January 27, 2014

"If it wasn't for TAFE I would never have gone to uni"

By Theresa Millman

Neoliberal policies of economic rationalism have seen increased cuts to spending to TAFE colleges. This bureaucratic belt tightening has been manifested in a number of ways including; reduced teaching hours, cuts to part time jobs and increases to student fees.

What is not factored into this fiscal equation is that for many adult students the experience of TAFE is often the first step in a process of personal and professional transformation that ultimately changes their lives. What price do we put on this? And what price do we ultimately pay as a society for discounting the tremendous value in an educational system that because of its educators enables individuals to ‘restory’ their lives?

TAFE is often the first step back into education after a long period of absence, and research shows that for many students, TAFE transforms their lives. For example, Cameron (2004) observes in a broad ranging study into TAFE-transfer students to the University of South Australia that for some students, TAFE changed their learning aspirations, evidenced by the realisation that they could aim higher academically than they had previously thought. For many students, this is realised in their decision to enrol in higher education (HE).

The Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) statistics show that between 2001 and 2005, the number of students admitted to university on the basis of a TAFE award increased by 46% (DEST 2007, in Watson 2008, p. 40). A snapshot of University of Wollongong (UOW) student numbers (media.uow.edu.au) indicates that in 2012, 8.7 % of Arts, 14.4 % of Commerce, 12.8 % of Education and 22.7 % of Nursing enrolled students at UOW held a TAFE qualification

Studies such as Cameron’s and others, (for example, Apte , 2009; Benson et al, 2010; Willans & Seary, 2011) indicate that because of their participation in TAFE, students often undergo an identity shift; certainly there is often an aspirational shift, evidenced by changes to how students rethink their future and what they want to achieve. What then is happening at TAFE to bring about this transformation in self and lives?

A study in 2012 (Millman, unpublished) which asked TAFE students to think about the impact of TAFE on their lives produced some interesting findings. Student responses included the fact that TAFE teachers encourage development of skills sets previously lacking, for example, analytical writing and critical thinking skills, as well as computer skills. Students also emphasised the development of added confidence in learning; an outcome particularly noted as enabling progression to university. Students also recounted the value of learning in a TAFE environment with diverse people, small class sizes and quality teaching. They reported being ‘ready for university’ as a result of being at TAFE, particularly in preparing for greater workloads and the ‘extra effort’ that would be required; others felt that TAFE was ‘a good bridge’ [for university]. There were also reported increases in ‘self-esteem’, ‘confidence’ and ‘enthusiasm’, ‘personal development’ and ‘a new sense of direction’. Some students reported an increased ‘awareness about life’, including social and political issues; others added that they were more inclined to ‘critique news and current affairs’, and be less ‘passive’ about accepting information without question; and there was also a greater sense of engagement with the world. These are findings supported by similar studies (for example, Abbott-Chapman, 2006; Jackson, et al, 2010; Doran & Toohey, 2012).

The study demonstrates varying levels of transformation, implicitly through changes in self-perception and beliefs about increased abilities and skills, and explicitly through stated awareness of personal change and an increased capacity to engage in reflection brought about as a direct result of the adult learning process at TAFE.

As a former TAFE teacher I had also witnessed the way learning transformed lives, changed goals and aspirations, and changed the way students’ thought about themselves and their future. I saw students enter a TAFE class full of trepidation and clear signs of feeling they didn’t belong, that someone was going to find out that (in their minds at least) they were ‘pretenders’, who had no right to be there. I saw it every day, and yet almost without fail, I saw the reverse at the end of the course; students who had previously been quiet, anxious, withdrawn, unsure, were very often changed by their learning experience, they became confident, their self-esteem increased, they offered opinions in class.

As a Learning Developer at UOW, I hear that story every day too. I see many former TAFE students who are at university as a direct result of their positive experiences at TAFE. These students talk to me about how their aspirations in life have changed, how they never thought they would go to university in the first place, how much they have changed, how much their lives have changed. This is further confirmed by a study I conducted in 2013 (Millman, 2013, in press) in which TAFE and UOW educators were asked for their opinions on the impact of TAFE on students’ lives (Figure 1 below shows the key perceptions expressed by these educators)

Students need to be able to make decisions and exercise their judgement, to be reflective and aware in all aspects of the learning process and experience. Students report that TAFE encourages, empowers and reinforces a positive outlook and goes some way towards preparation for the academic rigours of university. In enabling change in students’ aspirations and future goals, TAFE educators are creating learning environments which encourage and develop learners; this is evidenced in the achievement of learning outcomes which pave the way for participation in higher education.

As a former TAFE student told me recently, ‘If it wasn’t for TAFE I would never have gone to uni’. Given current trends in the rhetoric of student inclusion and engagement, it is incumbent upon bureaucracies, educators and students alike to acknowledge the value of the TAFE system in changing the aspirations of people and in the process, transforming people’s lives.

Abbott-Chapman, J. (2006). Moving from technical and further education to university: an Australian study of mature students, Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 58(1), 1-7.
Apte, J. (2009). Facilitating transformative learning: a framework for practice, Australian Journal of Adult learning, 49 (1).
Benson, R., Hewitt, L., Heagney, M., Devos, A., & Crosling, G. (2010). Diverse pathways into higher education: Using student’s stories to identify transformative experiences, Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 50(1).
Cameron, H. (2004). Paving the way? The Path to Uni for TAFE Students, School of Social Work and Social Policy, University of South Australia.
Doran, M., & Toohey, A. (2012). ‘The odd couple: can skills recognition in VET cohabit with university learning?’ NCVER.
Jackson, A, Dwyer, C, Paez, D, Byrnes, J & Blacker, J. (2010). ‘Transforming vision into reality: the Integrated Articulation and Credit Transfer Project’, AVETRA.
Millman, T. (In press). Dotting the i’s in diversification: the issues, impact, implications and implementation of heterogeneity in Higher Education
Watson, L. (2008). Improving the experience of TAFE award-holders in higher education, International Journal of Training Research, 6(2).
Willans, J & Seary, K. (2011). I feel like I’m being hit from all directions: Enduring the bombardment as a mature-age learner returning to formal learning, Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 51 (1)