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Collateral of a surplus rampage


The other day, I received a disturbing message from Holmesglen Institute’s CEO, Mr Bruce Mackenzie. It was a candid and brutal assessment of how funding cuts will impact upon Holmesglen as a result of the Victorian Government’s 2012 State Budget. This is some of what he wrote:

“…the ongoing financial reduction on our 2012 operating budget is $3 million (est.) However, for 2013, the reduction in our State government funding is $25.5 million…Using 2012 as a base year, the Institute’s budget in 2013 will fall from $92 million to $66.5 million.”

The 2012 State Budget cuts have not only drawn fierce condemnation from TAFE teachers, students and other community stakeholders, but they have also rattled Canberra to the point that the Federal Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans has sought assurances that Victoria’s TAFE funding cuts would not threaten training standards.

A Victorian Government spokesperson responded by saying that, “the operation of the Vocational Education and Training system is…a state responsibility.”

If the State Government sees fit to operate the VET system, then it will inevitably need to take responsibility for the fallout of its own decisions. And these will be devastating.

In his letter, Bruce Mackenzie suggested reasons for the savage budget reductions, including:

  • TAFE is politically weak compared to primary, secondary and other tertiary sectors, meaning that TAFE’s financial hardship would not be of great community concern.
  • State bureaucracy stipulates that the government achieves a surplus, arguably at any cost.
  • The lack of understanding of TAFE’s educational role causes political confusion and therefore a values gap.

With a $25.5 million funding cut next year, Holmesglen will struggle to operate. And here’s why:

$500,000 dropped from annual facilities maintenance. Not only will the buildings at Holmesglen campuses not be properly maintained, but the people who maintain them (cleaners, caretakers, technicians, tradespeople) will at best be given reduced hours, and at worst lose their jobs.

$9 million SHC reduction. This is the amount of money that the government will rip out of Holmesglen training course subsidies. We still have to run the courses, but we won’t be given as much money to do so. This will lead to…

Increased student fees: Subsidies for 80% of courses will drop from $7 per training hour to $1.50 per training hour. TAFEs don’t have the money to bridge this reduction gap, so students will pick up the tab. This amounts to about an extra $308 per subject (based on the standard 4 contact hours per week and a 14-week semester). Full-time students usually enrol in 4 subjects, so that’s an additional $1232 per semester. This is on top of whatever fees they’re already required to pay. Up front.

Not many students have that kind of cash. Chances are, there’ll be a drop in student numbers, which means…

Reduced teaching staff: Voluntary redundancies will come first, followed by mandatory redundancies for permanent full- and part-time staff. Contracts will not be renewed. Permanent staff will be employed as sessionals, because sessionals are cheaper than permanent staff, so expect a rapid shift to casual teaching appointments. (Sessionals get paid only for the hours they spend in the classroom. Class preparation, lecture writing and assessment marking is all unpaid. They get no sick pay, no holiday pay, and no leave entitlements.)

Shortly after the downsizing of teaching staff, there’ll be an increase in demand for unskilled work because the cost of Certificate and Diploma programs will be unrealistic, so people who would’ve normally attended TAFE will instead be entering the workforce without qualifications. Because fewer people will be able to afford to enrol in TAFE programs, the supply of skilled workers will shrink, further stressing the State’s skills shortage.

Not to mention the numerous sessional teachers who will need to find out-of-classroom-hours work. And the security personnel and hospitality workers who’ll no longer be needed on campus due to the decline in student numbers.

So much for the government’s low unemployment figures.

$16 million cut from wage subsidisation. Teachers who are still standing after the impact of skyrocketing student fees will face hefty increases in teaching loads, administration, marking, preparation, and, because of the reduction in facilities funding, will deliver lectures in classrooms that aren’t maintained. Further mandatory redundancies will ensure that TAFE can afford to pay remaining teacher CPI salary components.

In the end, we’ll be left with a skeleton crew of frazzled permanent staff anchored in a sea of fly-in, fly-out sessionals, all of them teaching to empty lecture halls because, rather than attend classes, students will have to work extra hours to pay for their courses.

We are losing sight of the role of education. Learning has become a commodity. Students need to work, save, and get loans to acquire qualifications, the same as they would a car or a house deposit. This attitude is endorsed by our state and federal governments, whose perpetual attempts to stamp dollar amounts on education are like property valuations. But the inherent value of education has nothing to do with money, and this is a concept many politicians fail to grasp.

One interstate tertiary educator told me a few months ago that if we don’t take an aggressive approach to following up on student absences and missed assessments, “the taxpayer and student will not be pleased with the service we are providing. University studies have gone beyond a mere supplier (you come to class and learn) to be one of a service oriented business (I will help you understand) and must be seen to be exhibiting such action.”

This came from an educator. And this was before the funding cuts were even announced. If the people at the apex of our education system are saying things like this, then the future of tertiary education is indeed a dismal state of affairs.

Holmesglen is the largest TAFE provider in Victoria, and our outlook is grim. The smaller, regional providers face an even greater battle to survive. Increasingly, education is seen to be first and foremost a business, with learning coming a distant second. Bureaucratic approaches to “education reform” have repeatedly served to degrade the very fabric of our education system – paying teachers based on their performance; distributing unequal school funding; arguing over what constitutes “true” Australian history; providing laptops without sufficient funding allocated to maintenance and support; alienating international students; funding essential programs like VCAL and then pulling the funding once the programs are established; initiating privatisation… The list goes on.

The education system is not some pliable toy that politicians can twist into whatever shape suits their immediate political needs. It must be nurtured, supported, and maintained – not for a year or five years, but for a lifetime.

Holmesglen’s annual baseline reduction from $92 million to $66.5 million is not sustainable. Imagine if a mining company suddenly had to operate to full capacity using only two-thirds of its annual expenditure. It wouldn’t be viable.

Speaking of the mining industry, here’s a thought:

Who trains miners?

Vocational Education and Training providers.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. 29.05.2012 9:36 PM

    I wish more people in positions of power rode your train of thought, my friend!

    • 30.05.2012 12:32 PM

      Unfortunately, I suspect many people who share my opinion are adverse to becoming politicians. Which is why teachers will always find themselves stonewalled by short-sighted, narrow-minded bureaucrats.

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