2011 was a difficult year in the Vocational Education sector in Victoria. The $40 million cut in funding to TAFEs and similar cuts in funding for VCAL programs saw courses catering to disengaged youth in particular wound back or in some cases dropped.
As we saw from the Baillieu Government's budget release yesterday, those cuts last year were just the start. With the more than $100 million slashed from TAFE funding in the new budget (and more than $300 million over four years), and many courses losing up to 80% of their funding, the stark reality for many young people is that they simply won't be able to afford to enrol in vocational education courses. That and/or the courses just won't be there for them to even consider taking.
However, according to Baillieu, his Treasurer and even the Skills Minister Peter Hall, these are the "efficiencies" we need, all part of "taking a responsible and necessary approach to improving the training system to ensure it is sustainable and affordable in the long term."
The Government's logic may work on a simple profit and loss balance sheet, but applied to a range of broader calculations it doesn't even begin to add up.
Studies and economic modelling have clearly shown that raising school completion rates and participation in vocational education courses represent massive boosts to the economy, especially in terms of increasing work force numbers and improving overall productivity.
The surge in enrolments for VCAL at school level over the past decade has had a major impact on school completion rates (Year 12 or equivalent), which increased from around 80% to over 90% in the period 2002-2011. Intrinsic to the VCAL high school pathway option is participation in VET courses, which also majorly expanded their offerings and participation rates over the same period.
Evidently Baillieu & Co. either didn't understand or didn't believe the studies (or else aren't patient enough to see school completion rates translate into economic benefits), because not only have they taken a massive knife to overall TAFE funding, they also abolished the very funds used by VCAL programs to coordinate work placement and VET integration. Without the VET coordination, the VCAL pathway option becomes null and void.
The Government is apparently maintaining funding for specific VET courses like construction and plumbing, because these represent 'needed' trades. I'm not sure how much they will be needed with the axing of the First Home Buyer's grant, which in combination with declining house prices and stagnant rates of new construction represent a rather toxic future for any of the construction-related trades -- especially in rural areas.
While the Government's longer-term economic reasoning doesn't add up in a lot of ways, its approach to vocational education and training falls face first into a puddle on another, equally important measure.
Keeping young people in school and training isn't just a long term investment in economic prosperity; it addresses a very serious "discourse of risk" that affects the sort of society we live in.
Research and experience shows very clearly that young people who fail to complete Year 12 or equivalent vocational education qualifications have a much higher chance of being unemployed, and staying unemployed for longer periods of time. This situation very often results in increased risk for wider society. The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, for example, argued that "if long term unemployed males aged between 15-24,continued to the end of senior high school the reduction in break, enter and stealing over the course of a year would amount to almost 15 percent."
There is very little doubt in my mind that reduced access to VCAL and VET programs (based on both availability and affordability) is going to result in a significant spike in the number of young people who drop out of education. Most of those people are going to join the unemployment queue, stay there for longer, and many of them will spend more time out on the streets and in the shopping malls engaging in anti-social or even criminal behaviour.
Never fear: Baillieu & Co. appear to have this problem covered.
They already have ridiculous fines for "swearing" -- equivalent in penalty to speeding offences but not, apparently, applicable to non-verbal forms of swearing like standing in front of a university library window and giving the middle digit to horrendously underpaid health professionals.
But for those disengaged and unemployed young people who "minus up" into more serious forms of crime, remember that the Baillieu Government has very generously made allowances in the new budget for $50 million to house more police officers and 'PSO's and a whopping $670 million to help lock up more prisoners.
I'm no accountant or social economist. I'm just a VCAL teacher employed in a TAFE that maintains a social and youth engagement balance sheet as well as a fiscal one. But something tells me that if you maintained and even increased your funding for vocational education and training, you wouldn't need more than $700 million for law enforcement and jail cells.
That, to me, is "taking a responsible and necessary approach to improving the training system to ensure it is sustainable and affordable in the long term" -- sustainable and affordable across all the balance sheets that really matter in a fair and progressive society.