VET Orthodoxy Challenged by Queensland Labor Plan


Peter Kell




The release of two major policy documents on the role of TAFE in Queensland has breached the bipartisan consensus by the Coalition parties and the Labor party supporting the deregulation of the training sector and the implementation of 'user choice'. Both parties have released policy documents which present starkly different directions for Vocational Education and Training in Queensland.

The Queensland Labor Party's New Directions Statement on Vocational Education and Training has challenged the policy orthodoxy while the Coalition government's Vocational Education and Training in Queensland: Training For Prosperity proposes a legislative framework to accelerate the deregulation of training.

The Coalition's Training for Prosperity outlines key reforms to be included in two parliamentary bills: The Vocational Education and Training Bill and the TAFE Institutes Bill. The intention of these bills is to accelerate the deregulation of the training market and the adoption of 'user choice', by changes to training and workplace legislation.

Training For Prosperity affirms the need for a 'level playing field' to remove unnecessary barriers to the participation of training organisations. The rationale for the legislation is to provide a more streamlined quality assurance approach to recognition. The key reforms involve the establishment of registered training organisations with broad endorsement on course provision and changes to the administration of training agreements to incorporate aspects of 'user choice' and the Workplace Relations Act. These changes provide a legislative framework for the continued deregulation of training and the implementation of enterprise based training within the context of the Coalition's industrial relations policies. These policies tend to repeat the orthodox policy logic which uncritically connects deregulation, flexibility and improved quality.

At the same time the Queensland government's legislative platform proposes the virtual corporatisation of TAFE Institutes. The TAFE Institutes legislation provides for the creation of Institute Business Boards with wider powers than the current Councils. These Institute Business Boards will be empowered by the new bill to conduct expanded business activities under delegation from the Chief Executive Officer. This legislation provides for a more independent and commercial footing including the formation of limited liability companies. These legislative changes which effectively corporatise TAFE Institutes leaves them vulnerable to either full or part privatisation in the future.

Accompanying these changes is the creation of a Strategic Centre which in real terms represents a dramatic downsizing of TAFE Queensland's central office. Training For Prosperity claims that these functions will be devolved to the Institutes. In the light of the unsuccessful attempt to develop an Institute based enterprise agreement in 1997 the accelerated decentralisation of TAFE may be seen by teacher unions as positioning for the future extension of the Limited Implementation agreements in the next round of negotiations in mid 2000.

In a significant departure from orthodox training policy that has typified VET reforms since the late 1980s, the Queensland Labor Party has called for a moratorium on deregulation and 'user choice.

The New Directions Statement on Vocational Education and Training in Queensland released by Peter Beattie, the Leader of the Opposition adopts a firm commitment to maintaining a strong and viable TAFE in public hands. New Directions proposes a three year moratorium on 'user choice' and competitive funding based on January 1998 levels, and outlines a ten point plan to safeguard TAFE in Queensland.

The Labor Party proposes to embargo vulnerable sections of TAFE from competitive tendering and funding them as Community Service Obligations (CSO). The activities and functions of regional TAFE Institutes will be protected by this exemption, ensuring that community needs are met in rural and isolated settings where the cost of delivery makes competitive tendering uneconomic.

Like the Coalition, Labor promises more autonomy for TAFE Institute Councils but identifies the need for an appropriate balance between the interests of business, the community, staff and unions. The Labor proposal also reserves a 'say' for students on Institute Councils. The Labor platform has also rejected Institute level enterprise bargaining and has pledged a four year commitment to negotiating key wages and employment conditions centrally.

These commitments on TAFE are in tandem with recent announcements by Labor to fund 6,000 traineeships and 500 apprenticeships in the public sector; as well as funding 9,000 traineeships and apprenticeships in the private sector. This is something new in training policy, using 'old Labor' values. Peter Beattie has linked state funded public works, employment and training opportunities for young people with TAFE's role.

This reaffirmation of the states responsibility in job generation and training is a major departure from the established policy orthodoxy and a shift in direction for Queensland Labor. In contrast, the previous Goss government enthusiastically promoted competitive training markets in Queensland with the number of private trainers growing from 127 in 1994 to 900 in 1997. This trend has not helped TAFE with its market share falling from 64% in 1995 - 96 to only 52% in 1996 - 1997.

New Directions now commits a future Labor government to a consultative process to restore TAFE's viability that provides the community with a forum to address crucial issues about vocational education under the umbrella of a state owned TAFE system. Under these conditions the position of commercial activities, TAFE's relationships with schools and universities can be explored to ensure that the issues of access are equally important as financial viability. This commitment has national ramifications because for the first time in ten years the future of TAFE may be debated outside the narrow confines of a bureaucratic and industrial cockpit.

With the release of these two policy documents the voters, and particularly TAFE teachers, have been given a clear choice between two starkly different positions on vocational education and training in Queensland. n

Dr Peter Kell is Program Manager in Adult and Vocational Education at The Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies, James Cook University, Townsville.

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