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The Rise of Vocational Education and Training - 1980s


The 1980s was a period of unprecedented national economic and educational reforms. The decade began with the Fraser Government which was followed by the Hawke Government (1983) with John Dawkins as Minister for Employment, Education and Training, initiating major changes to higher education, including the introduction of HECS fees to help fund educational growth.

In Victoria we saw the end of junior technical schools as separate educational institutions – an educational division that had existed since 1912 and subject to much debate among educational theorists and ideologues: Were students being streamed or forced to specialise too early? Was this a form of social bias to ensure the maintenance of class-divisions?
By the end of the decade, junior technical schools were closed, their students absorbed into the nearby high schools, creating much larger schools. The campuses and facilities of the junior technical schools were taken over by the colleges of technical and further education and effectively became campuses of these colleges, offering vocational, post-secondary education.

The development of national VET curricula made rapid progress and the initiatives begun in the 1970’s, following the Kangan report, were continued. In a period of high unemployment, priorities for the 1980s, as laid out by the Fraser Commonwealth Government at the start of the decade, were to improve the quantity and quality of training for tradespeople and expand TAFEs role in programs for youth.

This did not greatly impress the TAFE College Councils Association of Victoria and its Executive Officer, Don McKenzie. In the past few years TAFE had undergone reviews and changes to its organisational structure, financial arrangements and how teachers were to be employed. But the point was repeatedly made by educators that with change comes the need for financial support to enable the changes to take place effectively in the first place. Important was the continuing participation of industry and community representatives on the various college councils that had been set up in recent times.

For the previous 70 years (from the Education Act of 1910) technical education, as practised in Victoria, was under the umbrella of the Education Department. Changes in how this education was pursued, the dissolution of technical junior schools, and the increase in adults seeking vocational training, meant that things had to change.

In Victoria, always a leader in vocational education, the first TAFE Board was established in 1980 to replace the Victorian Education Department as the State authority for TAFE.

In this period, service industries were growing overall as a proportion of the economy, while mining, and manufacturing and construction (traditional industries for vocational training), diminished. Private educational providers were beginning to emerge to take advantage of opportunities presented by the rise in the service sector. A number of reports were produced which made the obvious connection between economic prosperity, and training which served the needs of industry as well as the individual.

Following the Williams and Kirby inquiries in the mid 80s, there was also an expansion of apprenticeship training and the development of traineeships. In this period there were a record number of apprenticeships (160,000) but traineeships lagged behind (12,000).

In this period, Minister Dawkins released a number of reports which led to further changes in the VET sector, including greater involvement in VET by industry, so that there could be quicker response from a trained labour force competent in new, much needed, skills. It was during this period that the decision to implement competency based training was made. From this time on, all curriculum documents had to provide, and training adhere to, clearly stated competencies as outcomes for students. Whether achieving a series of competencies equated to receiving an education, was a controversial aspect of these changes for education professionals.

Restructuring was the dominant idea throughout the economy, and educational institutions were not spared: colleges of advanced education became universities; new funding models for universities encouraged the development of an entrepreneurial approach to growth and saw the beginning of a rapid increase in the internationalisation of education.

The previous Colombo Plan of the 1950s to 1960s was an education initiative based on goodwill towards Commonwealth countries, to assist them to develop their pool of professionals.

As the Colombo Plan wound down, student visas replaced it; by 1989, international students could access full-fee paying courses in higher education, with no restrictions on numbers. These new developments would begin to turn post-secondary education into a massive income generator for universities, and eventually TAFEs, through the influx of international students.

However, all was not going well in the State of Victoria. One headline exclaimed: ‘Colleges crowded and unsafe’ (TAFE Board chief, Ian Godfrey).

More expensive than mainstream education

While growth and change were welcome, certain basics needed to be addressed: the standard of facilities. This was a recurring problem in the history of technical education, a form of education which, by its nature, is more expensive to deliver than mainstream education.

The Commonwealth cut capital funding, affecting the capacity of TAFEs to comply with OHS legislation. There were further threats to cut capital funding, alarming the directors of TAFEs, especially in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. Many horror stories were reported in the press: rotting floors in classrooms, disastrous fire ratings, lack of ventilation to flush out toxic fumes, unsafe storage of dangerous materials to mention only a few. TAFEs had to turn students and apprentices away due to unsuitable and unsafe premises and space for teaching.

While there was much growth in the VET sector in the 1980s, inconsistencies in funding and policy detail, made the work of TAFE Directors a difficult one. For instance, in the mini-budget for 1987-88 the Commonwealth cut funding to the States for TAFE by $45 million in a full year. The reason given was that money that was given to TAFEs, to reimburse them for fees not collected from students, was not being used for training or education. In return, $32 million was set aside to fund programs for the long term unemployed, mostly redirected to TAFE through targeted funding, rising to $63 million for 1988-89. Cuts were also made to other programs, e.g. Community Development Employment Projects, (CDEP), to focus instead on training for the unemployed. This was a key objective of the Commonwealth for the rest of the decade, in order to deal with the consequences of economic and industrial restructuring, unemployment, and lack of skills needed in the new growing service economy, or as Science Minister, Barry Jones, was telling Australians, the rising ‘Knowledge Economy’.

Developments in technical education and their impact on Collingwood and Preston.

Victoria, traditionally, had a very strong vocational education lobby, which in the beginning of the 20th century was able to impose its considerable influence on the government of the day, and establish a junior technical school system. It began in 1912 with Collingwood Technical School and other schools were to follow.

Many influential people in industry and training at the time were unhappy with what was happening in vocational education in the public high schools. Technical education required quite substantial resources as well as time; it involved specialised teaching skills with its own complicated material resources such as tools and workshops. And it needed to be linked to the practices in industry.

Junior technical schools were to be controlled by the Education Department through a new Technical Education Directorate, which designed a pre-vocational curriculum linked directly to entry into industrial work or further training at a technical college.

The first Chief Inspector of Technical Schools was appointed in March 1911. Donald Clark, M.M.E., B.C.E., had been an early advocate for the concept of a junior technical school; he had been in charge of the Bairnsdale and Bendigo Schools of Mines, early examples of technical training suited to particular industries.

It was not an easy transition for Victoria to a system of technical schools. In the 1920s this ‘early specialisation’ of adolescent education disturbed a new generation of Education Department leaders and they eventually planned to merge all technical schools into the high schools.

This plan almost succeeded but for the election of a State Labor Government in 1929. The Government heeded pleas from Trades Hall, the Chamber of Manufacturers, and The Age Newspaper, who all lobbied heavily for the retention of the junior technical school system.

The troubled times to come following the Great Depression, reinforced the maintenance of the junior technical school system which became a focus for training, not just adolescents, but retraining adults so they stood a chance to find available work.

It was to be another Labor Government in Victoria in the late 1980s, that was to end the educational separation of adolescents and incorporate technical school students into the high schools which grew in size and started to be referred to as ‘secondary colleges’. Remaining land and infrastructure were absorbed into the post-secondary TAFE colleges.