Although never clearly understood, the 'quiet achiever' of public education has secured Melbourne as a leading site for educational reform, vocational training and community education. Its origins owe something to the Mechanics Institute movement and much to the provincial Schools of Mines, in 1887 adapted by philanthropists to Melbourne's manufacturing and service industries to become the Working Men's College (WMC) (later the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology or RMIT) and the Eastern Suburbs Technical College 1909 (later Swinburne University). These self-governing institutions specialised in the professional training of engineers (except mining), industrial chemists and accountants, their work monitored by the Technological Commission of Victoria (est. 1869), which disbursed annual grants based on fee-paying enrolments. But the Melbourne colleges also offered academic studies (and leisure classes) which, in the absence of state secondary education, were often more popular than the diploma courses, earning a reputation as 'poor man's universities'.
Trade training also developed in the technical colleges, but it too often suffered from lack of local support. When immigration was high employers were indifferent to local technical education, relying instead on the importation of skilled workers. When immigration contracted, the local demand for technical education intensified.
The Education Department of Victoria became involved in technical education after 1910. Acting on the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Technical Education (1899-1901), the Education Act 1910 allowed the department to exert greater influence over the existing colleges, including the Emily McPherson College of Domestic Economy (est. 1906), direct control over new colleges (Footscray 1916, Caulfield 1922), and to incorporate vocational programs in its new secondary school system.
This intervention was the catalyst for a distinctly Victorian innovation in Australian education, the junior technical school, which provided pre-vocational education to school-aged children and night classes for working youth. The idea, which originated in Germany, was brought to the WMC in 1898 and was later replicated at Eastern Suburbs Technical College. Technical schools offered a three-year pre-vocational course before students proceeded to a trade or other employment. A select few would enter the technical college's diploma streams, while apprentices and others could continue their education at night classes.
The first of these new schools opened at Collingwood and Sunshine. Collingwood technical school (est. 1912), a veritable training ground for skills in light manufacturing, local politics and football, is remembered for its civilising effects on working-class boys. Sunshine (est. 1913), with land and buildings donated by industrialist H.V. McKay, adjacent to his Sunshine Harvester factory, was to become Australia's prime example of the 'factory fodder' principle in public education, a principle extended to the public sector with the establishment of a Victorian railways apprentices' technical school at Newport in 1922.
In 1916 Swinburne created a separate girls' technical school, an initiative repeated at Box Hill (1924) and Preston (1937), while several other Melbourne schools established a girls' section. The Catholic education system established boys' technical colleges at Abbotsford and South Melbourne.
The promotion of such early specialisation disturbed the new generation of education bureaucrats. By the mid-1920s they were determined to merge all the 'techs' into the high schools and would have succeeded but for the 1929 election of an Australian Labor Party government which heeded the pleas of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, the Chamber of Manufacturers, the Age and the technical school councils. Exempted from tuition fees, imposed as a depression financial measure, the schools became even more popular. The wartime emphasis on a command industrial economy and the major contribution of the technical education to the Commonwealth Technical Training Scheme (for the military) were further impetus to the expansion of both senior and junior technical education after the war.
The junior technical schools' curriculum, extended to four years in 1945 and five years in 1964, moved closer to that of the high schools, but unsuspecting working-class communities still believed that technical schools gave their boys a better preparation to enter the industrial workforce. Technical schools became sites for innovative teaching in Social Studies and English, with Huntingdale the best example of alternative education in Australia.
Apprentice trades schools, which had begun at the WMC by 1900, were developed at Collingwood (boot and shoes), Prahran (furnishings) and Richmond (automotive). Specific trades schools, established by the Education Department after consultation with the Apprenticeship Commission (est. 1928), included the William Angliss Food Trade school (1940); the Melbourne Hairdressing school (est. 1942 in the chapel of the Old Melbourne Gaol); the Melbourne Printing and Graphics Trade school (1948); the Melbourne School of Textiles (1949); and the Batman Automotive trade school (1950). The last three were funded by federal capital grants.
These institutions became the basis of the Technical and Further Education (TAFE) colleges established after 1974. Funding came partly from the Commonwealth, but the control of curriculum and staffing remained with the State, and after 1992 with individual colleges which offered vocational and pre-vocational courses and community and leisure education. During the 1990s TAFE institutes established links with universities (formal affiliation in the case of Victoria University of Technology) and with secondary colleges, many of which are the result of high and technical school amalgamations. At the same time market rationalisation and internal financial efficiencies forced existing colleges to further amalgamations.
In the postwar years senior technical colleges flourished, offering an expanded range of diploma courses for the new professions and sub-professions. This increase in enrolments was driven by the impact of local and overseas students for whom the universities had no places. In 1956 Melbourne Technical College (as WMC had been called since 1934) was denied university status, but the establishment in 1965 of the Victorian Institute of Colleges provided systematic planning and accreditation which allowed technical colleges to offer degrees. As institutes of technology they formed the second tier of tertiary education which, 20 years later, became part of a new unitary system.
Technical education now exists as a process offered by TAFE institutes, state secondary colleges, and a host of private providers. Less concerned with education than with specific industrial training, it remains as robust as it was 50 years ago, but just as uncertain as to its place or its future in Melbourne's educational landscape.