Margo Kingston

Margo Kingston

Co-publisher and editor-in-chief at No Fibs
Margo Kingston is a retired Australian journalist and climate change activist. She is best known for her stint as Phillip Adams’ ‘Canberra Babylon’ contributor and her work at The Sydney Morning Herald and #Webdiary. Since 2012, Kingston has been a citizen journalist, reporting and commenting on Australian politics via Twitter and No Fibs.
Margo Kingston

By Geraldine Toner
17th January 2013

Geraldine Toner

Geraldine Toner

MARGO: @Fluffula tweeted that if she had a blog she’d write the truth about TAFE policy, so TurnLeft and AFHP offered her a spot.I feel that citizen journalists should, like other journalists, put their name to their words, and she has had the courage to do so.

So here is the debut citizen journalist piece by Geraldine Toner. She worked in the Victorian Public Service from 1992 to 2011 as an IT Project manager, mainly in labour market & training programs to help the disadvantaged into employment. From 2004 she worked in Government Funded Training Programs that managed the TAFEs and Private Registered Training Organisations and then  managed the development and implementation of the original application used to introduce the contestability model, then called ‘Skills Reform’. In 2010 she worked at Swinburne University in a contract position and officially left the Victorian Public Sector in December 2011. The TAFE issue is fraught around Australia, so feel free to comment here.


I am writing this piece in frustration at the public narrative of the Victorian Government’s Vocational Education & Training (VET) contestability policy that has TAFE lose more than $300m in funding I am primarily motivated by a comment made by a current Victorian Public Sector employee working in the area who said to me contestability is great but the TAFE’s were too slow to react to market changes and only have themselves to blame.  I don’t see it that way and here’s why.

I worked in the State Government area that funds and manages VET delivery for 5 years, and I also worked briefly in a TAFE/University. In my 18 year public sector career I worked in labour market/training programs and have seen a gamut of policies and programs come and go.

First, a brief background on the contestability model which drives decisions.  The Howard Government had a policy that all states introduce contestability in the VET market. This meant that State VET funds (in Victoria more than $1b when ALP were in power) are put into a general pool, to which public and private providers get equal access. Traditionally TAFE received 90{17ac88c265afb328fa89088ab635a2a63864fdefdd7caa0964376053e8ea14b3} with private receiving the rest.

For many years the States refused to comply, because TAFE enables affordable training to the disadvantaged and disenfranchised and is the major skills training provider across the country. Governments can therefore provide alternative VCE education with a skills focus and target funding dollars for training to areas of skills shortages, something difficult to do in a contestable market.  In addition, some skills training like engineering, construction and cooking require large outlays in infrastructure which private service providers cannot do.

Victoria was a little different to the other States, as the Government does not own the TAFEs and they have some autonomy, although the Government managed their Boards and provided infrastructure funds.  In return Victorian TAFEs were obliged to seek and provide fee for service training.  Fee for Service is where the student pays 100{17ac88c265afb328fa89088ab635a2a63864fdefdd7caa0964376053e8ea14b3} of the training without government subsidy. TAFEs also had to prove they were innovative and met market needs.  They had to negotiate for funds, and if they failed to deliver under their funding agreement money would be returned to government.

In 2004, the Howard Government increased pressure for contestability though sticks and carrots. RTOS (Registered Training Organisations) also pushed for contestability as they saw TAFE as a barrier to their success.

The Victorian Government’s ‘Skills Reform’ started with good intentions and some sound thinking. Premier Steve Bracks was a big supporter of public education, but something happened when he resigned just as we were going into consultation, full policy development and building the systems.  Ministers changed and Public Servants were given leadership roles. The main issues as I observed them were as follows:


The data used to model future funding needs was just plain wrong and of low quality  Yep, the State Government might have a go at me, but I stand by this opinion and will answer to any claims to the contrary.

The system used to collect the data used to model budget needs was old and had few data quality checks to predict budget expenditure to the level required of such a policy. It worked for an overall understanding of training delivered by student numbers, industry and qualifications but was nowhere good enough for budget. I won’t bore you with the full details of why unless you really really want to know.

Private providers were also paid on different, more accurate data sets, and some of us believed that the data used for budget analysis had a discrepancy rate of around 40{17ac88c265afb328fa89088ab635a2a63864fdefdd7caa0964376053e8ea14b3} to real delivery. When we told senior management we were not only dismissed but identified as trouble makers who were against contestability. I assure everyone there was no hidden agenda by those raising issues – we just knew the data as we had worked with it for years.

