Federal Politics

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TAFEs hit hard in battle for public education

The government has revealed a worrying view of its role.

FACING a revenue squeeze, the Baillieu government's second budget sharpened the focus on its priorities. Its law-and-order spending was no surprise - even if driven more by fears than the facts of crime. What is questionable is the decision to cut TAFE funding while spending close to $1 billion on a new prison, extra police and armed public transport guards. As The Age reports today, the Minister for Higher Education and Skills, Peter Hall, has admitted he thought of resigning. Victoria stands accused of ''walking away'' from national reforms.

The federal-state agreement signed at COAG just a fortnight ago was supposed to bolster government support for the sector to meet the urgent need for skilled workers. Instead of the 3 per cent increase in funding over five years required to achieve the agreed goals, Tuesday's state budget left Victorian TAFEs much worse off. Premier Ted Baillieu denies breaching the agreement. The Victorian TAFE Association says its ''weak'' terms failed to secure provisions such as pay, conditions and student services.

Mr Hall's letter to TAFE chiefs gives the game away. He writes that in a presentation on Friday, ''I observed emotions of shock, incredulity, disbelief and anger'' and confided that ''we in the department and my staff have shared similar emotions for many months now as we have argued and anguished over budget decisions''. He admits thinking he might ''throw in the towel … on many occasions in recent months'', but decided against resignation. He acknowledges the budget's ''profound'' impact on TAFEs and the depths of concern about their fate, but writes: ''To suggest that 'the privates' will take over training in the higher subsidised training areas is a defeatist attitude.''

The fact remains that Victorian TAFEs are victims of the political neglect of knowledge and skills and this government's attitude to public education. To save $300 million over four years - $100 million in year one - 80 per cent of course subsidies have been cut. Some subsidies have gone from $7 an hour to $1.50. The Victorian TAFE Association says many courses will be scrapped and some TAFEs may close. Especially vulnerable are institutions in regional areas, which already suffer educational disadvantage. Their extra funding of up to 22 per cent falls to a 5 per cent regional loading. TAFE institutes lose a funding stream covering about $160 million of the past four years' pay rises agreed by government under the last enterprise agreement. The 365,000 enrolled TAFE students, who include a high proportion from disadvantaged backgrounds, are in for higher fees and reduced services.

The budget did boost funding to some key areas: trade courses and apprenticeships, engineering, aged and disability care and children's services. Yet ''picking winners'' runs the risk of undervaluing business, retail, events and hospitality training. For instance, Melbourne's vibrant hospitality sector benefits from high-quality training at the William Angliss Institute and Victoria University.

The government believes that bringing TAFE funding into line with private training providers, as well as removing fee caps, will boost competition and choice. A unit will monitor services and fees, but that is no guarantee that standards will not suffer. Mr Hall's letter, in response to a request for modelling of the budget changes, states: ''In a market-driven training system, there are no identifiable precedents to assist with this model.'' However, there are real risks of market failure in education, as The Age has reported over the years. Subsidies of private for-profit providers triggered rampant rorts and poor training and amenities - even outright non-delivery of some courses.


The government's failure to properly support TAFEs as public education bodies raises questions about whether putting public and private providers on an equal footing amounts to privatisation by stealth. Whatever the case, cutting public investment in education and training is a false economy.

Diversity, the fit and proper way

SO FAR, Britain's phone-hacking affair has led to the closure of one mass-circulation Sunday newspaper, various sackings, resignations and arrests, at least two inquiries and the public humiliation of one of the world's most powerful media moguls.

What is crucial to remember is that it took a single human tragedy to set in train this whole sorry, protracted and complex mess: the abduction and murder a decade ago of 13-year-old Milly Dowler, and the revelations that, after her disappearance, her mobile phone had been hacked by the News of the World. The public revulsion at this news - revealed only last July, by The Guardian - created seismic shifts in government, police and the media. The aftershocks continue.

On Monday, fresh from his appearances last week before the Leveson inquiry, News Corporation's chairman and chief executive officer, Rupert Murdoch, was back in the news. On Monday, a House of Commons select committee tabled its report into the phone-hacking scandal. Among its conclusions was this: ''… Rupert Murdoch is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company''.

While it is easy, certainly for some, to relish this excoriating finding - just one of many - a sense of perspective should be maintained. First of all is that the assessment of Mr Murdoch's fitness to run a company was rejected by the five Conservatives on the 11-member committee, thereby weakening what is perceived as an otherwise sound report. This calls into wider question the remit of the inquiry itself. Should it be up to politicians to determine Mr Murdoch's probity - especially since Britain's independent regulator, Ofcom, is currently investigating whether News Corporation is ''fit and proper'' to hold a broadcasting licence through BSkyB? In using similar language to Ofcom, is the committee (as one of its dissenting members says) improperly attempting to influence a decision it is not empowered to make?

Only this week, The Age questioned several recommendations of the Convergence Review report into media regulation, including the need for a ''super-regulator'' and the public-interest test for mergers and acquisitions. This is the very test that, in Britain, places politicians and the media in uncomfortable proximity, while distancing genuine public interest. There is no evidence of phone-hacking by the media in Australia. Part of the reason is down to a system in which citizens keep both politicians and media in check. It is a delicate balance that should be preserved.