1989-2014: TAFE: It's tough, but hope remains

In 1987, the Hawke Labor government introduced fundamental changes to higher education.

The “binary system” which distinguished institutions as either pure research and teaching (universities) or applied research and training (colleges of advanced education) was abolished, funding was based on pre-defined national goals and student fees were introduced. TAFE colleges were to expand and “facilitate transfers” between the skills sector and universities. The system needed to allow more young people to enter higher education and provide places for “unmet demand”.

With the increase in staff numbers and the expansion of TAFE’s role, I was employed on a permanent basis as a “life skills” teacher in that year.

During the next 25 years there were only three QTU TAFE organisers – Tony Christinson, Paul Reardon and David Terauds. This is a reflection of the QTU’s commitment to covering all teachers in the public sector. It was often a lonely battle, but the QTU was blessed with a dedicated bunch of TAFE activists.

Enterprise bargaining became part of the industrial landscape in TAFE in the early 1990s. The issues were almost always the same. We wanted a fair wage increase without surrendering conditions and the department wanted larger classes, longer teaching hours, no overtime and a reduction of leave.

I spent most of my time in TAFE teaching in the community service obligation areas, such as Indigenous education, literacy and numeracy and adult migrant education. During this time I witnessed the decline in commitment to these programs from both the state and federal governments.

With a view to increasing the proportion of Australians with higher education, the Bradley Review of Higher Education Report of December 2008 highlighted the fact that the public-private divide has narrowed significantly in the past 20 years. Public tertiary institutions derive significant proportions of their income from non-government sources and some private providers receive government subsidies. The report suggested that a proportion of the federal funds allocated to institutions should be allocated on the basis of performance against specific targets for teaching and equity. The government extended the tertiary entitlement to the vocational education and training (VET) sector, commencing with higher level VET qualifications.

This review has led to major changes in the TAFE sector with a narrowing of delivery, a movement of public funds into the private training market, increased costs to the students and increased demands on the teaching staff, particularly from audit requirements. A direct result of the report’s recommendations is the recent merger of Central Queensland Institute of TAFE and Central Queensland University. This is new territory for the QTU and perhaps a template for the future. The issues affecting TAFE in the past have been a good barometer of future trends in the general teaching population.

The recent Queensland Skills Training report and the Costello Audit report leave no doubt about the Newman Government’s position on TAFE. Selling of assets, increased student fees and “an overhaul of TAFE working conditions” clearly show its intention to dismantle the public provider.

I was “Newman-ed” from my job in August last year, so the book-ends of my 25 year career are the Dawkins White Paper and the Bradley Review. What has changed? The control of public funds, the loss of curriculum and program development by teachers, the increase in costs to the students, the loss of full-time permanent employment, the narrowing of courses offered and, more recently, the right of your Union to successfully represent you.

I sometimes think that I have left future generations of QTU members and TAFE teachers with the prospect of worse conditions than when I joined. Then I remember the activists of my time, the battles fought and the immense support of the organisation, and I see the new generation of members and activists and I feel quite hopeful.

Paul Jefferis
Former TAFE teacher

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 119 number 2, 125th Anniversary Special Edition, p45

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Past QTU campaigns