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The Age

TAFE set for a transfusion

Author: Geoff Maslen
Date: 21/10/1991
Words: 1177
          Publication: The Age
Page: 13
The Federal Government last week offered to take full financial responsibility for technical and further education. GEOFF MASLEN gives the background.

JOHN DAWKINS let everyone know what he had in mind long before the nation's education ministers had a chance to consider his bold new scheme last Friday. The federal Minister for Employment, Education and Training has become adept at seizing the headlines before a crucial discussion, to set the agenda for debate.

After a couple of press conferences, some interviews and the release of transcripts of what he had actually said, Mr Dawkins had made it clear how highly he regarded his takeover plan for technical and further education. He also offered his frank opinions on the current state of TAFE: the system was in crisis and what it needed was a healthy dose of Commonwealth cash, along with a bit of Commonwealth control.

Despite the prospect of a federally financed bonanza, the initial reaction from some state ministers was like opening the door on a deep freeze. ``The Commonwealth can keep its clammy hands off!" came the cry. Mr Dawkins then found himself debating the issue in public, days before the formal meeting with his protagonists.

His arguments, however, were powerful and the strongest was the fact that at least 140,000 Australians missed out on a place in TAFE this year _ five times more than the number of those who failed to get into higher education. To meet that demand, the states will have to expand their TAFE systems. Yet most have actually been reducing expenditure on TAFE in recent years, as Mr Dawkins pointed out. Just as he noted that the only place the money could come from was the Federal Government.

Not to do something would leave 400,000 young people out of education and training. ``If the states are going to allow resuscitation of interstate or Commonwealth-state rivalries to scuttle this proposal," Mr Dawkins said, ``those state ministers who engage in that process will have to answer to the parents of those 400,000 kids who at the moment are either denied an opportunity to get into higher education or into a TAFE college, and therefore are confronted with the hideous prospect of unemployment." TAFE has long been education's Cinderella. Over the past decade, schools and universities have accounted for virtually all the growth in education and training. While the Commonwealth has increased its spending on higher education by nearly $1billion since 1983, the states have been cutting back on the amount they allocate to TAFE.

In the six years to May 1990, enrolments of 15 to 24-year-olds in TAFE colleges around Australia rose at an average rate of only 2.8 per cent a year so that 38,000 extra students joined the system. In the same period, the number in universities jumped by more than 110,000 _ at an average rate of 7.3 per cent a year. Since 1983, there has been an 80 per cent leap in the number of young Australians attending university while their numbers in TAFE have risen by less than 12 per cent.

One result of this, Mr Dawkins said, was that the proportion of young Australians with university degrees had gone up by more than 30 per cent since 1984. In contrast, the proportion with trade qualifications had actually fallen by more than five per cent.

``It is essential to our `clever country' objectives that these issues be tackled quickly and agressively. As a nation we are confronting a basic choice: whether to continue with our present course of upgrading the capacity and resources of universities, to the neglect of vocational education and training; or, alternatively, to strike a new balance between the two sectors which recognises that a clever country is also a capable country and to accord equal esteem to the two main pathways to employment after school." The Commonwealth, however, is not in a position to strike a new balance between university and TAFE. Although it finances higher education _ and has since the Whitlam Government took on the job from the states in 1974 _ its contribution to TAFE amounts to only 10 per cent of the total.

UNDER the Dawkins plan this would rise to 70 per cent. The states would be responsible for the education and training of their young people, in school or TAFE, to the end of year 12 or its equivalent. Beyond that, the Federal Government would pay. Mr Dawkins dismissed the somewhat alarmist claims by some of the states that the Commonwealth wanted to assume total control. He said the states would continue to be responsible for the administration of TAFE but added ``within the framework of a new set of national agreements".

The education ministers on Friday reacted cautiously to this, although, after hours of discussion, they did not reject the Dawkins scheme. Instead, they decided to set up a working party of education officials to explore the cost implications of some of the options. The council will meet again in Adelaide on 8November, prior to a conference of Commonwealth-state leaders where the Prime Minister's new federalism proposals will be debated.

Mr Dawkins said that even if the states did not accept his suggestion, the Commonwealth would still take it to the conference for the premiers to consider. He said after the Australian Education Council meeting, however, he was delighted with the outcome but repeated that the Federal Government would not provide extra grants to the states without a say on spending.

And, in a somewhat far-fetched observation, he claimed: ``If we shared responsibility 50-50 for TAFE, the states would have a financial incentive to push kids out of school and into TAFE and out of TAFE and into higher education because that way they would save most money ... Now frankly, I do not think education and training policy should be driven by the manic obsessions of state treasurers. I think these things should be developed on the basis of sound policy." Mr Dawkins was not entirely lacking supporters. The state Education Minister, Mr Pullen, has been a strong advocate of the Dawkins plan and he said Victoria was prepared to go it alone with the Commonwealth should the other states not join in.

If widespread agreement can be reached, Australia will take as historic a step with technical and further education as it did with higher education nearly 20 years ago. Having totally reshaped higher education, Mr Dawkins would no doubt then find the prospect of reforming the country's biggest post-secondary sector irresistible.

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