The more things change, the more they stay the same: Dawkins and technical education

By Dr Tracy Bradford

The period up to the mid-1980s was, for the technical and further education (TAFE) sector in Australia, a time of relative stability and consolidation. A national TAFE ethos began to emerge, with state TAFE systems working together to develop national consistency on curricula, statistics and credentials. At a Commonwealth level, education under the ministership of Susan Ryan remained relatively unaffected by economic rationalism. This was to change with the appointment of John Dawkins as Minister for Employment, Education and Training in 1987.

A general trend emerged which saw technical and further education removed from the education portfolios and incorporated into employment and training portfolios in a number of the states and territories. This trend was driven at the Federal level.

Against a backdrop of economic adversity and the shifting attitudes of Commonwealth governments to education and training, the TAFE sector began to experience major changes in the late-1980s. New technology impacted on courses and administration systems were developed which aimed to make doing business easier and more efficient. Reinforced by the Commonwealth and the Australian National Training Authority, this drive for efficiency was complicated by the pressure to raise revenue and operate in a more commercial framework.

A general trend emerged which saw technical and further education removed from the education portfolios and incorporated into employment and training portfolios in a number of the states and territories. This trend was driven at the Federal level. Addressing the National Press Club in 1990, Dawkins made clear his views on the relationship between education and training and employment. He had accepted the  portfolio on the understanding that its name [Employment, Education and Training] be arranged so that the word ‘employment’ was placed first, in order to emphasise that policies in education and training must be subordinate to the national economic imperative of achieving optimal employment (Dawkins 1990).

National economic imperatives and interventionist policies of the Commonwealth Government were driven particularly aggressively by John Dawkins, and were set against a backdrop of economic downturn, resulting in what Paul Keating asserted was the ‘recession that Australia had to have’ (Macintyre 1999, p. 244). Under Dawkins, major changes to the education and training system in Australia were introduced, many of which had a profound effect on the delivery of technical and further education. Award restructuring, moves towards the introduction of competency based training, changes to funding arrangements and changes in the national advisory structures all impacted on the technical and further education sector. His 1987 report Skills for Australia set out the Commonwealth Government’s view that education and training systems should play an active role in responding to the major economic challenges facing Australia (Dawkins 1987, p. iii).

During the Dawkins years, education and training became subordinate to the objective of “optimal employment”. This marked a major move away from the ideals which had underpinned the technical and further education sector for so long and led to a widening of the gap between policy makers and education and training providers.

During the Dawkins years, education and training became subordinate to the objective of “optimal employment”. This marked a major move away from the ideals which had underpinned the technical and further education sector for so long and led to a widening of the gap between policy makers and education and training providers (Goozee 2001b, p. 79). Within the economic rationalist framework which existed at this time, the state-based TAFE systems also found themselves competing in the market for funding against a plethora of private-sector providers. Changes in funding arrangements led to TAFE colleges and institutes having to become more entrepreneurial and taking a more commercial approach to their operations (Goozee 2001a, p. 4).

Federal Government policies developed under the ministerial influence of John Dawkins, and State policies under the Greiner Government, had enormous impacts on TAFE NSW. The Commonwealth Government’s education and training agenda determined that education and training systems had a role to play in responding to major economic challenges facing the country (Dawkins 1987, p. iii). This placed pressures on TAFE NSW to focus on its vocational training role, and resulted in what Veenker and Cummins described as ‘a neglect by policy makers of TAFE’s broader educational and social objectives and an undermining of its capacity to achieve those objectives’ (Veenker & Cummins 2001, p. 24).

Perhaps the words attributed to the Roman writer Petronius sum up this time in the history and evolution of technical education:

We trained hard…but every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising…and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing inefficiency and demoralisation.

Thirty years on, I’d suggest these words still resonate.

 

References

Dawkins, J. 1987, Skills for Australia, Canberra

Dawkins, J. 1990, 'Fair trade, factions and fatigue', Address to the National Press Club

Goozee, G. 2001a, 'TAFE maintains tradition as key provider of skills and knowledge', Campus Review, Nov 21-27 2001, pp. 3-4

Goozee, G. 2001b, The development of TAFE in Australia, 3rd edn, National Centre for Vocational Education Research, Leabrook

Macintyre, S. 1985, Winners and Losers. The pursuit of social justice in Australian history, Allen & Unwin, Sydney

Veenker, P. & Cummins, G. 2001, 'The third revolution', Campus Review, Nov 21-27 2001, pp. 24-25


Dr Tracy Bradford had an extensive career as an archivist and historian in the NSW state and local government sectors, bookended by stints at State Records NSW and the State Library of NSW. She now works as a contract archivist and historian, primarily in the non-government and not-for-profit sectors. In March 2002, Tracy was engaged by TAFE NSW to research and write the history of TAFE NSW, 1950 – 2000. The project was established to follow on from an earlier project, which resulted in the publication of a history of state technical education in NSW to 1949, written by Joan Cobb. In January 2004 funding for the project was withdrawn before the project could be completed. With Departmental approval, Tracy completed the research as her doctoral thesis at the University of Technology, Sydney. Her thesis, titled “Second chance not second best: A history of TAFE NSW 1949 – 1997” (http://hdl.handle.net/10453/20429), covers the period when TAFE NSW existed as a stand-alone government department.