Thor's "Technical & Further Education in Australia:
Is there a star to steer by
All ideas expressed in Thor's Stories and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.

Abstract: This paper, first written in 1996, should be an historical document. However, in 2012 it is a precise and current description of Technical and Further Education in Australia. The present state government of Victoria, Australia, for example, is currently de-funding TAFEs and aborting their mission, even as Australia is “forced” to import unprecedented numbers of skilled workers from overseas. The paper examines what is obviously a cyclical problem with technical education in many countries – its relatively low status leading to periodic cuts in funding, difficulty in attracting talented career staff, and the cyclical destruction of accumulated skills through casualisation. This document has been published by the Senate of the Australian Parliament as part of a report on the status of teachers.


Organized technical education is almost as old as the industrial revolution. It had clear antecedents in craftsmen's guilds and, in a different way, in military & maritime skills training. However the TAFE configuration as we know it is less than a generation old. There seem to be forces gathering which are bent on destroying the sector. It is an appropriate time to ask whether this vessel has a star to steer by, or is doomed to vanish in the gathering storm of economic change.

1. The vocational training and further education sectors of a community can have a variety of layers, depending upon sophistication and funding. Australia's particular TAFE configuration may have reached its greatest institutional complexity by the late 1980's. As with all social systems, a number of shortcomings and rigidities became evident in TAFEs. It was reasonable to address whatever problems had arisen in the TAFE mission and its delivery. However the process has become highly politicized, and driven by parties who obviously have no serious understanding of educational process, educational quality, or the social and economic benefits that flow from a skilled and informed population. Indeed the language with which we express quality itself has been stolen, debased and sloganized to a point where it is difficult to debate the issues in public. If this debate is to have meaning at all, it is necessary to go back to first causes and to establish a context for the situation which is emerging. The discussion which follows makes some attempt at this, and suggests some consequences.

2. Every community on earth has its conservative and more progressive protagonists. Wherever the social system allows political pluralism, we find conservative and progressive wings. In Australia we have accommodated, even relished, this natural division on the premise that one wing will keep the more unbalanced enthusiams of the other wing in check, both within parties and across the political spectrum. It has worked, more or less, while some consensus remained on national goals, if not always on methods. In the past it has been our national salvation to forge this consensus. We are entering a phase where a consensus of interests is harder to identify, and in some cases seems to be actively undermined.

3. Those with power to mobilize capital, whether multinational companies or local entrepreneurs, or whatever political proxies they can lever into control, are less and less driven by a need to form alliances with those who have little to sell but their labour. The reasons for this range from industrial automation, to trans-national manufacture & marketing to the loss of control by nation states over the creation and distribution of money (which will be soon be largely privatized).

4. The relatively even distribution of wealth in Australia in the second half of this century (especially) came from a shotgun marriage of capital and labour behind protective tariff barriers. The solution had its problems, sometimes tolerating indiscipline and low productivity. It also had much success. In this system, equality of opportunity was a realistic political goal and it gave rise, amongst other things, to a vibrant mass education system based on merit and available to all.

5. The new political landscape, which is being marketed as modern, desirable and "open" is in fact one in which wealth is to be concentrated in the hands of a small, privileged class, the middle class is to be drastically downsized, and a very large part of the population is to be essentially denied the opportunity to develop economic power or intellectual growth. Labour will be either bought at $1 a day from Third World slave markets, or displaced by automation. Government can no longer be sensibly said to represent the aspirations of all of the people. There is nothing new about this unbalanced model. Variations of it have been the norm since Neolithic times and still predominate globally. Its re-emergence is being modelled in the American landscape, which Australia tends to mimic. Both major political parties have accepted the new paradigm as realpolitik.

6. A century ago crude, early capitalism led to the crude early reactions of Marxism, autocratic Communism and Nazism. These were solutions by political slogan which proved sterile and generated mass misery. In 1996 a small, though not necessarily influential, international elite does have some accumulated understanding of economics and social growth. It is being poorly accessed by local decision makers however, even those with honest intentions. There has been much vain-glory, but a striking lack of political intelligence at work in our recent leadership as it wrestles with the transition from local democracy to trans-national plutocracy. A characteristic of such political transitions is that words themselves lose their reference points, empty rhetoric flourishes and the regard for honest intention plummets. We are far enough into the process now for sharper minds to notice that many public statements have to be read as code for an agenda that most of us revile.

7. What are the consequences for mass education, and the TAFE system in particular, of the emerging political changes outlined above? Firstly, since education is the mechanism by which we transmit civilization from one generation to the next, large changes in our social and economic structures will always cause changes in the educational process. If it is no longer of economic (hence political) value to those with power to maximize the knowledge base of the general population, then we must expect aggressive attempts to modify those institutions which transmit knowledge.

