economic managers – for the 1%.

  18. @bjb

    Average salaries are about $60,000 per year. 78 times that is about $5 million. Some CEOs make that much (and more) but there is no way that CEOs on average make that much.

  19. Smith, it depends entirely on how one chooses to cook the books. Average income includes the high end incomes. Average workers income should not. So the calculation for the CEO will be based on a much lower figure which is getting steadily lower, so the factor, 78, will be increasing weekly.

    Bjb, you set a very low bar for the definition of “good economic manager”.

  20. John Quiggin :
    Different things for different people, of course, but the number of jobs you can do well with no special training and general education ending at Year 12 is declining all the time. Jobs that require only year 10 have already disappeared almost completely.

    I wouldn’t wish to argue with your general point. I’d appreciate getting your opinion on the lack of a sufficiently large number of compulsory subjects for high school students. To give an example of what I have in mind, a Year 12 graduate with high enough aggregate score to enter university had no exposure to elementary geography such that this student didn’t know that Melbourne is south of Sydney. (Missing skill: spacial thinking.) A less clear cut example is a council manager in planning and regulation section, who takes a certificate for retaining walls on a building as a certificate for a retaining wall along a boundary even though the certificate clearly identifies the plan to which it pertains, namely the building. (Missing skill: spacial thinking, analytical thinking; excess skill: word recognition – can be replaced by a simple computing program – or ‘strategic thinking ‘ also known as wasting time in an attempt to cover his or her … before a limitation period expires).

  21. BilB and Smith, average full time earnings are about $83,000 a year (ABS 6302.0). Median full time earnings – BilB is right that this is a much better indicator for this purpose because it is by definition typical – are about $73,000 a year (ABS 6306.0). But I’d guess the CEO calculation compares it against ALL employees (including part time ones) – mean of $61,000 and median of $54,000.

    Oh, and Ernestine: (Missing skill: spelling).

  22. Is credentialism a problem in post-school education? That is, people are required to do a higher level of education that is strictly required for technical competency – they need the credential in order to signal the traits that employers want (discipline, concentration, patience, work ethic, tolerance of boredom). Would there be less credentialism if the federal government maintained full employment at all times (that is, no more than 2% unemployment, to reflect frictional unemployment, and zero under-employment and zero hidden unemployment)?

  23. I started work as an apprentice in 1977, a 4 year apprenticeship, Printing Industry. That was my first trade.
    Second “trade’ was started in 1996, now called a Cert iv Traineeship, Horticultural Industry. I completed that in 18 months, with 80% of the content being online and submitted Tick box checklists, work oversight was very minimal and perfunctory, the focus was on working flat out.

    I have been back to work in Printing a number of times over the years, always there is next to no “apprentices”, I have been highly pressured to train younger tradespeople and trainees, for no reward or extra remuneration. In most, but not all cases I have earnt less in printing (in real terms) in 2000, 03, 04 and 2010, than what I did in 1983.

    In my humble opinion, (narrow view) the 1970/80’s era system of Trade schools, block training and strong workplace oversight worked well. Sure there was efficiency issues, but mostly we got good, experienced and well qualified tradespeople out of it.

    My experience of the ‘current’ Cert Traineeship system is almost uniformly negative, the focus seems to be on push them through so we can claim the bonus/subsidy. Workplaces have a pay as little as we can and casualise as much as we can attitude.

    In saying that I recently completed a Cert iii in Provide Personal Care, as I have wanted to continue working in Community Services. The Training organisation I went through, (Maxima) were fantastic, great trainers, great supports, excellent processes and follow up; but how do we identify and highlight the good Training organisations from the bad.

    My eldest son is now looking for a Heavy Diesel Mechanic apprenticeship in Darwin; this after 2.5 years of an Engineering Degree in Adelaide. He got smart and met with working Engineers, followed them at their workplaces and decided, no not for me, he wants to be ‘hands on’. Of course I support that,with a tinge of worry/guilt, he has seen me work across multiple industries, organisations, sectors and geographic locations, always low to average pay, always kind of struggling; but mostly doing the work I choose and for the best reasons. I respect that he has made a balanced, thoughtful choice, proud I am.

    I don’t pretend to have the answers but I do have a lot of experience with the systems, pretty much all of the apprentices I have talked with say that being locked into a low % of the Tradepersons Award is the number 1 reason they don’t stay with it.

    A story that stuck with me from when I was a 2nd year apprentice; a crsuty old tradesman paid me out for not paying attention to what he was showing me; “Boy you listen up and think good, I teach you everything I know, which is everything my teachers knew. Your job is to add to that knowledge, taking in the modern changes coming and most important when you train your apprentices, they get to learn everything you know, which is everything I have shown you. So kid listen good”. Vale Alan Lethbridge.

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