Our history - landing

Our history

For over 130 years, TAFE NSW has not only upskilled the workforce to ensure the people of New South Wales prosper, but we have also strived to support our students’ employment ambitions and personal goals. Today, we offer hundreds courses (from certificate to degree level), to over 500,000 students, but the roots of TAFE NSW are humbly embedded in Australia’s heritage.

The story of TAFE NSW has been shaped by many impactful events throughout Australia’s history. At each momentous point in time, we have responded by matching the shifting demands of the workforce and the economy. Rapid economic development and population growth in early colonial times meant the young country had a shortage of skilled labour, giving rise to an apprenticeship system and the establishment of technical education in the form of mechanics’ institutes and schools of arts.

Founded in 1833, the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts was at the forefront in New South Wales, with the first technical class – mechanical drawing – taught by respected civil and mechanical engineer, Norman Salfe.

A similar institute, the Sydney Technical College, opened in Newcastle in 1835 - the date often quoted as the year TAFE NSW was born. By the middle of the century, a number of schools of arts, mechanics’ institutes and literary and scientific institutes had been established in the more populated areas of the state, including Goulburn, Mudgee, Windsor, Braidwood, East Maitland and Armidale.

During the 1850s, the gold rush further stimulated the growth of Australia’s eastern colonies so that, by the 1870s, the diversification of industries and services and the demand for skilled labour remained high. The NSW State Government assumed responsibility for Sydney Technical College in 1883, with this date now often quoted as the year that TAFE NSW, although not yet known by this name, was born. Not long after, in around 1890, Sydney Technical College moved from its premises in the centre of the city to a new campus at Ultimo.

The need for technical education in NSW continued to grow, especially during and after the two world wars. On one hand, technical training was needed to support Australia’s war effort; while on the other, when the war was over, it was needed to help ex-servicemen and women to transition to civilian work. While technical education did suffer during the early years of the Depression, by the mid-1930s there was again call to expand training services to help alleviate high unemployment. By 1949 a technical college system was well established throughout NSW with the Technical Education and New South Wales University of Technology Act of that year marking the first time a piece of NSW legislation directly acknowledged the existence of a technical education system in its own right.

At this time, technical education in NSW was shaped by two contrasting industry bases. The major metropolitan areas of Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong housed a secondary industry economic base, with the smaller communities spread across the rest of the state built mainly on primary industry. This influenced the course offerings and character of each institute.

During the 1950s and 1960s there was unprecedented demand for technical education to meet the workforce needs of Australia’s post-WW2 industrial and economic boom. Although funding for technical schools had always been the responsibility of the states, pressure also increased for the Commonwealth government to fund technical education as well. In the 1970s, the establishment of the Technical and Further Education Commission (TAFEC) and the ultimate provision of Commonwealth funding had a historic effect. Technical education would now be known by a new name – TAFE – and be recognised as a distinct educational body with its own administrative structure. A policy of regionalisation was brought into play with community colleges further expanding across NSW to meet local training needs.

In 2017, TAFE NSW returned to a more centralised model, bringing together 130 campuses across the state, allowing us to get better results for our students and employers, and to continue our proud tradition for the highest quality education and training.

Throughout this long history, TAFE NSW has not only upskilled the workforce to ensure our State prospers, we have also supported our students’ personal goals. Meeting the skill needs of industry and community remains a driving force and our courses and services have adapted and changed over the years to match the shifting demands of the workforce and economy. We have the experience and know-how to get the best results for our students and employers, and we are proud of our longstanding reputation for quality services.

Today, with over 500,000 enrolments and hundreds courses from certificate to degree level, we continue to stand out from the crowd. From the beginning of Australia’s colonial economy through to the fresh demands of a new millennium, our incredible teachers, diverse course offerings and connections to employers around the world mean we offer the very best in vocational education and training.  You really can be whatever you want to be at TAFE NSW.

Further reading:

Bradford, T. (2010) ‘Second Chance Not Second Best. A History of TAFE NSW 1949-1997.’ PhD Thesis, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney.