Our history

A series of TAFE NSW historical images: Five men cooking in a kitchen; Women participating in a painting class; Men in a classroom

TAFE NSW has been Australia's leading public vocational education and training provider for more than 100 years. Our experience means that you can be sure that each TAFE NSW Institute is professionally run, and highly competent in the delivery of education and training.

TAFE NSW evolved directly from the community. It has grown into the organisation it is today by responding to, and preempting, community needs.

In the beginning

First represented by the apprenticeship system, which had become prominent in the 1800s because of a need to train unskilled convicts for a life in a new society, 'technical' education can be traced back to the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, 1833. Although firmly established before Australia's first university (the University of Sydney, opened in 1850), the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts didn't run a recognised 'technical' class until 1865 when it offered Mechanical Drawing.

Through the middle of the nineteenth century, the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts balanced its courses: popular music and dancing were offered, as were geometry and architectural drawing; public lectures were delivered as well as classes. Even from the early days the deliverers of technical education in NSW took the view that education should not only strengthen job prospects – it should enrich society.

Although essentially a private concern, technical education in NSW responded to community demand – appealing to those members of the public who were interested in science and art for interest's sake, as well as those who were interested in what was to become known as vocational training.

As technical education in NSW evolved, institutions such as the Orphans' Schools and the Female School of Industry came and went, all contributing components.

In 1878, the Committee of the School of Arts made what was to prove to be an auspicious decision – it formed the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts Working Men's College. Sensibly referred to as Sydney Technical College, it occupied premises in Pitt, Sussex and Castlereagh Streets, and although it didn't train apprentices, it became the hub of activity for technical training.

The government steps in

Financial responsibility for the Sydney Technical College was assumed by the state government in 1883, but they appointed a distinct board – the Board of Technical Education – to operate it. This date has often been quoted as the year TAFE NSW was born, but this owes much to convenience and coincidence. When Australia emerged from a prolonged economic recession in 1908, the NSW Government set about looking for a way to promote technical education. They found that 1883 was a convenient date from which to mark an anniversary: '25 years of technical education'.

In 1889, the NSW Government, already financially responsible for the College, increased its stake by assuming control from the Board of Technical Education; technical education became the concern of the Department of Public Instruction. Now with state-wide responsibilities, the system expanded and consolidated, absorbing education infrastructure until a separate Department of Technical Education was established in 1949.

Adapting to a rapidly changing society

An innovative approach was characteristic of centralised technical education in NSW. Relationships were fostered with the communities being served. After the First World War, many servicemen returned to Australia without any peacetime qualifications. Although altered and aged by the battlefields of Europe, a lot of men had never had the chance to learn a trade before enlisting to serve their country. The Technical Education Branch designed and ran trade courses for these men, many of whom were still very young. Courses were set up at short notice for men who might otherwise have never entered the technical system. They were free of charge to disabled ex-servicemen and any serviceman who had joined the war effort before the age of 20. They covered a range of topics, including sign-writing, coopering, upholstering, tailoring and piano-making. Participants were trained to "40 per cent proficiency" and then employed (the employer paying 40 per cent of wages, and the Government the balance). An employer's share of the wage bill increased as a worker's skills increased.

An early form of vocational guidance was also set up as part of the repatriation effort. Representatives of employers and employees sat on committees that interviewed and advised the returned servicemen.

Technical education's stronghold was naturally the urban areas – industry's domain was the cities. However, after a departmental investigation confirmed that many country areas were poorly served, the novel concept of the Mobile Instructional Unit was implemented. Train carriages were converted, sometimes at considerable expense, into travelling workshops and classrooms. These mobile units would be taken to all points of country NSW, shunted and parked. They became teaching facilities, enabling instruction for farmers and giving non-farmers an opportunity to study a trade. In time, some mobile units became the foundations for new colleges.

During the Great Depression, day classes were opened in Sydney and Newcastle to help fill the demand created, in part, by the rapidly swelling ranks of the unemployed. Day and evening classes were offered in general commercial subjects: English, arithmetic, shorthand and typing, accountancy and local government clerkship. During the lean years of the 1930s, these courses may have served to constructively occupy people as much as to provide immediate employment opportunities.

The Second World War brought about an obvious need to change the focus of training. Workers, a large number being women, were trained for traditionally male occupations, specifically for the war effort. Conversely, because troops would have to be fed, cooking classes were held for servicemen. Men trained and toiled over hot stoves; women donned overalls on the factory floor.

Again the technical training sector took the lead in helping ex-servicemen and women readjust to civilian life when it formed the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme.

The war continued to exert an influence on training throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Technology, spurred by the war effort, developed quickly. And as industry subsequently evolved and expanded, courses changed. Technical and paraprofessional occupations grew and the technical training sector embraced them.

TAFE takes a name

In the 1970s, economic recession and the Kangan Committee were the dominating influences on the direction of the sector which was renamed "technical and further education" or "TAFE". The Kangan Report named and defined the TAFE system. Many of the carefully cultivated components of the sector were recognised by the report and consolidated in the 1970s by the Whitlam and Fraser governments. Individual opportunity and social improvement became catch-cries and important philosophies.

Economically, the 1970s was a very different decade. The concept of recurrent education, where the community had to cope with a fickle job market and changing job specifications, was born. With climbing unemployment and economic trepidation, education and training assumed a role and an importance never before seen: it was readily accessible; it was crucial.

As the economy recovered and then celebrated in the 1980s, the TAFE sector also spread its wings. By 1982 there had been a great increase in short and special course enrolments – 195,000, up from 25,500 in 1949. These courses were designed to meet specialised vocational demands, for personal development and to help people fill in gaps in learning. This dynamic new aspect led to the expansion of the Department's role, and a change of name in 1983 to the NSW Department of Technical and Further Education (TAFE NSW).

In the 1990s, as Vocational Education and Training (VET) became the term associated with the private and public components of the sector, which by now was an industry in itself, the national nature of training was strengthened. The National Training Board was set up to maintain and oversee the industry and the competency-based components which had become such important features in the 1980s. The Australian National Training Authority (ANTA) was established to provide a national focus for the entire VET sector. The New Apprenticeship system and Training Packages – innovations responding to the new national strategy and to the changing face of the 'trades' – consolidated strengths.

In 1991, the NSW TAFE Commission replaced the Department of Technical and Further Education. This led in 1992 to the formation of TAFE NSW Institutes – campuses grouped geographically into administrative units. This has helped foster the competitive but progressive and responsive approach of TAFE NSW.

By the end of the twentieth century, and with the Australian Qualifications Framework and the Australian Recognition Framework facilitating a national approach, 'choice' and 'flexibility' had become commonplace phrases and important components of the delivery of TAFE NSW courses.

Today TAFE NSW has more than 500,000 enrolments. Only around 8 per cent of TAFE NSW students are full-time, and many study online or from home or work. The gender split at TAFE NSW is more or less 50/50. Training is organised for specific industries and businesses, and is conducted on and off the job. Most TAFE NSW students are employed. And whether they're working or not, students come from every conceivable walk of life: over 20 per cent are born overseas; over 6 per cent are indigenous; 9 per cent have a disability; and 23 per cent are from a language background other than English. Thousands of school students study VET courses as part of their HSC; thousands of older students study for their HSC through TAFE NSW.

women's access...making history

This short history highlights women's participation in vocational education and training in New South Wales from the latter part of the 19th century to the early years of the 21st century. It highlights the critical role played by TAFE NSW in supporting women to break new ground in personal development, community engagement and workforce participation across the state.

women's access...making history provides a timely reminder that, through major world upheavals and changes in the nature of our society, women continue to expand their horizons, explore new fields and improve their share of learning opportunities.


  • 'Look how far we've come', Chris Robinson, Campus Review, Vol 11, No 36.
  • Sweet Road to Progress: the history of state technical education in New South Wales to 1949, Joan Cobb, NSW DET, 2000.
  • Spanners, Easels   Microchips: a history of technical and further education in New South Wales 1883–1983, Information Services Division, NSW Department of Technical and Further Education, 1983.
  • Thanks to Gillian Goozee, whose research and advice was invaluable when compiling this document.
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