Sustaining the unsustainable? – A rescue package for Victorian TAFE
May 6, 2015 Leave a comment
So as many of you are aware the Victorian government has handed down its 2015-16 budget and there is a lot being said about skills and training, but also a lot not being said. Matthew Dale has written a good article on what is not being said, particularly with respect to non-public RTOs here. I however want to take a different tack from Matthew and focus on one particular part of the budget, namely a TAFE rescue fund worth $320 million. Now before I go on, and these days I feel like I have to say this all of the time simply because there are so many voices out there who seem to want to jump on anyone who dares to suggest that TAFE needs to change the way it thinks and delivers its services, I am a supporter of publicly funded and supported education, and a robust public sector provider seems to be play a part in the delivery of equitable high quality outcomes which meet the needs of various stakeholders. It is also the case that the provision of these equitable high quality outcomes can also be achieved through non-public sector means. We need to have both sides of the equation right and we need to make sure we are maximising the benefits that can be delivered by both public and non-public providers. That being said however I worry, particularly in the Victorian case, that what we are doing is at least in some cases supporting the unsustainable, encouraging bad management (both fiscal and human resource), and not getting the best possible returns on our investments, be those returns social or financial.
TAFE is primarily a provider of educational services, it delivers like all providers of educational services a range of products designed to meet the needs of employers, students and the other stakeholders in the VET sector. Now surely like any other provider, responsible management would suggest that income generated from the provision of these services (be that through government-funded programs or fee for service arrangements or whatever) should be sufficient to cover the costs associated with the delivery, management and administration of such training. But I hear you cry TAFE as public provider has an important social role to play in the community. Well that may be fair enough, it may have this social role and I will explore this a little later, however shouldn’t then at least the amount of income generated cover at least the actual costs associated with the delivery, management and administration of those programs themselves? But we have seen as reported last month in The Age an upwards of $50 million loss by TAFE in Victoria, with Holmesglen losing over $13 million and Bendigo and GOTAFE losing $10 million a piece, with the rhetoric being that this is a result of funding cuts and the evils of the non-public sector causing enrolments to drop substantially. But, and this is a big but for me, we also see Chisholm with an operating profit of $30 million and a regional TAFE, Wodonga, managing a $1.3 million surplus. So my question is then if both a large TAFE and a small TAFE in Victoria can manage to balance their books in these so-called tumultuous times, then what are the others doing that is leaving them so deeply in the red? Is it just as simple as has been suggested in some circles that both Chisholm and Wodonga were simply better managed and better able to adapt and take advantage of the changes that took place in the system, and rather than complaining about the lack of funding, simply got on with the job, adapted and managed to produce a surplus?
But I am often told that things are not that simple, that it is not an even playing field and that TAFE performs social functions over and above those functions that it has as a public provider of educational services and this may well be true in some or all TAFEs. What troubles me I guess is that it is not easy to see what government funding is being directed toward when it is being provided to a TAFE. Is it going to support the social functions of TAFE, its infrastructure, support for the delivery of training or costs related to management and administration. While I have very little problem with the concept of a TAFE being supported to deliver social outcomes over and above their role as a provider of educational services, supporting poor management practices and an inability to delivery training within the confines of the income produced by that training is a much harder pill for me to swallow.
I am also sometimes worried about the suggestion of the social equity and equality role that TAFE plays. It is something that we hear quite often, TAFE needs more support because it provides things to the community that other educations providers don’t. It provides support for people with disabilities, learning issues and other disadvantages, equitable access to programs, community and social space, and a range of other things which fall under the umbrella of social good. Now while it may be true that is some areas TAFE is the only avenue for the provision of these services and the only educational provider that services people with disability or disadvantage, this is simply not the case in general. Many non-public providers work extensively with people with disability and disadvantage, and either through their own programs or in conjunction with other service providers seek to provide equitable access to programs. There are also many community service providers who provide a range of services and spaces which do similar things to social activities of TAFE. So to claim that these kinds of activities are things that are only provided by TAFE while it might be right in some cases cannot, I don’t think, be used as a blanket statement.
So I guess my point is a simple one and one that I have made before and that is, perhaps before we throw money at TAFE, TAFE needs to have a really strong look at what it does, what its core business is and how it delivers and manages that business and if we are going to throw a massive $320 million dollar lifeline to public providers we should know what it is that that $320 million is going to actually rescue or as I said we may well be sustaining the unsustainable.
Anyway that’s just my opinion.