VET FEE-HELP is dead - but what of its successor?

“The fundamental premise of being a teacher is to add value to the learning of each student in your care. The act of teaching should be able to focus on enabling students to learn more than they would on their own, and to improve the possibilities that each student can realise their potential regardless of their situation in life.”

Associate Professor Deborah Corrigan
“What is the role of a teacher?” (The Conversation, 13/09/16)

While written regarding teaching in schools, the truth of Professor Corrigan’s statement when applied to vocational education and teaching is undeniable.

My exposition here is aimed at critiquing the policy and practical steps taken by successive governments which have undermined quality teaching and learning and been to the detriment of TAFE. Previous policy has been an example of an ideology (that is the supremacy of markets) triumphing in the face of reality, over plain facts, over evidence-based policy making.

Federal Minister for Education Simon Birmingham recently informed the Senate of the scale of the VET FEE loan problem. An 11,000 per cent increase in loans from $26 million to $29 billion between 2009 and 2015 (that’s three extra zeros …). That represents a 5,000 per cent increase in students applying and a tripling of course fees. No mention is made in Mr Birmingham’s reply to the question without notice of the poor rate of completions or the number of students unscrupulously signed up to courses they had no capacity to complete.

He is to replace it with a VET Student Loans scheme, which includes “tougher barriers to entry for providers, properly considered loan caps on courses, stronger course eligibility criteria that aligns with industry needs, mandatory student engagement measures, a prohibition on the use of brokers to recruit students and a stronger focus on students successfully completing courses”.

A series of remarkable base assumptions seem to underpin the arguments made regarding vocational education policy, which are simply intolerable in any other area of education. As one key expert in VET, Dr Leesa Wheelahan, was recently quoted in The Australian: “If you are studying in VET, you can only get public funding if you are in an approved course. If you are studying in higher education, you can do whatever you want, provided it is offered by a registered HE provider.” She goes on to say that VET policy amounts to “class based politics” by restricting funding to courses “that the government thinks are good for you…”

Associate Professor Jo Caust, writing on The Conversation, states: “The federal government is now considering cutting funding to students who wish to undertake creative arts training.” In fact she quotes the Minister as saying he “believes training in the creative arts is a ‘lifestyle’ choice and cannot lead to a satisfactory career or any economic outcome”.

The aim of the VET FEE-HELP scheme was to shift the cost of VET from provider to consumer (from government to student), and to underwrite the establishment of a new industry: the private provision of VET. It was sold to the public using the Orwellian language of “consumer choice”. There were four key measures of success, and the scheme did not succeed in any of them. Part of the remedy has been extinguishing consumer freedom. The new scheme is designed to limit damage to both the budget and political capital. Its aims: weed out the worst of the worst private providers; stop the front page stories of provider rorts; contain the flow of cash.

It will probably take a PhD candidature to answer whether the money previously spent on fully funding TAFE to provide students with quality vocational education was more effectively spent than the cash splashed in cumulative graft, corruption and waste through open market policies. As it will to examine whether this proposed parochial approach will deliver the requirements of a 21st century society and economy hungry for innovative solutions.

Neither have we begun to truly contemplate the damage done through the debasement of the value of vocational qualifications resulting from the ill-conceived VET FEE-HELP experiment. Nor does this new scheme seem to provide adequate support for teachers in their aim of providing students with the opportunity to learn more than they would on their own, improving the possibility that each student can realise their potential regardless of their situation in life.

David Terauds                                                                                                                   TAFE Organiser

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 121 No 8, 11 November 2016, p14