Reverend Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party has delivered another political victory to the New South Wales Coalition government by backing a parliamentary report subjecting TAFE to the cold commercial winds of the free market.
Recommendations by an all-party report into technical education were carried by the combined vote of Liberal MPs and committee chairman Paul Green of the Christian Democrats, while Labor MPs and Dr John Kaye of the Greens submitted minority reports.
The majority report will give Premier Mike Baird’s cabinet the green light to commercialise technical education, allowing private tenderers to compete with TAFE for students.
The plan is laid out in Education Minister Adrian Piccoli’s “Smart and Skilled” blueprint. (These days, every Coalition policy is branded with a PR moniker; for example, the plan to amalgamate councils is called “Fit for the Future”).
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Under “Smart and Skilled”, students will be able to use their taxpayer-funded grants to receive training at any approved training organisation, TAFE or privately owned ones.
It’s all a question of providing “choice”, argue Coalition MPs, but the reality is otherwise. The truth is that education at all levels — from preschool to universities — is being deregulated, and private providers are being encouraged to profit from the education system.
“There is no going back to a situation where TAFE has a monopoly on government-funded training,” wrote chairman Paul Green of the Christian Democrats in the report’s introduction.
“The committee believes that a contestable training market will benefit all parts of the sector over time, driving up quality and efficiency, and ultimately benefiting students, industry and the economy.”
However, in Labor’s minority report, former union official Daniel Mookhey wrote that “Smart and Skilled” policy was already having a “calamitous” impact on the NSW technical education system.
The number of students declined drastically in 2015, he said, and the number of available courses has fallen. The major reason was the dramatic increase in student fees, although Piccoli and TAFE managing director Pam Christie continue to dispute Mookhey’s assertions.
He criticised the federal government’s licensing system for private providers, saying too many “dodgy” firms were being allowed to operate.
“They are saddling unsuspecting students with unprecedented levels of debt by engaging in unconscionable conduct,” he said.
Greens MP Dr John Kaye said Liberal members on the committee and the CDP’s Paul Green accepted the assumption that a competitive market would provide access to future students and protect quality education. “This assumption is false,” Kaye said. “The fundamental reality is that education is not a commodity. It cannot be successfully traded through a market.
“It will leave TAFE in competition with an industry that is increasingly dominated by participants who place profits ahead of student outcomes,” he said.
TAFE reached the pinnacle of its success under prime minister Gough Whitlam in the early 1970s, when fees were scrapped and proper funding provided. Since then, federal and state Labor have led the rush to the bottom, with fees being reinstated by former federal education minister John Dawkins, and NSW premier Bob Carr hoisting TAFE fees by more than 100% in his 2003-04 budget.
In 2008, then-Victorian premier John Brumby became the first state government to offer public funding to commercial providers competing with TAFE.
Kaye accused the NSW Coalition of following the “disastrous path” of previous Victorian governments, where TAFE had been relegated to an under-funded “bit player confined to the margins of a dysfunctional and corrupted trading market”.
He singled out committee chairman Paul Green, who last month voted with the Coalition to deliver all-day trading on Boxing Day to Sydney’s major retailers.
“Paul Green sided with the government to ensure that the Smart and Skilled training market continues to undermine TAFE without any limits on how much of the total state government training budget can be privatised,” he said.
“Paul Green might feel he has pulled off a clever deal but he has deserted students … He has betrayed the hundreds of TAFE teachers, students and community members who in good faith shared their experiences with this inquiry in the belief that we would take them seriously and come up with a lasting solution.”
The NSW Greens should contain their rage. Nile’s self-styled Christian Democratic Party is imploding at an ever-faster rate.
At the North Sydney byelection, the party’s “star” candidate, Nile’s second, wife Silvana Nero, managed to snare only 341 primary votes, or 0.46% of the votes. She lost her deposit, and victory went to Liberal Trent Zimmerman, the first openly gay man elected to the House of Representatives.
Her 81-year-old husband, the “grandfather” of the NSW Parliament, is on the record as referring to homosexuality as a “mental disorder” and describing it as “immoral, unnatural and abnormal” — which sounds like the CDP itself.