Deregulation debate: politics overwhelming policy

Cheese-eating surrender scholars

University of Arkansas “culinary science” students can now take a semester in France, which the university assures suspicious parents, is “a nation known for its culinary expertise.” Paris, Little Rock? Hard to tell them apart really.

CEF Jan 15

 

TAFE supporters step up

Public education advocates are intensifying attacks on the second front of the education funding fight – competition in voced. For months TAFE supporters and their Labor and Greens allies have hammered away at the quality of for-profit training. And yesterday Labor training spokeswoman Sharon Bird added to the argument by making the case for TAFE, claiming the “quality and reputation” of the training system springs from “the strength and stability of our public provider. … It provides the benchmark and ballast for the sector but has been under too much attack and we risk the loss of this important public asset if all governments don’t act to stem the decline and to rebuild the public provider.”

As for allowing the private sector to compete, well, it creates problems, “we also need to understand the systemic interaction between policy, funding and regulation and how they can give rise to perverse outcomes that carry a heavy cost for individuals, employers and the nation.”

Governments, state and federal both, who looked to the private sector to provide lower-cost, higher-productivity VET than the public sector TAFE systems are losing the political argument over how best to provide voced. As Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott put it on Monday, “2015 should not be the year of continued policy confusion about the role of TAFE. It should not be the year when TAFE is allowed to wither on the vine due to lack of purposeful policy.” Not the VET system in general, TAFE in particular.

The Victorian Government is listening and yesterday committed $20m to keep South West TAFE in business. “The Labor Government’s $320 million TAFE Rescue Fund is the first step to repairing our TAFE system after the previous Coalition Government’s TAFE cuts brought the sector to its knees. The TAFE cuts hit South West TAFE hard, resulting in job losses, course closures and a declining share of the training market, meaning fewer local students got the skills they need.”

ANU computing

Not what the NSW numbers say

The NSW Auditor General is less convinced that TAFE and training are necessarily synonymous, as per a report released yesterday. For a start, it stated that the state government has not abandoned TAFE by allowing the private sector to compete for state training funds. In fact government prioritises “TAFE viability” above just about everything other than the state budget.

“The government continues to provide TAFE with direct non-contestable funding. The budget for this direct funding is not subject to clear purchaser oversight, nor is it clear how long it will continue or what TAFE will deliver for it. … Overall, we conclude that a more balanced approach, by putting more emphasis on increased contestability and student choice, is more likely to maximise the public value for the government’s investment in VET.”

Cross Kaye

None of that convinced NSW Greens Legislative Council Member John Kaye who, like his federal colleague Senator Lee Rhiannon, works hard to help the education unions. “The report is an accountant’s assessment of the efficiency of the VET system. It apparently has no concern for the real impacts on students, the state’s long-term economic future and a cohesive society. No analysis of the new training market could be meaningful without assessing the damage caused to TAFE by extensive staff and teacher job losses in 2014,” Dr Kaye said yesterday.

Earlier in the week he tied a failing enrolments system to the state government’s Smart and Skilled programme, which lets private providers bid for training funds. “A politically-driven timetable for the training market has left TAFE with a new software system that is not up to the task of enrolling students. … TAFE teachers and staff are being subjected to a nightmare of stress and disappointment. Dedicated professionals are seeing their institution’s reputation damaged and their student numbers decline.” Dr Kaye went on to suggest that this all worked unfairly to the advantage of private providers.

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You don’t say

ANU political scientist John Warhurst suggests the prime minister has “a total blind-spot” when it come to the British monarchy.

The real issue

The higher education deregulation debate is also being slugged out on public v private arguments, which will decide the matter, if the National Tertiary Education Union prevails. Yesterday the NTEU warned Christopher Pyne is willing to give up cost savings if he can create a market. “His real agenda is to impose his free market ideals, where fee deregulation would see university places allocated by price.” Under his plan there will be a place for “companies just out to make a profit subsidised by the public purse,” union president Jeannie Rea warned.

The idea that there is a conservative plot against universities nationally and TAFE at the state level is politically powerful.

Rod Camm from the Australian Council for Private Education and Training knows it. “To suggest that private operators stand to benefit from what is clearly an unfortunate technical error that has harmed thousands of students – at least in the short term – shows a complete lack of understanding of the current system and undermines the confidence of students and parents,” he said last night, commenting on Dr Kaye’s claims. But I wonder if anybody, especially on the Senate crossbench, is listening.

The policy case for deregulation is being overwhelmed by political arguments against it.

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Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au