VET FEE-HELP successor could result in "interesting times" ahead

A well-known curse wishes upon an enemy the discomfort of living “in interesting times”. While things seem to be increasingly “interesting” in the supranational sphere with the election of presidents and protests regarding the same, we continue to see it on the local level as well, particularly in vocational education.

It took the federal government three years to understand that the VET FEE-HELP scheme was being rorted unmercifully by the unscrupulous. As the summer break approached, the Turnbull government got its act together and in the last sitting days of 2016 foisted a new loan scheme on Australia’s VET students.

Designed, it seems, purely to limit budget expenditure, the effect of the scheme has been to drive an ever-increasing number of private providers to the wall. Although TAFEs have automatic access to the scheme, many other providers do not. As a result, many have now decided to shut up shop. In a number of instances, the organisations closing their doors are non-profit providers. If there is a winner in this, it could be said to be TAFE, with many of the defunct organisations directing their students and enrolment potentials to the public provider.

The loser in the new scheme is the student, with a limited range of Diploma and Advanced Diploma courses attracting subsidies and the course subsidies in many cases not covering the cost of delivery. The problem of paying for the gap remains an issue for the student, who will either have to pay up-front or get an additional loan to cover the difference. The scheme does not consider the plight of those who do not have the wherewithal to make the payment or take out a loan.

That said, it must be noted that TAFE Queensland educational and support staff have been exceptionally busy over the festive season preparing business cases for the extension of VET students loans to a number of state-based qualifications and offerings. Many have been successful in receiving that extension of funding support.

Although this is well received, the federal government appears intent on indulging itself in a game of political and financial chicken with the states over the national partnership agreement (NPA) on skills and training. Under the current NPA, Queensland has been the recipient of over one hundred million dollars annually, with the public provider the beneficiary of the largest proportion. This national agreement is usually hammered out at the ministerial level through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). However, at the last COAG meeting only two state government training ministers deigned to turn up. Luckily for us, our Minister does understand the importance to our economy of getting this right and was one of the two.

So while we have seen the bedding down of an agreement and award (after a half a decade of negotiation) that gives the parties the capacity to be responsive in an ever-changing marketplace, we still have a challenging 12 months ahead of us.

David Terauds                                                                                                                   TAFE Organiser

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 122 No 1, 10 February 2017, p14