John Myers, Kempsey TAFE

Champion powerlifter John Myers (second from left, above) is used to heavy lifting but the load on TAFE is crushing. “TAFE is going through the most radical attacks I’ve witnessed over 32 years of teaching,” he says.

“At Kempsey TAFE we have seen the loss of many teachers and support staff. This is bad not only for the staff who have lost work but also for students: Kempsey has a high unemployment rate and TAFE is crucial in providing second-chance education.”

Youth unemployment in the Mid North Coast is almost 18 per cent, Indigenous unemployment about 24 per cent and household incomes lower than the state average (Statistical Overview, Regional Development Australia - Mid North Coast, 2013). In such an environment TAFE could be a beacon of hope to job-seekers but funding cuts have limited courses and commercial rates for fees have been introduced that mean students have to find $3,000-$10,000 for a course at Kempsey TAFE (and some courses at some institutes cost much more), not a few hundred dollars as before.

“Now students can’t afford to go on,” John said. “In my section, evening courses have been cut and only offered on a commercial fee basis which is far too expensive for the students we normally have.”

John’s own life demonstrates the benefits of good TAFE training: his wife leapt the unemployment barrier and the loss in confidence that brings by going back to TAFE for a year 10 equivalent qualification; he has been in long-term (32 years) employment as teacher of metal fabrication and welding at Kempsey TAFE by getting his trade and further qualifications through TAFE. He has been teacher in charge for the past seven years.

A destabilising restructuring of positions at the North Coast Institute has seen a loss of 30 jobs with the possibility of teachers losing other jobs too. Kempsey TAFE alone has lost at least five jobs including that of the campus manager and a computing teacher. Each faculty will have its budget cut by at least a fifth this year. “TAFE would fall apart if it wasn’t for the goodwill of the teachers and office staff,” John said.

This year’s enrolments at Kempsey have been extremely difficult for staff because the new fee structure is based on a complicated mix of students’ qualifications and parts of qualifications, John says.

Fed Reps are playing a critical role in hard-pressed schools and TAFEs, and John asks more teachers to put their hands up for the role. He became Fed Rep at the Kempsey TAFE Institute 15 years ago. “The need to inform members of their rights and unite voices to fight for TAFE has never been greater than now, when the so-called Smart and Skilled reforms are undermining our high-quality education standards,” John says.

Captured! The moment that Andrew Stoner forgot: the former deputy premier (front left) signs the pledge in his office with Fed Rep John Myers, with Jodie Sherrin (back left) and Beris Derwent.

He is proud of being part of the team that pressured the former Liberal deputy premier and local MP, Andrew Stoner, to sign a five-point pledge to support TAFE, and when Mr Stoner reneged on the pledge, claiming not to have signed it, gained good media coverage for Federation’s Stop TAFE Cuts campaign by exposing the evasion and the O’Farrell
government’s hypocrisy.

In an article titled “Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner forgets he made election promise”, the Sydney Morning Herald reported in March last year that Mr Stoner “has been caught rewriting history” and that although he had claimed not to have signed the pledge that included an assurance that TAFE jobs would not be contracted out to the private sector “the Teachers Federation has found the document, signed by Mr Stoner in February 2011”.

In further good publicity for Federation’s concerns and TAFE campaign the paper quoted “Kempsey TAFE teacher John Myers, a Teachers Federation representative” saying the cuts to staff, teaching hours and classes meant that Kempsey TAFE could not maintain quality. The Stoner issue was also well reported in the Macleay Argus.

Funding cutbacks are forcing TAFEs down a path of shortening courses, resulting in inadequate training.

John faces this dilemma with his metal fabrication and welding course but is determined not to skimp on classroom time to suit the government’s funding cuts.

“There’s only enough money for the three-year course to run two years,” he said, “but I’m not going to cut the course to two years. When the money starts to run out I’m going to tell the government that it needs to fund the remainder of the course.

“We’re interested in providing quality education for students. We want to run courses to the standard that we know is required by industry. If we start turning out ill-qualified electricians and other tradespeople it’s going to one day make the pink batts tragedy look fairly small.” (Four tradesmen died installing pink batts in 2009-10 in a rushed government scheme to counter the global financial crisis, leading to a coronial finding that the government had put the economy ahead of safety.)

John, a powerlifter, is in good form for the fight ahead having just won the Oceania Over-50 title with a deadlift record of 232.5kg in the 83kg division. In 2008 he won the World Over-50 title and has won seven Australian open titles after starting at the age of 40. He is also an international powerlifting referee and record holder for the Commonwealth, Oceania and Australian powerlifting records. If we want Fed Reps with safe hands and stamina he certainly fills the bill.