A NSW government minister has launched a blistering attack on the federal government's administration of the scandal-ridden private vocational education sector.
In an exclusive interview, NSW Minister for Skills and Industry John Barilaro told Fairfax Media that his ministerial federal coalition colleagues "have made errors that I would not have ever believed from a government" in allowing the private vocational education sector to blow out to an expected $4 billion in public debt this year.
Imagine that $4 billion contributing to Gonski funding!
What a difference it could make to tens of thousands of state school students and students with disabilities.
While the private vocational education sector has made hundreds of millions of dollars out of de-regulation, the amount of enrollments in the state's public TAFE institution have fallen by up to 60,000 since 2012, forcing the state government to also freeze fees this year in a bid to claw back student numbers.
Mr Barilaro acknowledged that the state government had made mistakes in its administration of the public education provider.
"I accept that we did not get all the settings right," he said. "Yes, there are job losses because demand is down, but we can't have empty classrooms with teachers. That is why we have a highly casualised workforce with TAFE."
Face-to-face contact with teachers in areas such as carpentry and plumbing has been cut by up to two-thirds at some TAFE institutes.
Mr Barilaro said front-line funding had been swallowed up by administration costs, with up to 60 cents in every dollar going to overheads.
"We have become top-heavy as an organisation. We seem to have excesses in public relations and personal assistants, backroom and middle management; these are resources that aren't actually being delivered on the front line."
The President of the NSW Teachers Federation, Maurie Mulheron, said Mr Barilaro's comments were "populist nonsense, typical of a politician backed into a corner".
"The minister can't escape the fact that his government implemented the Smart and Skilled policy and that is the reason for the disaster that is now unfolding in NSW," he said.
"We are losing TAFE colleges, teachers are being sacked, fees are going through the roof, enrolments are dropping and private providers have low completion rates. That is the current state of play".
Mr Barilaro said that the market had changed and TAFE had to adapt to the private sector.
"Does that mean we can reverse anything? No. Reform unfortunately brings pain, but it doesn't make it wrong."
The state government’s ‘Smart and Skilled’ policy for vocational training is at the very least misnamed. It is actively discouraging would-be students from signing up to gain skills. Nothing smart about that, one would think.
TAFE student numbers are 83,000 down on the enrolments recorded in 2012.
The reason is clear: a savage fee rise implemented under the Orwellian Smart and Skilled policy has meant students in some courses face steep increases in the price of equipping themselves for work.
The greater tragedy, as TAFE is nudged slowly into oblivion, is the loss of one of the foundations of social equity in a modern, meritocratic economy.
TAFE was once the part of the education system that helped individuals negotiate the sometimes difficult transition from school to work.
It provided not only vocational education pure and simple, but also a safety net for those who had abandoned school early and subsequently wanted to return to the education system, whether to improve their work qualifications, or to broaden their mind.
It was an organic, flexible organisation that could offer students from different backgrounds, and in a wide range of personal circumstances, a way to improve themselves.
Now that schooling to the end of year 12 is, for better or worse, virtually compulsory, there is less need for that remedial role.
As universities, competing desperately for students, offer more and more vocational training courses which lead to a degree, not just a certificate, TAFE finds itself squeezed on several sides.
Both those trends, however, should be questioned. For many young people, schools are uncongenial and discouraging places; more of them should be encouraged into TAFE courses.
Universities both demean their status and waste money by offering courses more appropriate for TAFE. Funding for education, like everything else, is limited, and must be made to stretch as far as possible.
Governments federal and state should think long and hard before they allow a sector of education as useful and as efficient as TAFE to expire through neglect.