Today I had the pleasure of giving testimony to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training’s enquiry into Technical and Further Education (TAFE). Along with other school representatives we brought a school perspective to earlier input from regional TAFEs, industry and community representatives.

Inevitably some of the local focus was on the future of Bendigo TAFE following recent disclosure that it is involved in merger discussions with Kangan Institute. The challenges facing TAFE have been no secret in recent years. Deregulation of the training sector commenced by the previous state government changed the landscape irrevocably and subsequent state budget decisions appear to have hastened the need for change.

I have no doubt the board of Bendigo TAFE would have been determined to retain local governance. The fact that they appear close to merger suggests that this was not financially possible. With all regional TAFEs facing similar challenges a regional merger option would have held little attraction. The only option appears to have been to combine with a larger Melbourne based organisation.

Apart from finances, what will be occupying the minds of the current Bendigo TAFE Board will be the extent of local influence over decision making and the impact on training options in the region in the event of any merger.

Here there might be a parallel with the other major higher education provider in the city, La Trobe University. Whilst it hasn’t been all plain sailing no-one could argue that Bendigo has not benefitted from La Trobe University’s presence and commitment to this region, particularly in recent years. Although the university is Melbourne based and this inevitably creates some tensions as resources are allocated, La Trobe proves great local options for students. Can a merged TAFE do the same?

The challenges for TAFE don’t begin and end with the current merger proposal. TAFE’s relationship with both schools and universities appears unclear. From a school perspective we’ve seen many TAFE’s choosing in recent years to operate as schools and entering into mainstream delivery of senior secondary school certificates. This is an expensive mode of delivery from a government perspective and there is no evidence that it produces equivalent outcomes to school education. It also creates tension with local schools and makes it more difficult to establish collaborative partnerships.

This brings us close to the question that often emerges when school based training is discussed, and that’s the matter of technical schools. This model of schooling failed in the past because of cost and falling demand. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t emerge again in the future, particularly if there was local support and planning was inclusive of government schools which the Australian Technical College model was not in Bendigo. I have an open mind on the matter.

TAFE’s have clearly been under significant financial pressure and inevitably their cost of providing training to schools has risen, and risen sharply. The response of schools has been to cut VET programs, seek other providers and in some cases to become Registered Training Organisations themselves which further complicates the relationship with their local TAFE. Notwithstanding this there are excellent relationships between school and TAFE staff which help drive a range of successful programs so there is a sound basis on which to build.

To survive TAFE needs to demonstrate that it offers high quality training, provides viable pathways for young people and fulfils a broader community education function.

Here the issue gets murky for TAFEs. If they are treated the same as other private providers then they will inevitably be driven to behave in similar ways. Private providers are driven by profit. They are not obliged to respond to local needs or even to skill shortages. That role has traditionally been filled by the government supported TAFE system and that’s what is now at risk. Both state and federal governments may now be pondering whether there’s a need to offer a mandate and financial support to TAFE’s to allow them to fulfil this purpose.

Deregulation of the training sector in Victoria was intended to lift training quality by creating a more competitive market. From experience we know it’s allowed many dodgy private providers to flourish, ripping money out of the public purse and condemning many young people to sub standard training. Whether by design, accident or evolution it also appears that the impact on public TAFE providers has been profound, particularly when coupled with other budgetary decisions. Is the government at risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

A strong TAFE presence is important to Bendigo and to central Victoria, not just symbolically but in terms of the range and quality of training available to young adults and mature age learners.

Along with others I’ll be watching with interest to see what the future holds for Bendigo and the broader TAFE sector.

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