28 July, 2017

The Future of the TAFE system

By John Spierings

May was a big month for the vocational education sector.

First, the Commonwealth Government has indicated it will scrap the National Partnership Agreement with the States and instead establish a skills fund dependent on host worker visa fees. This implies another significant funding cut for TAFE.

Second, Federal Labor announced that if elected it would make Commonwealth funding conditional on states and territories directing at least two thirds of public funding for vocational education to TAFE. Given the rapidly growing share of funding going to private providers, this move is significant. The step indicates that bi-partisan political support for the de-regulation and large scale privatisation of the sector may be eroding.

And then yet another high profile private provider, Acquire Learning - a firm that specialized in mashing up telemarketing and training - went into voluntary liquidation.

While it may not be obvious, these developments underline the fact that in the battle over the privatisation of vocational education in Australia, the public provision of vocational education has won. The repeated failure of start-up private providers, both commercially and educationally, is now driving policy.

What is missing though is a unifying rationale for the strong public provision of vocational education. We need this because on its own the deficits in the private model of provision will not be enough to sustain a robust, dynamic, health TAFE sector.

We need to constantly make the case for the inherent virtues of comprehensive public education models that meet individual, community and industry needs rather than observe the limitations of a just-in-time training regime taken from the latest management manual.

Without that unifying rationale, there is a risk that policy will focus on yet another re-jig of student funding rather than a more fundamental appreciation of what TAFE does and what it is capable of.

To be fair, some of the funding problems seen in vocational education are also reflected in other educational sectors. Over the past four years the Coalition has sought to entrench educational inequities with deep cuts to university funding and a barrage of attacks on the Gonski school funding agreement negotiated by the Gillard Government.

The long-standing policy principle meant to drive public funding to private schools – facilitation of school choice – is now less important to Treasuries than the role of private school subsidies as a budget measure to constrain overall public spending on education. The logic is that part funding private schools is a more fiscally responsible way to meet educational demand than meeting the total cost involved in public provision.

A similar logic helped to drive expansion of VET-FEE-HELP as those loans both transferred risk to students and were treated by Treasury as assets rather than liabilities on the Commonwealth balance sheet. It appeared that ambitious COAG targets to lift vocational educational attainment could be achieved while minimising direct cash outlays.

These funding regimes however are arise from a more general crisis in the purpose of education as it is pulled into a more instrumental frame across primary, secondary and tertiary sectors.

The popularity of return on investment ratios, the use of NAPLAN and other tightly conceived tests flows from a desire to justify and determine spending. However they only measure tightly pre-scripted skills and attributes, often using the lens of employability as the dominant frame. They are less useful if our goal is to encourage students to become liberated, to inquire, learn, communicate and acquire knowledge. As a society, we now seem to be turning more to social media rather than education in order to do that.

A word about language

In advancing the vital role of public provision in vocational education, positioning TAFE as a ‘system’ is perhaps not the best word to drive future policy. It implies ‘command and control’ methodologies and work organisation at a time when faith in those models has evaporated. Perhaps it’s better to speak of a TAFE ‘network’ – educators with a common mission and approaches that advance the public good and the capabilities of individuals and communities.

Policy-makers central to the privatisation project have sought to shape the vocational education sector around ‘flexible and responsive’ as its defining feature; the implication being that pre-reform TAFE was not adapting to the shifts and currents in industry, work patterns and in the labour market.

Historic investments by TAFE’s and State Governments in heavy duty technologies, buildings and specialist, high cost staff were seen by those driving privatisation as impediments in a fast-paced, highly dynamic labour market with workers experiencing multiple career changes with episodes as contractors as well as waged employees.

In doing so, these policy-makers viewed vocational education as a service to industry rather than understanding TAFE’s unique role in helping to shape labour markets, wage outcomes and economic mobility.

The point is that countering the mantra of ‘flexible and responsive’ - as beguiling (and simplistic) as it is - will be necessary as without alternative constructs it will be difficult to truly reset policy and funding.

The language of ‘innovation’ is helpful but deploys a word that is perhaps too over-exposed and too woolly to cut it.

Positioning TAFE as ‘the national engine of economic mobility’, resonates with its past and signals its continuing potential. This may have more cut through at a time of stagnating wages, rising housing costs and growing educational inequalities. This speaks to its unique role rather than the generic character of its pedagogy.

The policy game

Framing TAFE as the national engine of economic mobility also enables the sector to grow and exert its latent power. And it needs to do so because self-evidently it has few champions inside the policy game – within the policy bureaucracies, within the political class or within the media. That might be acceptable if TAFE had a loud, constituent, boisterous, bothersome constituency on the outside but it does not.

