September 25, 2013

Fostering innovation: a new role for TAFE

By Gavin Moodie

Thus far TAFE advocates have lost the argument that TAFE has a vital and distinctive role as the public provider of Australian vocational education and training. The folly of this will be recognised, perhaps in 20 years, when the failures of purely marketised vocational education will be so obvious that they overcome the strong bipartisan ideological commitment to the market. But by then TAFE as a public institution will be so attenuated that recovery will be difficult, expensive and take considerable time. We can see this in the Howard and Gillard governments’ struggles to re establish vocational secondary colleges. Technical high schools were dismantled in the 1960s and the 1970s, for the best of reasons, but this was regretted explicitly by the Howard Government and at least tacitly by the Gillard Government. Each Government tried to re establish technical high schools in a modern form, but so far unsuccessfully.

My partner Leesa Wheelahan’s article "Why institutions matter; why TAFE matters", provides the fundamental justification of TAFE as institutions which embody and practice the curriculum and pedagogical knowledge and know how needed to offer vocational education which is of high quality and inventive. For in a fully marketised system no one has responsibility for the future, and since it isn’t funded, TAFE institutes will be able to invest little time in developing new curriculum and pedagogy for which there is as yet no market.

This article argues for a completely new role for TAFE in fostering innovation. This would always be subsidiary to TAFE’s core role of teaching, just as research is a subsidiary role even for Australia’s most research intensive universities. But it would fill a serious gap in Australia’s national innovation system, it would be a valuable additional role for TAFE and it would support the justification of TAFEs as public institutions, since it is hard to imagine how innovation may be fostered by anything other than publicly funded institutions. But the argument will take a long time to be made and even longer for it to be accepted and implemented properly if at all. It will not save jobs, programs or campuses over the next 5 years.

Research is useless, innovation is gold

Many of us value research for the new insights it offers to understanding the world. But research in itself has no practical use and still less does it have any economic value. Winning Olympic gold medals does not reflect or improve a nation’s health or even its fitness. Likewise, winning Nobel prizes, which are rarer than Olympic gold medals since only 6 are awarded annually, does not reflect or improve a country’s ability to apply science or research generally. A country’s economy is improved not when it makes discoveries, but when it adopts new ways of producing goods or services. If economic growth is the goal, the central aim should be to improve Australia’s innovation, not its research.

But Australia’s programs to encourage innovation are currently based on the conventional, although now increasingly superseded, understanding of innovation as proceeding from scientific research to development and then to application in production. This linear understanding of innovation coincides with the view that government action on innovation should be restricted to correcting market failure, normally by filling gaps in the innovation supply chain. The first gap is normally understood to be at the start of the chain where government funding is needed to support research which has public value but where there is little opportunity to derive private profits. A second gap is often identified as the ‘valley of death’ (Branscomb and Auerswald, 2002: 35) from when a development becomes too applied for research funding and not specific enough for it to be funded by business.

But most innovation comes not from research but from the shop floor, management, customers and suppliers. Many very productive innovations apply or adapt new ways of doing things which were developed by someone else. Many are small, incremental improvements of existing processes. The processes for introducing and spreading innovation are complex and not well understood. But many countries with strong performance in innovation fund intermediaries to stimulate ‘the timely take up, modification, and marketing of knowledge solutions that already exist but need to be adapted to local environments’ that is the source of much innovation (Gibbons, 2004: 97). Australia has few such innovation intermediaries, which have low and patchy coverage and little funding.

TAFE institutes as innovation intermediaries

TAFE institutes are the best bodies to develop as innovation intermediaries because much of TAFE institutes’ work is developing the skills of the existing workforce, engaging with enterprises’ production processes rather than with their less well developed research and development processes. TAFE institutes are located not only in the major city centres but are also widely dispersed throughout city fringes, regions and rural areas which are major sites of production. Even were universities the best innovation intermediaries, no country can afford to maintain research intensive universities and public research organisations in all such centres (Moodie, 2006: 135).

Vocational institutes have a similar role in other countries. Rosenfeld (1998: 4) notes that in the US ‘community colleges are particularly helpful to small and midsized enterprises, since they are better positioned to reach them than universities, consultants, and service agencies, many of which prefer not to bother with “knowhow” needs that may not be technologically challenging or of a scale that can be sufficiently profitable’. In the German state (Land) of Baden-Württemberg, which has one of the densest concentrations of advanced manufacturing in the world, vocational schools (Berufsschulen) and vocational academies (Berufsakademie) have important roles as technological intermediaries with universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen), Fraunhofer institutes and Steinbeis transfer centres and transfer institutes (Moodie, 2006: 136).

National Research Council Canada’s (2012) digital technology adoption pilot program engages community colleges to support small and medium sized enterprises in Canada to adopt digital technology and build digital skills. Canada has also established a college and community innovation program to increase innovation amongst communities and regions by increasing community colleges’ capacity to work with local companies, particularly small and medium sized enterprises. The program supports applied research and collaborations that facilitate commercialisation, technology transfer, adaptation and adoption of new technologies (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, 2012).

Beyond current understandings

Establishing TAFE institutes as innovation intermediaries would extend TAFE’s current contribution to innovation which is usually considered to be, and restricted to, training skilled workers (Karmel, 2012; Curtin, Stanwick and Beddie, 2011; Stanwick, 2011). On this understanding vocational education’s role in innovation is only to equip business’ workers with the skills needed to implement the innovations ultimately sourced from research. This is an outcome of universities’ capture of innovation policy which results in Government funding being slanted to supporting research and development to the detriment of supporting the diffusion of innovation (Moodie, 2004: 95). Even for business, two-thirds of the Government’s support for innovation is devoted to research and development rather than improving the problems of connectivity within the national innovation system found by the Cutler review (Dodgson and colleagues, 2011: 1153).

Toner and Dalitz (2012) found that even this narrow view of vocational education’s role is mostly missing from key policy documents on Australian innovation in the decade before 2012. Toner and Dalitz (2012: 415-6) reviewed the Australian government’s main innovation policy statements from 2001 to 2011 to find that vocational education and vocational occupations are not considered substantively in most documents. Even when they state an important role for vocational education it is considered in isolation from other parts of the national innovation system. Accordingly, policies don’t propose action to increase vocational education’s contribution to national innovation (Toner and Dalitz, 2012: 418): vocational education’s contribution to innovation is assumed to be self activating, or to respond to others’ initiative, vocational education being ‘industry led’ (Hawke, 2002). Consequently Toner and Dalitz (2012: 418) found that vocational education’s only representation on the 3 key national innovation advisory bodies (the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, the Co-ordination Committee on Innovation and 8 industry innovation councils) was the Australian Government minister responsible for tertiary education.


While TAFE’s role in developing workers’ skills and hence business’ capacity to innovate is now well established, other countries have supported vocational institutes’ roles in transforming practices in their communities and in incorporating existing knowledge into productive activity. This offers potential for Australian policy makers to expand the role of TAFE institutes to increase and improve connections within Australia’s national innovation system. This would fill a major gap in Australia’s innovation system as well as adding a valuable subsidiary role to TAFE.


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