Labor wants to make TAFE free and fund up to 20,000 additional university places over 2022 and 2023, as part of a $1.2 billion election promise. The tertiary education sector says the cash doesn’t cover half of what’s required.
At Wests Ashfield Leagues Club, Anthony Albanese spent Sunday afternoon walking would-be voters in the Coalition-held marginal seat of Reid through his party’s “Future Made in Australia Skills Plan”.
While Prime Minister Scott Morrison was at Mount Panorama riding shotgun in an American-made Ford Mustang, Albanese told voters his plan will help industries hit hardest by the pandemic to recover, while addressing key areas of the nation’s skills shortage.
Under the policy, federal Labor would provide free access to 465,000 students in areas where Australia’s skills shortage is being felt most, along with the creation of 45,000 new TAFE places.
It will also deliver a new $50 million TAFE Technology Fund, geared toward refreshing campus tech capabilities across IT, workshops, laboratories and tele-health simulators.
Albanese went on to promise that a further $100 million would be committed to a “New Energy Apprenticeships” scheme — a booster shot for his party’s 43% emissions reduction policy announced days earlier — that incentivises study in the green economy by offering the “additional support” required to complete training.
He said federal Labor, if elected at next year’s election, would work closely with industry and unions to train and upskill, to build on their accredited micro-credential training.
“While many states and territories have invested in the skills and training sector, the Morrison government has neglected the backbone of our vocational educational system: public TAFE,” Albanese said.
“Labor will end privatisation by stealth, ensuring at least 70% of Commonwealth vocational education funding is for public TAFE.”
All said and done, Albanese’s TAFE initiative will cost $621 million over forward estimates. The remaining $481.7 million will be spent on lifting the ceiling on university intake by up to 20,000 places.
The opposition leader said the move emerges as at least part of the answer to Australia’s skills shortage in engineering, nursing, teaching and, of course, the tech industry.
As part of the plan, universities will receive a share of the $481.7 million over six years from next year to fund the added places, which will be prioritised for First Nations Australians, people in remote and regional areas, and those who are the first from their families to study at university.
“Our Year 12s have had the final school years from hell,” Albanese said. “Our students didn’t ask for this significant disruption. Labor’s commitment will help lighten the load for school leavers at a very stressful time.”
But who’s going to teach them?
Labor’s policy borrows heavily from the $1 billion vocational education package promised by Bill Shorten in 2019. Since then, the education landscape has changed significantly.
In a year that saw the overhaul of university fee structures — which saw fees for humanities and communications degrees increase by 113% — and delays to the return of international students, while institutions were left excluded from the government’s JobKeeper program, the tertiary education sector says Albanese’s announcement doesn’t go far enough.
Alison Barnes, national president at the NTEU, told Business Insider Australia that while extra funding is always appreciated, Albanese’s plan doesn’t account for the sector’s hemorrhaging workforce.
“The Morrison Federal Government oversaw the loss of 40,000 tertiary education jobs across Australia in the last year alone with 35,000 of those at public universities,” Dr Barnes said.
“It is going to take a lot more than a few hundred extra places at each university to fix this crisis.”
Earlier this year, the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work released a report calling for $3.75 billion in tertiary support to help universities recover lost jobs.
Weeks later, the Senate Select Committee on Job Security released its second interim report, which included a new National Higher Education Funding strategy for 2021-2025, and temporary funding to restore jobs support the sector through its pandemic recovery.
Despite the sector’s best efforts, Dr Barnes said, none of the major parties have come close to acknowledging how dire a situation the tertiary sector faces.
“The sector has been completely abandoned by the Morrison Government. Instead of helping fix the crisis, the Prime Minister cut funding per university place, hiked fees and arbitrarily excluded universities from the JobKeeper wage subsidy programme,” Dr Barnes said.
“Despite politicians telling us ad nauseam that high-quality education and research is the most important human resource we have in this country, we are already losing a generation of researchers, academics and specialist professional staff,” she said.
“Without government intervention, the situation will only deteriorate and worst of all, future students will miss out on a gold standard education system in which to thrive.”
For others, the policy proposal offered serious cause for optimism.
Emerging in stark contrast to the Morrison government’s approach to training and education, ACTU Secretary Sally McManus said Labor’s commitment to TAFE will go a long way to securing post-pandemic recovery.
“Billions have been stripped from TAFEs by successive Coalition Governments and it’s imperative that we have a government committed to uplifting the sector and ensuring more Australians have opportunities.
“The pandemic has been hard on all of us, and we need a government that has a recovery plan focused on helping Australians get ahead by providing more opportunities through apprenticeship, TAFE and university funding.
“The Morrison Governments plan for filling skill shortages is in stark contrast of Labor — they strip billions from TAFE and bring in vulnerable migrant workers on temporary visas that routinely see them exploited.”