There is no fear factor at the table when funding decisions about TAFE are being made in Cabinet or at the Expenditure Review Committee. Ministers and policy advisers do not currently factor a backlash or a wave of appreciation when considering funding decisions. The obvious contrast is with universities (especially those in regional Australia) and schools, that have a capacity to mobilise parents and local communities.

This needs to change if better policy outcomes for the TAFE sector are to be achieved.

Consequently, there is an urgent need to mobilise the muscle of students, employer allies and graduates as well as existing stakeholders such as the AEU.

This is especially so as TAFE networks are policy and funding orphans squeezed between very large public education sectors ‘owned’ by the Commonwealth and the States. States will be reluctant to make the investments needed in TAFE while they face ongoing funding emergencies in their school sectors.

This is an important reason to explore shifting responsibility for TAFE into the Commonwealth’s orbit. Labor should outline a process at the next election to consider this, and to consult with the States, with Institutes, with teachers, students and industry.

A policy agenda for the future

Assuming important elements are put in place – including a strong, vigilant set of constituencies and supporters; and a compelling frame for support – there remains the question of what the mission and vision of a public TAFE sector will be into the future.

There are lessons from Australia’s success in promoting and developing a strong apprenticeship system. At the core of an apprenticeship is an implicit social contract about a mutual responsibility for the growth and maturation of young people – as workers and as future contributors to our common well-being. A responsibility shared by individuals and their family, employers, educators and the state. It’s not just a responsibility around development of technical skills, it is also about the social and cultural formation of apprentices as they are mentored and as they mature into a community of trades, skills and people. We need to take that insight into the comprehensive model of learning embodied in an apprenticeship and apply that more generally.

TAFE needs to build on its unique advantage of being embedded in communities rather than markets. It’s a defining point of difference with private providers. Rather than mimic private operators TAFE should aim to be a fulcrum in communities, especially those experiencing significant economic transition.

TAFE has a remarkable workforce; its teachers are some of the most amazing, adaptable, can-do, problem-solving people in the country. Why isn’t this at the heart of its appeal and promotion to students and industry? And this quality needs to be leveraged to strengthen curriculum and to develop a pedagogy free of the rigidities of training packages.

It is difficult to define excellence in vocational education. It is one reason why we have settled for competence. It is going to be difficult to unpick that area. But a TAFE network could lead the way with independent assessment of qualifications; with investment in a national centre for vocational education pedagogy and curriculum.

Why support a public TAFE network

There are many possibilities to describe what the mission of TAFE could and should be. However, there are six core elements that should be part of any statement about TAFE and what it seeks to achieve, now and into the future. These are:

  • Excellence and leadership in the provision of vocational education – supporting institutions, facilities and teachers delivering outcomes at least equal to world’s best practice in Asia and Europe
  • Depth and quality in curriculum design, practice and assessment that sets benchmarks for the rest of the sector
  • Outreach to families and individuals likely to be disadvantaged in achieving full economic citizenship
  • Provider of choice for the primary skills and workforce development needs of emerging industries and sectors needing support as they transition through decline
  • A comprehensive educational pathway for all young people as they leave school, imparting knowledge and skills and linking them to employment experiences and opportunities
  • A high quality educational choice for learning, creativity, collaboration and personal development through all the stages of life.

And to achieve these elements, new funding models for TAFE need to be developed that relate to employment outcomes but that also recognize:

  • Costs of Infrastructure – in machinery and technology, libraries, land holdings required by public vocational education providers
  • Costs of Outreach - to disadvantaged communities, age cohorts, industry sectors and workers facing structural adjustment
  • Costs of Staff – to recognize the benefits of employment and conditions of TAFE teachers and staff relative to the private sector
  • Costs of Quality – to attract experienced and suitable instructors from the workforce and to lift the base qualifications of VET teachers to at least Diploma and preferably Bachelor level
  • Designate preferred providers/Institutes for public training subsidies against clear criteria

The resilience and endurance of the TAFE sector should be admired and celebrated – no other educational sector in Australia has experienced such an existential crisis in recent times. From that strength of character, and from a deep understanding of what TAFE is capable of, a much more positive and hopeful era can emerge. There is still much to be done in order to achieve that. Let’s get to work.

John Spierings is Executive Officer of the Reichstein Foundation. This piece is based on a speech given at the 2017 AEU National TAFE Council Annual General Meeting