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SA's TAFE disaster could have been avoided


South Australia’s TAFE troubles could have State Bank-scale ramifications for the state’s future which is why our politicians need to work together to fix it, argues Mark Brindal, a former state minister for training.

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As Minister for Training, I once attended a ministerial council meeting whose purpose was to finalise the National Vocational Education and Training (VET) Scheme.

I was both proud and disappointed. I was proud because, in a significant number of vocational courses, South Australia had the nation’s highest standards. I was disappointed that the new standards had neither been determined by best practice, nor by the national average. Instead, the benchmark of the poorest-performing state had been used.

Commonwealth funding was calculated on achieving rather than surpassing the standard. Over-performing states had either to meet the extra costs from state revenue or dumb down their courses. While extolling the need for upskilling, in reality, our training sector enjoyed a slippery-dip ride.

That ride was still underway in 2014. As reported by InDaily yesterday, ex TAFE boss Jeff Gunningham described the system as “a dog’s breakfast” at both state and national level. He said: “[It’s] all about reducing costs [but] is it really that good to be bottom of the barrel on costs? At the end of the day, quality costs money.”

The problem with which ASQA has encumbered the Weatherill Government is that the South Australian TAFE system has failed, in many courses, to meet even the lowered standards.

The reaction has been so predictable as to make me wonder whether our politicians, their advisers and spin-doctors are worth their exorbitant salaries.

This is their script. Heads must roll. No matter how long he’s been there, sack the CEO. Dismiss the chairman. Boards make joint decisions and, generally, the chairman does not vote. Ignore that. After all, maybe TAFE SA is a chairman-led dictatorship in which the other eight board members (a number of whom have close ties to the ALP) attend for tea, bikkies and chitchat.

The minister must be protected. Any thought that she might be incompetent reflects on the government and might tarnish the brand. Additionally, if too much odium hits the fan, she is the last sacrifice.

Hold another inquiry. The answers might already be known but an inquiry is always useful in desensitising the public while avoiding awkward questions and being “unclear” as to where responsibility lies. It buys time.

Those in Opposition are hardly covering themselves with glory over this. Like predators with a bloodlust, they are baying for an investigation of all courses with “high levels of enrolment and those with high levels of workforce need”.

The whole disaster does require forensic investigation. However, they would do well to remind themselves that they might regret the indiscriminate use of their wrecking ball when they contemplate that its rubble they might then have to clear.

Discrediting the majority of a state’s training system may enhance electoral prospects. However, the damage and uncertainty for thousands of trainees, to the state’s reputation and the potential economic and legal liabilities need to be considered.

If an apprentice baker or chef does not know their trade, we can choose not patronise them. However, if an electrician, plumber or mechanic is not properly trained, the safety and legal consequences might be catastrophic.

Disaster that the State Bank collapse was, it was mainly economic. TAFE’s problems are more serious since economic considerations are compounded with human and legal repercussions that might last for years.

This mess could have been avoided. Recognising the danger when there is no separation between the funder and the provider, John Olsen placed responsibility for TAFE with the Minister for Education. However, the Minister for Employment and Training had the responsibility for determining where training money should be spent.

TAFE’s privileged position was abolished. They were forced to compete against private providers. Training dollars were awarded where they could achieve best value. TAFE had to compete for funds.

In many areas, TAFE continued its dominant role. However, a number of focussed, industry-specific training organisations evolved that proved a great success both in terms of quality and in being specifically tailored to employment needs. The Australian Maritime and Fisheries Academy is one outstanding example.

Despite teething problems, training in South Australia seemed to be headed in the right direction.

… our primary training organisation cannot meet declining national standards.

Governments change. As Labor’s Frank Blevins once advised me, when they do, beware the public service. If under the previous regime, they lost some of their featherbedding, they would routinely present any new and inexperienced minister with attractive “new” suggestions carefully calculated to recapture all lost ground.

It’s difficult for any collective of politicians assembled as a party to conceive that others outside their direct circle of influence have wisdom and expertise, let alone even be able to be trusted. For this reason, those peddling TAFE’s plight to the ALP were riding a winner.

The rest is history. Funding to the private sector was stripped back to the point that many good training organisations could not survive.

TAFE no longer had to earn anything. They were effectively re-instated as a monopoly and were awarded a guaranteed percentage of all training dollars. They got lazy.

Communication became a good news monologue that ignored cracks. Since, as a creature of the government, their failure is the government’s, the government became trapped in a web of its own creation.

We have been told that pivotal to future success is an intelligent, highly-trained workforce. Yet our primary training organisation cannot meet declining national standards.

South Australians who have believed in the integrity of Government training have been betrayed and disadvantaged. There are safety and legal concerns for the community.

This is a community problem beyond party interest and point-scoring.

The problem is complex. There can be no easy solution, no quick fix. It will require community goodwill and a consistent approach by more than one government. It will necessitate going back to go forward.

Is it too much to expect our politicians to be capable of putting their shoulders to the wheel and working together to fix this mess rather watch them bicker while the state flounders?

After all, when we vote next year, we deserve the choice of who is best fitted to lead us to a brighter tomorrow rather than picking one mob simply because they are less incompetent than the other.

Mark Brindal was a Liberal member of the South Australian Parliament from 1989 to 2006, and was Minister for Water Resources, Local Government, Youth and Employment and Training during the Olsen and Kerin governments.

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