8. Australian mass education is under sustained attack at every level from primary to tertiary. Changes proceed under the rhetoric of reform, rationalization, economy or competitive improvement. The adjectives don't much matter; they are temporizations by the salesman. Even the mechanisms don't much matter; they are inventions of the moment. We can argue with the details, become lost in the trees. Certainly there is often a need for reform, improvement and perhaps re-deployment. However, behind the confusion of battle here is not a struggle for better education, but for the abandonment of genuine education for a large part of the population. This is a radical idea, certainly not grasped by many of the managerial lieutenants in the field. They really do think they are working for "improved productivity" (without wondering what productivity really is), for a "competitive edge" (even as it destroys pathways for students they are paid to guide), or for a "rational distribution" of diminishing resources (while not understanding why the resources are diminishing).

9. Technical and Further Education has already lost the "Further Education" segment of its title in public political reference. It is de rigeur to talk now of Vocational Education and Training (V.E.T.), as if further education had become irrelevant to a workforce which must expect to change occupations half a dozen times in a lifetime, and has no useful human role beyond screwing up the widget of the moment. Now vocational training is to be taken from the institutions and given back to the workshops of the nation.

10. We can scarcely argue with the importance of workplace experience. But as educators we challenge the proposition that most industry in its multitude of offices and factory sites has the knowledge base, teaching skills, resources and above all the will to properly educate the working people of this country. We got past that when the economy grew beyond craft guilds. We look at the provisions for workplace assessment and smell potential for corruption, evasion and a disregard for genuine, consistent standards. This has been the outcome of self-regulation everywhere in industry; why should training be different? Those amongst us who want genuine TAFE reform see assessment as the weakest area in the institutions themselves: a system in which the able have little incentive to excel, and the inept are rewarded with equal status for simply attending. Is this to be challenged? No. It is to be generalized beyond all serious auditing, into industry.

11. For perhaps a generation, TAFE teaching has been a genuine vocation. Throughout the sector are professional teachers with expert skills acquired over many years. Relatively security of tenure has enabled them to develop programs for their specialization, trial them and present them in an expert way to generations of students. There are, as in any profession, poor or indifferent teachers who need retraining or easing into other occupations. However, current personnel plans for TAFE evolution take no account of the good, the bad or the indifferent in teaching. Rather, the clear intention of management is to casualize the workforce. The net effect of this is already becoming apparent: the destruction of TAFE teaching as a profession. TAFEs in the current mode are asset-stripping human resources. More and more we see "trainers" with no knowledge of how to develop the potential in each student. They do their stuff and are out the door. On a low hourly rate, who wouldn't be? And who would bother with advanced tertiary qualifications to enter into a career with three month security and AUD$19200 pro rata per annum ($24 x 800 hours) regardless of experience? This is not the dynamic of a profession with rising standards.

12. We all live in a bubble of time, and are apt to think that now is the way things always were. It wasn't of course, and isn't in most other places. Our country, our institutions, our society itself is a miracle of the moment, enjoying one brief summer of a generation or two on a journey from a fascist prison camp two centuries ago to heaven knows where. Sixty years ago we were neck and neck with Argentina, remarkably similar societies. They took one turning, into disaster. By luck and occasional good management we took another. The road ahead continues to branch. Our neighbours on the Pacific rim, starting from a zero base, are rushing furiously into industrialization and dreaming of the society which we seem determined to lose. Our leaders, dazed with economic babble and bought off with American Express gold cards, talk of microeconomic reform while they systematically destroy the human skill base that is our greatest asset.

13. As political storms threaten to sweep institutions from under our feet it is easy to become confused about objectives, or even seduced by the slogans of the moment. Yet we recall that the results of our work go beyond the classroom and the factory floor, colour the lives of millions. We act on that responsibility as best we can. A TAFE is not a pickle factory, but a colloquium of active minds in pursuit of knowledge, understanding and skills. It is neither making nor selling a generic product, but providing a guided environment in which individuals have the chance to cultivate socially and economically useful skills, according to personal aptitude.

14. If you tell me that the educational concept of TAFEs, as I have described it, is outdated, that the client is not the individual but industry, then I must reply that "industry" is a phantom when it comes to learning. I have never sat a Mr. Industry down with a smile and coaxed him to understand anything. My clients are men and women with needs and limitations which would have been familiar to Aristotle, Euclid or the Gautama Buddha. The goals which I facilitate, and the art which I must practice in that facilitation, are relearned by each generation but scarcely change in substance, whatever the jargon of the day. If TAFEs are abolished in all but name, we will see the disappearance of one more venue where learning can occur, but no spin doctor can redefine learning itself, the conditions which make it possible, not the ancient art of helping it to happen. There are constant values for the noblest profession known to every civilization, that of teacher. These values are a navigation star which politicians have dimmed, but never quite extinguished.

[Thor May, December 1996]

** This document was published in: Senate Employment, Education and Training References Committee 1998, Inquiry into the Status of the Teaching Profession: A Class Act, Australian Government Printing Service, Canberra.

Technical & Further Education in Australia: Is there a star to steer by?(c) Thor May 1996.
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Notes :

This document was tabled (December 1996) in the Senate of the Australian 
Parliament as a submission to the Enquiry into the Status of Teachers 

It was also published in: 
<> Campus Review (a nationally distributed Australian newspaper); April 16, 1997

<> The News (weekly publication of the Australian Education Union); May 29, 1997

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©2005 Thor May