Home | Opinion | ‘Fee-free’ TAFE not exactly what was agreed on: opinion
Picture: Liam Kidston/News Corp Australia.

‘Fee-free’ TAFE not exactly what was agreed on: opinion

The Australian Government (AG) finalised Agreements with all States and Territories (S&T) for initial delivery of 180,000 fee-free TAFE and vocational education places from January 2023. 

These are jointly funded as first part of a commitment to 480,000 places over 4 years.  

Across the country, students are searching websites for ‘fee-free’ TAFE, and education services staff are trying to get enrolments in place for 2023.    

The first  tranche of ‘fee-free’ places supports critical skill shortages: aged care, early education, health care, disability care; technology and increasing digital skills; hospitality and tourism; construction; agriculture; and sovereign capability.

In the AG’s 2022/23 Budget, and on DEWR’s website it makes clear ‘fee-free’ places will be targeted/prioritised to priority groups being: “First Nations Australians; young people; people who are out of work or receiving income support payments; unpaid carers; women facing economic insecurity; women undertaking study in non-traditional fields; people with disability; certain categories of visa holders”.

All ministers signed off “how these priority groups will be incorporated in local eligibility Implementation Plans”. 

The ‘fee-free places’ promoted across S&T websites provide extensive operational detail on eligibility, terms and conditions, course lists and a slew of differently presented FAQs that students must navigate. 

Sites explain ‘base eligibility’ covering citizenship/residency/eligible visa status and that students’ need to live/work in the jurisdiction plus be of minimum age (e.g. 16 or 17), and exclude school enrolled. 

Some jurisdictions make clear applicants must meet specific academic requirements and have caveats regarding limited places per course, or course locations/modes, and limits ‘free-free’ courses a student can enrol in.

Most jurisdictions refer to ‘priority groups’ by merely stating “people from the following groups are strongly encouraged to apply”. 

This includes NSW, Qld, SA, WA, Tas, NT who typically list priority groups (as above), or similar, plus others e.g., veterans, LGBTIQ+ community. 

These jurisdictions appear to have no explicit policy regarding ‘priority’ or ‘targeting’ of such groups; no overt actions to bring such people to the ‘front of the queue’. Nor is it clear if at enrolment such students will self-declare, if and how they fit any priority category so they can be tracked to a ‘fee-free’ place.  

The exception is the ACT, where CIT as the training provider has a ‘base eligibility’ and then requires… “AND, In addition….you must also be included in any of the following priority groups” (eight categories listed).

The ACT, for now, is the only jurisdiction prominently setting an explicit requirement on ‘priority groups'.   

Jurisdictions have mostly been careful to limit offering places to one year. Students enrolling in courses longer than one year have an expectation its ‘fee-free’ to their completion.

Most jurisdictions state that ‘fee-free’ is available for course commencements i.e. enrolling to start in 2023 and intended for new students, i.e. students new to a course, not necessarily new to an institution.

So, potentially students may switch institutions or switch courses within an institution (claiming any credit).

One exception appears to be WA/North Metro TAFE .

For the FAQ “What if I have already started or paid for my course and now it’s free”, it states “If you commenced …a course…prior to it becoming free… you will pay the regular course fee…until 31 December 2022. Training will become fee-free from 1 January 2023”.

In Qld, there is a decision tree approach that covers core eligibility, splits into three age groups (under 15, 15-24, 25 and over), asks questions on current enrolments and past completed qualifications, current work status and then presents the student with conditional funding options e.g. fee-free, subsidised, apprentice etc. 

Greater public funding support seems to flow to those in younger age groups and with least work experience.

TAFE Qld limits its Diploma of nursing as ‘fee-free’ to only First Nation residents, people with a disability and people of culturally/linguistically diverse background.

In Vic there is a far longer policy history of State funded ‘fee-free’ TAFE. 

Until very recently the headline site read “Not everyone is eligible for free TAFE. Eligibility depends on a lot of factors, including age, and what training you completed before”.

The then Vic ‘decision tree’ distinguished two age groups, under 20 and over, and only allowed for the latter age group ‘fee-free’ TAFE training for courses leading to a higher qualification than a student already held.  

New eligibility rules have just been published, dropping this ‘upskilling rule’ and also removing the ‘once in a lifetime’ for free TAFE, instead allowing students multiple free courses but only if they choose those on the same occupational pathway (12 such pathways are listed).

Such changes illustrate the rapid policy dynamics now in play.  

Holmesglen TAFE site still states, “You can access this free training initiative only once - even if you do not finish your chosen free TAFE priority course”, offers ‘fee-free’ courses for “Unemployed and clients of the Jobs Victoria Employment Network; retrenched workers; and automotive supply chain workers”, and for 2023 says “students may be eligible (for) more than one free TAFE course, if enrolling in.. the (occupational) Free Pathway initiative”.

Why does all this matter and what are the longer-term implications?

It matters because if government policy starts out with a budget intent, clear public policy statements and a multiparty signed Agreement that says such funds will be deliberately targeted/committed/prioritised to named disadvantaged groups, and that this intent is diluted to mere encouragement, as most S/Ts have no evident practices to enrol such groups, then policy credibility is quashed.

Recognise this ‘fee-fee’ TAFE Agreement stands for its own purpose and its funds are different to, separate from, and less than, the $1.6b p.a. for training under the National Skills and Workforce Development Specific Purpose Payment.

It matters because the Agreement’s reporting requirements will likely glean limited reliable detail on priority groups, and little detail on any fraction of public funds providing ‘free-free’ TAFE to persons with e.g. pre-existing qualifications and with some capacity, being employed, to part fund their own training - yes its valuable ‘up/re skilling’ -  but this is not what’s stated in the Agreement’s Purpose.

It matters because the recent interim advice of the Productivity Commission is unequivocal that ‘fee-free’ TAFE is inefficient, distorting and erodes choice, and best justified in only foundational and Cert I/II level qualifications.

Think here literacy, numeracy and digital fluency for persons identified by Anglicare as needing multiple ‘wrap-around’ supports to overcome barriers to getting jobs, despite low unemployment.  

The root principle is that public funding/financing should be nuanced on need and context (e.g. Vic, Qld), even more so given fiscal constraints.

New Zealand, for example, supports first-time learners who get their fees covered for one year’s study or two years training, a targeted policy that codifies student eligibility

The last word

There is zero quibble with a government electorally proposing, and promptly implementing, a ‘fee-free’ TAFE regime. What’s been done so far is laudable, but words matter. 

The signed intent is that ‘fee-free’ TAFE places are to be targeted to priority groups. For now, this is mostly limited to mere ‘strong encouragement’.

Recognising the 2023 tranche of ‘fee-free’ TAFE is to help deal with a current perceived skills crisis, it is questionable as a sustainable, much longer-term policy.  

So, it really matters that ‘fee-free’ TAFE is successful, because in the future it should be one learning input into a much needed and far wider reform of tertiary system funding/financing, co-linked with reform of the AQF.

The Universities Accord Review is an opportunity. 

It will pick apart the discredited HE Job Ready Graduates scheme and must explore connections between VET and HE to ensure a ‘cohesive and connected tertiary education system’.

Commitments to ‘fee-free’ TAFE funding fully respected, what’s needed is comprehensive, well integrated tertiary wide system reforms.

Dr Craig Fowler is an analyst and observer of national policies impacting tertiary education, science and innovation with decades of experience in private, public and university sectors.

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