This piece was first published by the Illawarra Mercury on 7 April 2014.
With population growth and unemployment rates above the national average, the Illawarra is a stand out area where state and federal governments should prioritise high quality publicly resourced vocational education and training.
We are not just talking about skills training geared to the requirements of industry. Meeting the needs of disengaged young people, supporting partnerships with local businesses, developing alternative learning pathways are just some of the outstanding work the public TAFE system provides in this region.
With 14 TAFE Illawarra campuses from Wollongong up to the Southern Highlands and down to Bega on the far South Coast the dedication and hard work of teaching, general and support staff to the diverse communities, industries and businesses of the region they serve is impressive.
The question is can this level of service be maintained.
With the federal Coalition government obsessed that competition must be the driver of educational outcomes and the NSW Coalition government already committed to cutting TAFE across the state by $1.7 billion with 800 jobs to go and student fees to rise by 9.5 per cent, staff and students are feeling insecure about their future.
This cloud of uncertainty that has descended on TAFE prompted the Greens to move in the Senate for an Inquiry into how to retain TAFE in a strong and sustainable position to carry out its aims to create a respectful, inclusive and educated society.
Wollongong has been chosen as one of the regional centres where the inquiry will take evidence.
Illawarra TAFE staff and students and members of the local community will have the opportunity to inform the inquiry of the challenges Illawarra TAFE is facing.
Some cuts have occurred at Illawarra TAFE bringing insecurity and uncertainty in their wake. This response has not been limited to staff and students. Earlier this year an employer, the National Electrical and Communications Association, pulled 15 apprentices out of TAFE Illawarra, after its electrical trades course was shortened from 36 to 30 weeks. NECA indicated that they were alarmed at the impact on teaching quality.
These developments raise the question if TAFE Illawarra is meeting industry quality standards in how it runs its courses, an issue the Senate Inquiry will have the opportunity to consider.
The Coalition push to allow the entry of private providers into VET is one of the most controversial developments as it is having such a damaging impact on the public TAFE system.
This policy backed also by Labor is putting TAFE staff and students under enormous pressure due to the associated budget constraints that are resulting in cuts to staff hours, reduced number of courses and limits on support services.
This government policy to force TAFE to compete with private providers has come in for considerable criticism from many of the groups that have put submissions into the Inquiry.
How Illawarra TAFE is expected to provide top quality education with less and less money will be central to these deliberations.
The Greens moved to set up this inquiry with the objective to put the spotlight on how to ensure that areas like the Illawarra continue to be serviced by a trusted public provider of vocational and educational training.
The F for “Further” and the E for “Education” are a reminder of the diversity that makes TAFE such a great institution. The objective of the Inquiry is to keep it that way.