October 4, 2013

The Future of TAFE

By Bruce Mackenzie

I recently attended a conference on investing. I was told to do this because it is a good thing to do when approaching retirement. Most of the participants at the conference wanted to know what the future of the share market was.

All of the experts said in response: “Who knows? It’s all too complex.” The same response can be given to the question: “What is the future of TAFE?” The problem with responses such as: “Who knows?” is that it does not give much confidence. In approaching this question about the future of TAFE, I thought it might be useful to look at the environment and consider the question from the perspective of teachers and the organisations in which they work.

If we look at the environment in which our institutions operate, I think the best characterisation is to describe it as threatening. Let me describe some aspects of the environment.

  • There is a deterioration of student numbers in TAFE in what were thought to be core business areas, namely; apprenticeships and diplomas. In Victoria for the quarter ending 2013 there has been a decline in apprenticeship numbers and a decline in diploma students.
  • From a student’s perspective, the return from investing in education at tertiary level is not as immediate as it was ten years ago. Consequently, trying to market traditional TAFE products is more difficult.
  • There is no evidence of government support for the continuation of TAFE. In Victoria, as has been widely reported, there is a total disconnect between institutions and government. Given that TAFE is organised at the state level, it means that, as a system, we have six or seven different meanings of what is TAFE.
  • Schools have been supported at the federal level through the Gonski initiatives. Universities, even though the review was about higher education more broadly have been supported by Bradley. TAFE had an enquiry commence just as Parliament closed. An optimist might think that the enquiry will be helpful. Optimists don’t abound in TAFE.
  • TAFE has a tradition of catering for the less advantaged. Recent reforms will see fees increase substantially. This will impact on the traditional student.
  • There is more competition in the marketplace than ever before. Private providers, schools and universities can all offer vocational education. The damage done through the uncontrolled entry of organisations into vocational education has been immense. Not only have we seen international students turn away from vocational education in Australia, but with a ramshackle collection of 5000 private providers all competing for the same market, monopoly organisations such as TAFE have inevitably lost market share.
  • The environment is full of noise and chatter of claim and counter claim by supporters and opponents of TAFE institutions.
  • The value of the professional educator and the practice of vocational teaching have been debased.
  • Bizarre commentary has served to polarise and obscure the marginalisation of our institutions.

What does it mean for TAFE?

The environment is now unpredictable. The size of the VET system is amorphous. Customers and competitors are highly unpredictable. Stability is no longer the norm. It is no longer possible for TAFE institutions to build a uniquely competitive position.

The future of our system is to try and ensure that each TAFE institution embraces the notion of transient advantage, learning to launch new strategic initiatives again and again. To survive, our institutions need to spark continuous change and avoid rigidity. Concepts such as quality are wonderfully emotive terms, but misplaced if the customer doesn’t want the level of quality that is being provided.

We have seen that, as barriers to entry tumble, competitors quickly move in and any advantage that the incumbent organisation had is quickly eroded. The structures of our institutions are not well suited to competing in this unstable and unsupportive environment.

They have clunky processes and are overly focussed on compliance rather than innovation. Somehow, if TAFE is to survive and our community does need TAFE institutions, then they will need to set aside budgets and staff for innovation and allow senior leaders to make ‘go or no go’ decisions about new ideas outside of the normal business process. Innovation can’t compete for resources against the established business. Transient advantage does not fit into conventional business planning processes.

What does continuous change mean for TAFE teachers?

In an environment that I have described, it seems to me that the concept of permanent employment will be difficult to sustain.

Continuous new strategic initiatives require adaptive employees. At the same time, teachers should expect that the organisation in which they work invests in making them more employable and adaptable.

By making people more employable, institutions may lose them to their competitors. But the organisation that invests in its employees is investing in its own future.

What do I think is the future for TAFE and its institutions?

In many ways the future of TAFE will depend upon the strategic direction each institution decides to follow.

There is no longer a clearly defined TAFE system. There is a lack of coherent policy about the role of the public institution in vocational education and training. Do not wait for government or the bureaucracies to determine educational futures. They simply don’t have the skills, experience or interest to envisage a future.

For teachers, the future depends on the capability of our institutions and their capacity to develop an effective strategic direction and link it to business directions. In setting strategic direction one needs to consider the evolution of vocational education and training, customer demand, the impact of technology, what competitors are doing, whether there are organisations that can become partners and whether there is anything that is rare and distinctive in the organisation that can be used to give a business advantage.

Being aware of the environment, what our students need and what will attract new students are key business questions. As an example, we know that students want jobs and that unemployment is rising. So that it can provide an excellent vocational education experience coupled with employment at the end of a course, we offer something that others don’t.

To do this we might need to change our traditional roles and to also enter into alliances with competitors. It is this sort of thinking that is essential for survival. Unfortunately, most of our industrial relations arrangements and our employment arrangements are not based upon adaptable business strategies so essential to TAFE’s continuance.

TAFE will survive, but it will not survive if it doesn’t embrace the challenges of the future. Employers and employees alike have mutually compatible goals. Our processes need to underpin these compatibilities. We can be proud of our past, but we need to be loyal to the future.