October 3, 2014

TAFE practice improves while VET policy falters

By Dr John Mitchell

As a researcher and analyst in the vocational education and training (VET) sector, over the last five years I have monitored two very different worlds within the sector, and the two worlds seem to be growing even further apart.

The good news is that one of those worlds – that of professional teaching practice in public or TAFE providers – continues to improve. The sad news is that the other world – that of VET policy making – continues to stumble and falter, particularly in the jurisdictions that promote the ill-informed view that TAFE professional practice is poor quality and needs a competitive market to shake it up.

Evidence of TAFE practice improving

As a researcher I have a long-standing interest in the world of VET teaching and management practice, particularly in public provider or TAFE organisations. For instance, I prepared a number of publications on outstanding VET teaching including ‘Innovation and Entrepreneurship in VET’ (2007) and ‘Advanced VET Practitioners’ (2009) in which TAFE teachers featured prominently. These publications showed that it takes around ten years to ‘master’ the foundations of VET practice; to acquire the breadth of experience, knowledge and insights needed to teach a variety of student cohorts and in many different settings from the classroom or workshop, to the salon, ward, kitchen or factory.

As a researcher I have a particular interest in identifying the leading edge of teaching practice and in highlighting those practices developed by practitioners to meet new or emerging challenges. Over the last few years, substantial new challenges for VET teaching practitioners have included their need to develop skills in relation to flexible learning, online learning, offshore learning, sustainability, core skills, assessment moderation and language, literacy and numeracy.

In the world of VET teaching practice, over the last five years I have continued to research how such professional practice has improved, despite increasing environmental complexities for TAFE organisations and despite the criticisms of TAFE by some governments and vested interests. In collecting qualitative evidence about leading practice, since 2009 I have prepared 57 case studies at 13 TAFE institutes in NSW, SA, QLD, WA and VIC. These publications include ‘Creating and Adding Value’, a set of case studies from the ten TAFE Institutes in NSW in delighting commercial clients across the breadth of that state, and ‘Reinventing Service Delivery‘, a set of case studies of five TAFE Institutes in different states and different industries around Australia, revealing the high level of capability of TAFE staff to meet industry needs and government goals.

Providing evidence of innovative practice, these case studies focused on concrete, demonstrable outcomes for clients, and each of the case studies was validated by industry. The industry spokespeople interviewed were from local firms as well as prominent organisations including Telstra, Toyota, Optus, Qantas, Cochlear, BHP Billiton, BlueScope Steel, Sydney Water, Housing NSW, EnergyAustralia, Royal Australian Air Force, Royal Automotive Club WA, AirServices Australia, Ramsay Healthcare Group, Royal Perth Hospital, St John of God Health Care and the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia. These first class firms expressed their respect for TAFE services.

In collecting quantitative evidence about leading practice in VET, since 2009 I have conducted over 90 surveys in TAFE Institutes around Australia that provide those Institutes with extensive insights into the capabilities, motivations, aspirations, professional currency and learning preferences of their staff. It is humbling to witness the seriousness of purpose with which respondents to these surveys are willing to analyse their own practice and pinpoint where they need and want to improve.

A colleague Anne Dening presented at this year’s AVETRA conference about the PhD she is undertaking to examine the factors that led to improvements in practice at her previous TAFE Institute, where these capability analysis tools were implemented twice, two years apart, in order to measure changes in practice.

Despite any public comments to the contrary, in the world of TAFE teaching practice, substantial documented evidence exists of capability development and improvement in recent years. Given the professional dedication of the vast majority of TAFE staff, that improvement is likely to be ongoing.

Evidence of VET policy faltering

The other world I have been drawn into over the last five years is the analysis of VET policy making, particularly the implementation from 2009 onwards of so-called VET reform based on pillars such as market design, student entitlement and contestable funding. In this world, I and others such as the AEU’s Pat Forward have analysed how these policies were experimental and not well thought through, producing negative and unintended consequences.

