The Politics    Friday, August 9, 2019

Skills crisis

By Paddy Manning

Skills crisis
Restoring confidence in training means rescuing TAFEs

It is tough picking the worst of Australia’s national policy disasters over the past decade – the handling of asylum seekers, the energy and climate wars, the botched NBN, the destruction of the car industry and the calamitous robodebt program leap readily to mind – but the gutting of vocational education courtesy of the multibillion-dollar VET FEE-HELP debacle is right up there. Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week put skills at the top of the agenda for today’s Council of Australian Governments meeting in Cairns, but the policy vision announced today is very broad-brush, and follow-through will need to be closely monitored.

At their press conference afterwards, premiers and chief ministers from both sides of politics were fulsome in their praise of the PM for the constructive atmosphere at today’s meeting, which elsewhere reached agreement on a series of topics, including reducing plastic waste, action on domestic violence and mental health, and the Murray–Darling Basin Plan.

NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian said there was “violent agreement” among all jurisdictions that vocational education and training (VET) was equal to other forms of tertiary education. The question is what to do to restore confidence in and demand for VET. Yesterday, federal shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek told Channel 7 that Australia has a skills crisis, and tweeted at the PM that “ripping $3 billion from TAFE and training, then putting $70 million back in is not reform”. At his press conference today, the prime minister said he did not want to see more people trained just for the sake of a higher number. “Throwing a whole bunch of money at it and saying you want to put more people through the system doesn’t solve the problem,” he said.

TAFE Directors Australia chief executive Craig Robertson tells me that VET FEE-HELP – a loan scheme for students at high levels of vocational education – has been closed down, but student participation in diplomas and advanced diplomas has plummeted and not recovered. Robertson says the Australian Skills and Qualifications Authority has lifted its game in weeding out shonky private colleges that have rorted the VET FEE-HELP system. However, the potential remains for training organisations to pocket fees before students have completed or even turned up to their courses, for example, which is one of the most egregious rorts.

“It hasn’t been fixed,” says Robertson. “The government thinks they have fixed it, but the way the data is being collected, a provider could continue to do that.” The broader problem is philosophical, and centres on why private colleges should be subsidised to compete against TAFE by cutting corners and focusing on the easy-to-deliver “chalk and talk” courses, and neglecting to provide the expensive training facilities that deliver skilled tradespeople suited for industries from construction to hospitality and healthcare. “The blind adherence to contestability,” says Robertson, “without a close eye on the integrity of the qualifications, and the quality of the delivery – which was the clear failing of VET FEE-HELP and in other areas – allowed all these private providers to get out into the market and offer cheap and quick training, with fancy marketing. It creates a race to the bottom: TAFE suffers [by] students going elsewhere, they had to downsize staffing-wise, so it’s sort of been an un-virtuous cycle.”

In the wake of the VET FEE-HELP debacle, the prime minister commissioned a review by former New Zealand training minister Steven Joyce, and Morrison today said that from the Commonwealth’s point of view it provided a “very good blueprint”. Robertson is cautious about the Joyce model – he points out that NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is right now undoing the Key government’s training reforms – and says states including Victoria and NSW are increasingly reverting to support of their own TAFE networks.

Yesterday, the prime minister said [$] that he wanted vocational education to be “far less bureaucratic, a far less public service–driven sector … It’s not about the providers, whether they be public in TAFE or private, it’s actually about the people who want jobs and people who want to employ people.”

But if too many private providers are dodgy, as we’ve just spent a decade finding out, the employers and the students and TAFE all suffer.

“Its small size and obscurity means [the Infrastructure and Project Financing Agency] seldom faces scrutiny … [It] is a unique agency. It has no visible achievements, although the management team is paid handsomely, and some in an unusual fashion.”

Jommy Tee and Ronni Salt examine the track record of the little-known IPFA, set up by then assistant cities minister Angus Taylor in 2017, and its highly paid executives.

“Treasury shouldn’t tell the treasurer what to do. They should tell the treasurer what they think of what the treasurer plans to do, of alternative ways in which he can do what he wants to do … Treasury needs to remember its job is to advise the government on the government’s agenda, not to decide the agenda.”

Then treasurer Scott Morrison expands on his views of the role of public servants in an interview with Paul Tilley, author of a new history of the Australian Treasury.

Rodney Rude diplomacy
A visit from US ministers gives a clearer picture of what America wants. But as Trump’s trade war with China escalates, it also sets the scene for Scott Morrison’s visit to Washington.

The value of the stake in Crown Casinos that billionaire James Packer’s CPH Crown Holdings was planning to sell to Lawrence Ho’s Melco – a transaction that will now be subject to an inquiry by the NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority.

“Following the appointment of the national security expert Andrew Shearer as cabinet secretary this week, all of the key positions for Morrison’s new team have now been finalised … Now with his trusted team of advisers locked in, Scott Morrison will be hoping to develop an agenda to see him through the 46th parliament, and one that keeps faith with voters who delivered the Coalition its unexpected victory.”

Guardian Australia’s chief political correspondent, Sarah Martin, on the formation of the prime minister’s inner circle of advisers.

The list

“Over the past year, while sitting as judge in Alice Springs, Katherine and surrounding communities, Greg Borchers has made multiple derogatory comments from the bench ... In April, he told an Aboriginal woman: ‘Yesterday probably was pension day, so you got your money from the government, abandoned your kids in that great Indigenous fashion of abrogating your parental responsibility to another member of your family, and went off and got drunk.‘”

“Rupert Murdoch was 27 when he met Kandiah Kamalesvaran, a sensitive young Tamil on the dodge from the immigration authorities. Born in Malaya, Kamalesvaran had arrived in Adelaide in 1953, five years earlier, to complete his matriculation. He was now enrolled at university, jumping from course to course to maintain his visa status.”

“Orthorexia nervosa, a term coined by Dr Steven Bratman, refers to an obsessive fixation with eating proper food. (The term ‘ortho’ means straight or correct.) Bratman developed the concept in the mid 1990s while practising alternative medicine on the US west coast. Some of his patients were so restrictive with their diet that it struck him as a manifestation of a deeper psychological issue. ‘They would come in and ask me, “What food group should I cut out today?” And they acted like this was a perfectly normal thing to ask.’”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor at The Monthly and the author of Inside the Greens and Body Count.

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