More than 1.5 million Australians take TAFE courses each year, most of which are short, part-time programmes. Unlike the federally-funded universities, the states and territories have individual responsibility for the 220 colleges although the federal government does provide some money.
In Victoria, employers' plans include a sharp increase in teaching loads, removal of qualifications and experience requirements for teachers, unrestricted use of casual staff and introduction of lowly paid "teacher assistants".
The Australian Education Union (AEU) describes the employers' moves as a comprehensive attack on both TAFE teaching and TAFE teachers. The union has sought urgent hearings in the Australian industrial relations commission to resolve the dispute.
Last April, the union called for a 15 per cent pay rise for Victoria's technical teachers, in line with that demanded by the higher education unions, and greater regulation of casual and fixed-term employment.
During negotiations over the claim, the employing colleges offered a 10 per cent salary rise, in return for the changes to teacher conditions. Apart from the plan to drop the requirements that teachers must be qualified, the employers also demanded: an increase in teaching time of up to 28 per cent; no money for working excess hours; and the extension of ordinary hours to 10pm Monday to Friday.
In Western Australia, after more than 12 months of industrial turmoil, the AEU negotiated agreements with the state government that provided 15 per cent rises for TAFE teachers but only in return for significant trade-offs. These include an extra hour of lectures a week, loss of time and a half for teaching in the evenings, a two-week cut in annual vacation time and a 37.5-hour working week.
New South Wales TAFE teachers have been offered a 13 per cent wage rise but this is also in return for agreeing to changes in working conditions, including staffing colleges for an extra 12 weeks each year. Teachers are opposed to the trade-offs and talks are continuing.