Australian Universities Accord To Take The Hammer To TAFE

Written by:
28 March 2024
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Originally Appeared In

This article was originally published in The Spectator Australia.

In this article, Brianna McKee contextualises and disseminates the IPA’s research into the teaching of education at universities.

The Foundations of Western Civilisation Program was established in 2011 to defend and extend Australians’ understanding of the influential, historical role of the West in establishing many of the liberties enjoyed by members of our society.

Amid an acute nationwide worker shortage, only the political class in Canberra would propose something as counterproductive as the takeover of Australia’s TAFE colleges by the university sector.

The recently released Australian Universities Accord Final Report has called for a vast expansion of student numbers, radically increased funding, and what effectively amounts to a takeover of the TAFE system. The Report’s panel called for TAFEs to ‘become self-accrediting organisations in higher education’ which would ‘deliver new bachelor-equivalent ‘higher apprenticeships’ independent of universities’.

While harmless at first glance, closer inspection reveals this would mean the end of vocational training as we know it. Allowing TAFEs to offer university-level courses would consign them to Australia’s already bloated university sector. Should this recommendation be endorsed by the federal government, universities will have eliminated yet another competitor in the education market, extending its reach and control.

In 2018, the former Provost at the University of Alabama, Dr Kevin Whitaker, remarked, ‘Higher education has become the new big business in a stunningly anti-competitive landscape.’ Dr Whitaker could well have been talking about the higher education sector in Australia. Moreover, if Dr Whitaker thought America’s university sector was anti-competitive, he should take a look at Australia. Our university sector is monopolised by highly regulated publicly funded institutions with very few private competitors.

This monopolised clout is set to become even stronger should the recommendations of the Accord’s panel be adopted.

The report recommends increasing the number of university-educated Australians aged 25 to 34 from 45 per cent to 55 per cent by 2050 and more than doubling the number of Commonwealth-supported students from 860,000 to 1.8 million. That’s big business for the university sector.

Historically, universities offered only four main areas of study – the Arts, Law, Medicine and Theology – while trades were taught through guild apprenticeships where students received on-the-job training.

Today, trades continue to be taught in a similar manner, with TAFE colleges partnering with industry to offer practical training and apprenticeships. In contrast, universities have been transformed into giant degree factories, a far cry from the rigorous institutions of learning they used to be. Many current courses used to be offered by organisations outside the university sector. Much of this training has become abstract and theoretical rather than hands-on and practical.

Until the late 1970s training to be a nurse was practical and hospital-based. Today, nurses must complete a three-year, full-time bachelor’s degree to receive a qualification. Similarly, teachers in the early 1800s used to be taught via teacher-pupil apprenticeships and later in teacher colleges that offered one-to-two-year programs outside the university system. Today, as Institute of Public Affairs’ research uncovered, a four-year Bachelor of Education course contains as few as 10 weeks of classes dedicated to learning how to teach core literacy and numeracy skills.

The university sector has been swallowing up professional training courses for decades, and now it has been given an opportunity by the Universities Accord to come for TAFEs. It’s a lucrative offer for TAFEs, with a clear financial incentive; if TAFEs can offer university-level courses, more can be charged for them.

However, this would mark a critical departure from the current TAFE business model, one based on the delivery of shorter, practical, and more affordable courses. This would likely be a loss for many students, for when big business monopolises an industry, rarely does the consumer benefit.

Nor will it benefit the economy. Australia is currently experiencing a worker shortage crisis, with one in five Australian businesses struggling to find the workers they need. If students are forced to study longer to become accredited, this will delay their entrance into the workforce and drive up the number of job vacancies.

Universities and TAFEs have different functions. They should continue to fulfil those functions separately, offering Australians choice. Competition drives excellence, and a diversity of study options is key to a fit-for-purpose education system.

But a big business mentality prevails in the university sector. In the 2022-23 financial year, the sector made a record $5.3 billion surplus – quickly rebounding from the pandemic and regaining its lucrative share of the international student market. Universities also receive millions of dollars in Commonwealth grants and state-subsidised loans.

However, this increase in revenue coincides with a measurable decline in academic standards. Just last year Australia’s top universities slipped down the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. The Productivity Commission’s latest five-year report found inconsistent and low-quality teaching was failing students who were not well prepared for the workforce and acted as a drag on productivity.

The future of universities and TAFEs hangs in the balance. Federal Education Minister Jason Clare would do well to consider the need for a multi-faceted higher education system with multiple providers when deciding which Universities Accord recommendations to accept.

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