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NSW Minister for Skills, TAFE and Tertiary Education Steve Whan. Picture: NCA Newswire

TAFE should be local, industry aligned force, review says

Vocational education and training (VET) should be led by "best-practice" TAFEs that act as leaders in meeting critical skills needs, a NSW VET review says.

Many professions with skills shortages require a VET qualification gained from TAFE or another registered training organisation (RTO), such as builders and other trade apprenticeships.

A $1.3bn scheme to get more people into apprenticeships will also be reviewed after data revealed half of apprentices that undertook the scheme's offer dropped out.

The Interim report also says only half of NSW TAFE students complete their training.

The NSW VET Review Interim Report has seven recommendations that aim to boost vocational education enrolments to address the state's worsening skills shortage.

  1. The NSW government should clarify TAFE's role and purpose through a TAFE NSW Charter
  2. TAFE should develop and implement a revised operating model that aligns educational delivery with industry needs, prioritises local engagement and enhances support for teachers
  3. TAFE should work with the NSW Department of Education to pilot self-accreditation processes across selected qualifications
  4. The government should streamline and increase funding
  5. The government should review the TAFE advisory board, advisory bodies and the NSW Skills Board Act 2013
  6. The government should prioritise expanding the VET trainer workforce and converting casual staff to permanent roles
  7. The government should audit existing TAFE infrastructure and assess whether its age, condition and location are suitable

The Interim report recommended changes to be immediately implemented, with the final report, to be released mid-year, to recommend longer term reforms.

The TAFE NSW Charter

The most immediate recommendation is the proposed TAFE NSW Charter, which NSW Minister for Skills, TAFE and Tertiary Education Steve Whan said the government has already begun working on.

The Charter would clearly outline outcome expectations of TAFE through clarifying its role, purpose, agreed measures of success, ways of working, governance and values – all of which is currently undefined.

No clear overarching reason for existing, the report says, has left TAFEs operating in a less effective way, with no medium to long term enrolment or growth goals.

The Charter would also clearly communicate that TAFEs should be industry aligned to meet workforce needs – and local, to serve the needs of regional and remote communities particularly.

Funding overhaul

A lack of funding certainty has prevented medium and long term goal making efforts for TAFEs, the review found.

The current Smart and Skilled program, which subsidises in-demand qualifications for students up to a Certificate III, has actual costs that are significantly higher than its predicted costs.

The review found since the implementation of that program in 2015, TAFE pushed itself into a market competing with private RTOs and other skills institutions, whilst still attempting to meet its equity and access goals.

Trying to "play every role" has left the skills trainer falling short in most areas, the report says, on top of the burden of funding 70 per cent of courses under the Smart and Skilled scheme.

Private RTOs can opt-out of offering qualifications that cost more than their actual cost, whereas the public TAFE is a 'last resort', and has to offer that skill course for free.

'TAFE NSW estimates losses on several high-enrolment qualifications due to the mismatch between Smart and Skilled prices and its actual costs of delivery,' the report said.

“It cost us $28,000 at a minimum to put a trainee through over two years and the only funding we’re eligible for is $5,000 through Smart and Skilled. So every time we sign up a trainee, it’s a financial loss to our company," a primary industries roundtable member said.

TAFE also has to negotiate funding agreements with the state's education department every year, preventing the skills provider from planning long term or creating goals.

The review recommends TAFE be removed from the contestable funding market, and Smart and Skilled program costs are reviewed and managed through the proposed charter.

The report also says both TAFE NSW and the NSW government should up their funding commitments in the 2024-25 budget, and adopt a 'direct appropriation' funding model, where a lump sum of money is set aside to take care of TAFE costs.

Better trainer conditions

The NSW Teachers Federation said funding certainty is key to improving TAFE outcomes, and called for changes to appear in the 2024/25 budget so trainers can reap its benefits from 2025, not mid-way through 2026.

"Our students can’t wait and nor can our communities. The skill shortage is getting worse and threatening critical national priorities such as in construction, nursing and the clean energy transition," deputy president Amber Flohm said.

"The NSW economy needs a revamped, revitalised TAFE."

The federation also called for an end to significant administrative burdens – currently a full-time TAFE trainer spends one hour on admin for every hour spent in the classroom.

VET trainers and teachers should also be put on permanent full-time contracts more often than not, the review says.

Although NSW TAFE offers above average wages compared to other states, part-time contracts and admin burden have dulled the appeal of the profession.

The review found between 20-50 hours of NSW Education and Authority Standards (NESA) accreditation admin per week is deterring teacher applicants, along with too much of a focus on compliance training instead of valuing current and competent industry knowledge.

Declining infrastructure

Stakeholders that wrote to the review said even if they wanted to offer TAFE's full suite of qualifications, they don't have the facilities to.

Old equipment, a lack of digital learning resources (despite the Covid-19 pandemic) and low digital literacy in students have undermined student experience and lowered staff morale, the review found.

Most TAFEs are still using digital infrastructure that has not been upgraded since its implementation in 2009, the report says, reflecting the gap between VET infrastructure and industry needs, especially in regional and rural areas.

"The issues currently faced by TAFE around its infrastructure and assets are also reflected in NSW public high schools that offer VET to their students," the review said.

"Participants noted that this limits the ability of schools to offer VET to their students, even if they have the workforce to deliver it."

A lack of long-term vision stemming from funding uncertainty has allowed infrastructure to continue to decline, with no upgrade plans in sight.

The review recommended the NSW government conduct an audit of existing public school and TAFE VET facilities, and increase the quality of those facilities to deliver learning needs.

It also said the government should consider aligning tertiary education infrastructure announcements, such as Regional University Study Hubs, with VET needs.

Indigenous participation missing

The Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia (ITECA), that represents independent RTOs, said the final report should place a greater emphasis on Indigenous participation in VET studies.

“ITECA looks forward to working with the New South Wales Government to enhance the role of skills training in supporting Indigenous Australians not just into a job, but into a career,” ITECA chief executive Troy Williams said.

"ITECA is also committed to ensuring that the final report includes robust recommendations on improving access to skills training for students from remote, rural, and regional News South Wales."

The review mentioned the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in TAFE, because it acts as a pathway for learners who face general barriers to education.

The review acknowledged funding is not the only reason Indigenous students don't sign up for VET studies, and recommended the appointment of specialist support staff for Indigenous students.

It also said Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations should be consulted on Indigenous issues.

Minister Whan said the report offers the changes required for TAFE to flourish.

“The NSW Labor Government knows that to address the critical shortage of skilled workers, NSW needs a strong and sustainable vocational training system," he said.

“Over the next decade, NSW will need thousands of skilled professionals across healthcare, hospitality, construction, and burgeoning sectors like renewable energy.

“This report underscores the pivotal role of TAFE NSW in helping meet the skills needs of the NSW economy.”

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