September 2, 2013

Pulling the legs off frogs

By Sally Thompson

Alistair Mant’s 1991 book, Intelligent Leadershipintroduced the metaphor of a frog and a bicycle to analyse organisational systems. Mant suggested 'bicycle' systems are those whose individual components can be taken apart and put back together without any damage. Such systems could, he suggested, be reconfigured for greater performance.

'Frog' systems, on the other hand, are interconnected and interdependent. If, for example, a frog’s foot is taken away, followed by a leg, the frog will find all sorts of ways to adapt. However, at some point in the process, if the removals continue, the frog will suddenly die. Frog systems are also different to bicycle systems because their core worth is largely immeasurable. Mant suggested you just “know it in your bones”. His theory was that bicycle systems could be privatised, but frog systems could not.

At the moment, the TAFE system in Australia looks very much like a frog that has had a back leg pulled off. It still looks vaguely like a frog, (particularly to the casual observer who drives past campuses and sees ads for courses in the paper.) But those of us who know it and care deeply about it, mourn the frog it once was, watch in fear of its death and look for political recognition of how dire this would be for our economy and society.

The thinking that is leading the charge for what is, essentially, the privatisation of TAFE falls roughly into two camps. The first group are those who don’t like frogs and don’t care if they die. These politicians, advisors and public servants have never been to TAFE themselves, will never have a child who uses TAFE, blame adults with low skills for not taking advantage of their opportunities and think disadvantaged groups should pull themselves up by their own boot straps.

If we are to organise around TAFE it's important to know that one group of our opponents are not stupid or ill informed, they simply don’t give a rat’s about working people or their kids.

The second, much larger, group consist of the very many public servants and politicians who believe that all systems are bicycles; that all human activities can be measured, broken into component parts, mapped against a quality framework, sold on the open market, and then monitored for compliance and measured for performance. Whether its telecommunications, aged care or education, these people only see component parts. Further, they would suggest that all systems try to disguise themselves as frogs in order to avoid proper scrutiny and management.

In answer to concerns about equity, these folk will offer you a framework. In response to concerns about quality, they will offer you an audit. In response to concerns about outright manipulation and fraud visited upon vulnerable people by rent seeking carpet baggers they will offer you a complaints website; usually one buried five pages deep that only takes complaints from vulnerable students themselves or their parents.

Some of the things that make TAFE more frog than bicycle include a campus experience, induction into the culture of a profession as well as its skills, confidence building, Indigenous liaison, cross subsidisation of high cost courses with low cost and of high support needs learners with low support needs learners, reputation in industry and a local community and so on. If you raise these issues with the free marketeers, they will either give you a vague “you old hippy you” look, or move on to the final point of neo-liberal logic: “the active consumer”. You see, they will tell you, with the smugness that comes from passing Economics 101 in their undergraduate years, if people really care about those things, they will purchase your products anyway. The market will decide.

The idea that Joe and Mary Consumer can make informed choices about a system that is so complex that it bedevils the people who spend their lives working in it and that is so lacking in quality control that a private RTO was recently caught (by the media not the system) training building students using sand in place of concrete, is simply absurd. However, the frightening reality is that these folk believe in the power of the market, like the Pope believes in the primacy of the Catholic Church.

How else can you explain the Victorian Liberal government’s response to widespread rorting of that state’s newly marketised VET system by dodgy private RTO’s, which was to ramp privatisation up? How else can you explain taking funding that was shamelessly rorted by the private system back from the public system? How else can you explain Craig Emerson handing over Commonwealth funding to Queensland and Victoria from the Skills Agreement when both had clearly failed to maintain their side of the bargain to support the TAFE system. Such perverse actions can only be explained as neo-liberal ideology winning over common sense.

Perhaps the best example of policy makers trying to make a frog into a bicycle is adult literacy. If I can be so crude as to distil the overwhelming body of research about how adults develop their literacy skills into one short sentence it would be this: through purposeful engagement with other literate adults and through doing literate things. If we want a training system that delivers high levels of adult literacy then it will require human interaction and it will need to include highly literate teachers. Just as no one ever learned a foreign language from watching SBS, so no one ever developed their literacy and generic skills through the tick a box, online, teacherless training that the privatised system has ushered in.

The TAFE system which includes applied learning, open access for all (including those with the lowest skills), professionally qualified and experienced teachers, literacy specialists and personalised study support ticks many of the adult literacy boxes. And here’s the thing: each of these factors work in an interconnected way to develop skilled and confident adults able to cope with the rapidly changing, technology enabled work environments of the future.

Sadly for our friends in government, like a frog and unlike a bicycle, human beings are complex living organisms with their own desires and aspirations. You can’t simply book them in, open up their heads and pour literacy in. No amount of frameworks, audit regimes or pricing units will hide the fact that literacy and adult learning are essentially social practices that can’t be separated into units and sold on the market like lamb chops.

But here’s the good news. The general public do operate according to common sense and not free market ideology. They know that privatisation only leads to higher costs and reduced, more complex and less transparent services. A recent research report by Essential Communications found a majority of both ALP voters (64%) and even Liberal voters (54%) think that privatisation is “a bad idea”. The community also understand that investing in quality training is an investment in their own and their kids’ futures. A recent poll found that 55% of Australians thought that investing in education and training was the single biggest factor in increasing productivity.

No Australian ever voted for the privatisation of TAFE. The absurd excesses of neo-liberal thought may have infected the public service and the ALP front bench, but fortunately, the majority of ordinary citizens of this country do recognise an inherently valuable service when they see it. As Mant would suggest; “they can feel it in their bones”. And that’s what gives us a platform from which to rebuild