This critical analysis is provided in the publication consisting of 22 articles that I released in late 2012, From unease to alarm: escalating concerns about the model of ‘VET reform’ and cutbacks to TAFE. First, that publication challenged the policy pillar of ‘market design’, the proposition that an effective market in VET can be invented and implemented by government officials, while still meeting industry skill needs. In Victoria the excessive enrolment in certificates in fitness training was an early indication of the inability of public servants to create an effective market. In Victoria and now in some other states, public servants have found themselves constantly tinkering with their funding mechanisms for these artificial VET markets, as opportunistic VET providers demonstrate their ability to drain these funding pools with great haste.

Next, the publication ‘From unease to alarm’ critiqued the policy pillar of ‘student entitlement’, of providing eligible students with access to a subsidised training place of their own choice, with an approved training organisation. The interviews in the publication showed that the student entitlement doesn’t fit with VET for at least four reasons: because the sector has spent the last twenty years ensuring it is industry-led, not driven by the individual; because student entitlement assumes that students are informed consumers, able to make sound decisions; because student entitlement assumes that all training providers can be trusted to provide clear information about their services; and because it assumes that students and providers will not collude to pervert quality requirements.

Ironically, the Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey now uses the concept of entitlement as a pejorative term, hence contaminating the policy pillar of student entitlement.

Finally, the publication ‘From unease to alarm’ examined the policy pillar of ‘contestable funding’, that is the opening up of more and more public funds for training, so that TAFE and private registered training providers competed for those public funds. However, public funds should only be open to the market if quality can be assured. As Jenny Lambert from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said in her interview with me for Campus Review, “A contestable market requires TAFE to be more efficient and effective, more customer focused, but contestability only works if you have quality mechanism[s]. And the trouble, as we have found in Victoria, is moving to that contestable and demand driven uncapped market without the quality infrastructure properly in place.”

Lambert’s concern about the VET quality infrastructure not being in place is still relevant today. For instance, in April this year I tabled with this year’s federal parliamentary ‘Inquiry into the role of Technical and Further Education system and its operation’ four articles I prepared in early 2014 for Campus Review. The articles refer to damning evidence about poor quality teaching in the sector, contained in three new reports by the regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA).

The ASQA reports also show the basket of difficult issues facing policy makers in VET. Many of these problems have existed for some years and have not been addressed properly, such as the vagueness in Training Packages about the ‘duration’ of VET courses, and some of these problems have been produced by the move to a ‘competitive market’, such as the proliferation of deceptive marketing practices, and low cost, poor quality courses, for example in the aged care and construction sectors. A summary of thirteen ‘hard basket’ issues for policy makers is provided in the fourth article in Campus Review.

TAFE practice vital to the nation

The three pillars of government policy making – market design, student entitlement and contestable funding – were based, in part, on a lazy assumption, a throwaway line, that the public provider TAFE was a problem and needed fixing. While every organisation including TAFE Institutes can become more efficient and effective, this simplistic assumption about TAFE overlooked the fact that the significant public value that resides in TAFE Institutes is mostly embodied in the capability of its staff, not in its buildings, history or reputation.

This article refers to both qualitative and quantitative evidence that shows that this staff capability is strong generally and outstanding in some quarters. Additionally, this professional capability in TAFE took many years to acquire, is vital to the nation and deserves recognition and support. It is not broken and it doesn’t need fixing.

Over the last few years it must have been tempting for policy makers to criticize TAFE in order to distract attention from the embarrassing evidence contained in national media exposes, Hansard records and public criticisms of policy by leading business organisations across Australia. That evidence points to widespread policy failure in VET, leading to the emergence of rogue providers and their exploitation of unsuspecting students and their fleecing of taxpayers’ money.

Despite these policy blunders and government budget blow-outs, TAFE teaching practice remains highly valued by industry and we know that the majority of TAFE teachers are determined to improve on their already impressive level of practice.