TAFE: Getting out of the bog

Late one afternoon, I was enjoying riding my trail bike through the bush when I came to a small green marshy area. Suddenly, my bike sank down to the axle and I was bogged. I got off the bike and tried to lift it up. As I shuffled around, my foot popped up without a boot. I shoved my dirty sock down again and finally found the boot. It took a long time to get the bike out of the mud, but when I finally rode off, with mud all over my bike, clothes and face, there was a feeling of exhilaration.

That feeling of being bogged down is what many TAFE teachers experience when they attempt to do what they do best – teach. The bog is made up of things like audits, regulations and profit-driven policies. Teachers have to continually wade through this bureaucratic quagmire. Often this imposition is a waste of energy and resources that should be spent on teaching. Everyone’s attention is placed on administrative duties rather than on student welfare. We want our students to be competent rather than compliant. TAFE has changed from an educational model to a business one – too much top down, must-do-ness.

This provokes us to ask what is the role of TAFE? The Kangan Report of 1974 still gives clear guidance that:

a) “TAFE is an integral component of the national resources that make for technological development, a skilled and mobile labour force, personal work satisfaction and economic growth.
b) VET should be available to people of all ages regardless of minimum formal educational entry requirements or of current employment status.
c) Opportunities [for life-long learning] should give priority to the needs of the individual as a person and to their development as a member of society, including the development of non-vocational and social skills that affect personality.”

But the TAFE charter is currently being herded through the muddy and treacherous ground of funding cuts and profit-dominated education policy. Since 1997, TAFE funding has diminished by 42 per cent. Currently, 85 per cent of public funding is pouring into the pockets of private for-profit providers. Much of this public money has been squandered, incurring student debt for many years to come, which bogs the wheels of social infrastructure for the common good. This will surely lead to unplanned consequences.

As Bill Shorten stated recently: “TAFE will be either the anchor or rudder for VET”. Essentially, TAFE is the public bridge to full economic citizenship for all, especially the socially disadvantaged. When people have skills and employment they are less dependent on welfare, more self-managed and resilient. This builds social infrastructure and furthers the common good which, in turn, grows collective hope – more opportunity to get ahead in life or for, as the catchphrase goes, making great happen. TAFE is playing the long game, realising that change for the common good will take duty of care, activism and patience.

Why keep driving further into these lowlands of pernicious profit-driven mire? How do we shore up the road ahead and pull TAFE out of this bog? The answer is fraught with difficulties, but the situation is ripe for a change in direction. TAFE teachers, to whom many students entrust their education and guidance, must continue to perform a duty of care, be an active voice for students and continue to impart a quality education, despite the rhetoric of a bureaucratic business muddle.

Unions are also a vital player in this change in direction. There is a grass roots groundswell in support for unions, despite low membership. This was evidenced in the success of recent Labour Day marches across the country. Empower the union by remaining a member, encourage others to join and advocate 70 per cent funding for TAFE to rescue this generation from the consequences of bad educational policy. When we see students prosper and profit-driven policy discredited, then we can experience the exhilaration that comes from getting out of the bog.

Franco Laviano                                                                                                                 TAFE member

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 122 No 4, 2 June 2017, p23