Funding policy of private providers

Another significant issue was how private providers were funded and given access to funding. Traditionally private providers came through a tender process but for many years it was limited to ensure living within a budget, and this helped keep out the shonks who became RTOs just to access Government funding. Under this policy private providers had to have a minimum number of students to be funded. Small RTOS aren’t really viable and normally don’t have the income to enable adequate infrastructure or Quality & Assurance mechanisms.

Under ‘Skills Reform’ you only needed students who were eligible regardless of how many, because ‘an open market doesn’t discriminate’. That is true in a private market, but  Governments are using public money and we thought that the risk was too big.

Quality Control

For ‘Skills Reform’ we built a new system and worked hard on it, using our experience of what was wrong with data collection, payments, quality control, audit and contract management in the other systems to fix them. There was a lot of Q&A in the data submission process that checked data before we let it into the system and paid on it.

The system was implemented for use only with the private RTOs in 2008. It was a very intensive, exhausting implementation and we found out just how bad the data was that the providers were used to submitting. Some RTOs couldn’t be paid for some time as their data was so bad, and everyone on the team worked hard to ensure the RTOs understood how to ensure the data meet standards and funding rules

We also found just how shonky some were. They tried to claim they had delivered qualifications taking 360 hours for competency in a week and sometimes less. Before the market was fully opened this was a minority – the vast majority of the private RTOs funded in 2008 worked hard to get their data correct and were delivering quality training and were committed providers.

In 2009, management found this all too hard and were scared to try it with TAFE and turned the Quality & Assurance off. Many of us were aghast, wondering  why we had spent so much time, effort and money on Q&A only to turn it off. Again they were warned that once the shonks worked out they wouldn’t be found out, they would go back to what is essentially fraud and deliver inadequately skilled graduates and fail to deliver graduates in areas of skills shortage.

TAFE was never the issue. TAFE need good reputations with employers and industry as much as students, and they compete to be the best TAFE. This was how they  got their fee for service, vitally important to their financial security. Sure you get non delivery but its rarely because a TAFE is being fraudulent. It is more likely to be issues in their internal student reporting processes.

TAFEs are Rich

There were a number of  bad assumptions underpinning the policy. One was that TAFEs were rich, that they had property and assets which would cushion a revenue downturn. Some of us argued that their money was in buildings and infrastructure, so that if  they had a significant reduction in funding they would have to sell assets and so lose training facilities.

We were also concerned about the casualisation of the TAFE workforce. If TAFEs don’t know what they can expect in training dollars from Government, how do they put on teachers long term? Will it force them to put teachers on yearly contracts and therefore increase risks gaps in their workforce? Will it make TAFE teaching less attractive? These questions never got an answer.

The current Victorian LNP Government has used the issues created by ‘Skills Reform’ to diminish a TAFE sector they don’t have much respect for, and have taken over $300m from the VET sector while giving money to private schools. This has primarily effected TAFE, not private providers.

The result:

  • TAFE reduces what they deliver, a particular concern for regions and outer suburbs where sometimes TAFE is the only provider that delivers a particular type of training or is the only training provider in the area;
  • TAFE shuts down campuses;
  • A budget blow out, primarily because the privates have claimed far more than anticipated –  there are far more shonky private providers claiming training that either doesn’t happen or isn’t good enough

For those of you who say, who cares, it’s how the market rolled, I say this to you.

TAFE does the following things that private providers never do either because it’s not commercially viable or they don’t have the infrastructure/capability:

  • Disability training – 90{17ac88c265afb328fa89088ab635a2a63864fdefdd7caa0964376053e8ea14b3} of disability training occurs in TAFE;

  • Closing the gap training – TAFE does much work with Aboriginal groups, refugees and the long term unemployed.
  • Skills Training in Apprenticeships where expensive infrastructure is needed  – setting up training rooms to train people to work in the real world is expensive and often out of the reach of private providers and when private providers do deliver it, they often rooms in TAFES.

So I say, let’s learn from this and don’t believe the put downs of TAFE unless there is evidence. It’s not perfect but its pretty bloody good, and there is absolutely no way we are going to address skills shortages in our workforce without it.

I have been told that the current Government has put resources in Audit and it is vastly improved, so we can be thankful that at least there is some addressing of the issues.

Disclosure: I left this area of Government because I had been bullied, and left the Victorian Public Sector in 2010. I have no interest in revenge or exposing any particular person. I just wanted to reply to all the lies I keep hearing about TAFE, which I much admire and believe is vital to our education and prosperity.