VET vs University – A continuing Divide.

As some of you who have been reading my blog for a while will be aware I have always been troubled by the seeming divide which exists between VET and University education in this country.  This came up again recently when the very articulate Lauren Hollows  asked this wonderful question on Linkedin; “Why does it have to be VET or HE?”.  Quite early on in the life of this particular iteration of this blog, I presented a similar thought.  Lauren’s post and the ensuing discussion prompted me to think a little more about this problem and why it is that there seems to be a divide between Vocational Training and University Education.

Lets jump in the time machine and go back to the dim past when I was in the final years of high school and looking at what I was going to do with myself post secondary school.  The choices were pretty clear-cut back then, you left at year 10 and got a trade, you went on to year 12 and University or you just went and got a job. somewhere and to a large extent what we know now as the VET sector now was still a few years away.  This I think is still some of the problem today, a lot of people not involved in the industry, who are now parents etc saw this divide, you went to  TAFE to do a trade or you went to university and of course the unspoken thought was that the reason you left at year 10 and went and got a trade was that you weren’t going to get good enough results in 11 and 12 to get accepted into University.  Now whether or not that was ever true, the mindset was there and still is, people still view VET as a choice you make when you can’t get into university.

Let’s fast forward to today though, this is not the case anymore and hasn’t been the case for some time now, sure VET education can be seen as an alternative education pathway, but it is also a supplementary or complimentary pathway.  As a lot of the respondents to Lauren’s post said, myself included, a lot of people now have qualifications from both sectors, all of which provide them with different learnings and different skills and knowledge.  So why then do we still hear comments like “I have a degree why would I was my time getting a Certificate IV/diploma?”  We hear them because I think we have failed, all of us, the Government, the peak bodies, the providers to truly explain the post secondary education system in this country to people, and to explain it to people in such a way that makes sense to them and shows them the value of education regardless of what ‘sector’ that education comes from.

We have a single framework in this country for qualifications and we have had it since 1995.  The Australian Qualifications Framework outlines who the whole system works and what each level from Level 1 (Certificate I) to Level 10 (Doctoral Degrees) work and what the skills and knowledge at each level is.  I would hazard a guess however that very very few parents and student and probably not a lot of teachers and guidance officers were terribly aware of the content of the AQF and even fewer would understand how the system works and what all of it means and there in lies the problem.

What we need to do in this country is to embark on an education process, a process designed to explain to people simply and easily how the system works.  If we ever as a country truly want to have an engaged workforce built on ideals of lifelong learning, then we need to do this we need to this, we need to explain to people the choices that they have and how they fit together.  If we don’t there will always be a divide between the various educational sectors in this country and that would be a crying shame.

TAFE and the contestable marketplace – Some thoughts

So many of you saw my little rant the other day, so I thought to be fair what I might, or perhaps should do today is discuss my thoughts around a contestable training market place, how it affects TAFE and what might need to happen to change things.

There are a couple of things I need to make clear first off,

  1. While I have been around the L&D and VET industry for quite a while I haven’t taught at a TAFE in a very long time, but I have been involved with them in a number of different roles I have had over the years,
  2. I don’t believe solutions like the one suggest in the Greens pre-election policy paper (we need to give TAFE $2 billion and restrict the private sectors access to funding) are well thought out, viable, in the best interests of VET education in this country or solve the problem),
  3. I believe that there are in some cases strong social justice, equity and workforce participation issues, particularly in regional, remote areas for TAFE’s to be provided with additional funding to allow them to serve that function,
  4. There should be one regulator for everyone public, private, enterprise, regardless of State with which everyone has to comply.
  5. I have had some very interesting discussion with some wonderful people from a number of TAFE institutions about how they these changes are effecting them.
  6. Despite what we might think education is never free, someone (either the user or the government or someone else) always pays.  However that being said I also believe that education should be ‘free’ to the end-user (within reasonable limitations)

For me I think it is 1 and 6 from this list that bite for me when we start to talk and think about contestable markets and how it might alter the place of what has been seen to be the public educator in the VET system.  One of the things that has always worried me about TAFE has been the sheer size and amount of physical infrastructure that they seem to have, a lot of which, if we extrapolate from the findings of the Queensland Training Task force a number of years ago is vastly underutilised.  This creates a system where funding for education is actually funding for the maintenance of buildings and infrastructure.  Now their may be good social and economic reasons why in some areas it is necessary to maintain underutilised infrastructure, such as the need to provide specialised training equipment to meet a regular though not constant need, or because they are the only education facility within a certain area.  However why are we maintaining or in some cases even really maintaining standard classroom facilities when the overall utilisation rates are say below 50%.  This is not to suggest that there should be just enough classrooms for students, there should be room for growth and allowances made for contractions in student numbers etc, but underutilised space is costing money that could be redirected to the actual cost of student learning.  Now I know that this rationalisation of resources is occurring in a number of TAFE environments and I know it worries some people.  However having to consider how to best utilise limited space is a dilemma that a lot of private and enterprise providers face every week. We have two training rooms, so we can theoretically conduct 10 classroom based trainings a week, however in reality we only do about 6-7, mainly because one of the training rooms is bigger than the other so we try to fit our bigger classes into there first, we also have a number of other groups and activities where go on in the the rooms, study groups (formal and informal), one-off workshops, staff presentations and programs, which means that the building is about 90-95% utilised each week (at least during working hours).  It would be great to have another classroom, but that would drop our actual utilisation down to 60% or less and it seems difficult to justify that cost on the grounds of ‘if we build it they will come.’  If we decided we wanted to provide some training that required specialised equipment or resources the costs would be even more significant.  What would be great would be if TAFE and private provides worked together to get the most out of all of their resources.  I would gladly lease space at our campus once a week for a TAFE to run a program and I would gladly lease space over in another suburb from a TAFE to run our programs there.  I know it would make life easier for our clients who live in another area to get to face to face class.

Most private providers run fairly lean in terms of management  and administration.  I think even the staunchest TAFE supporter would have to admit that TAFE management and admin is not lean.  Now I know that they have large user bases and provide a range of services and programs, but still there seems to be a lot of duplication and a lot of layers of management.  The problem with this of course is the speed at which a TAFE can react to the need or a request from a client as opposed to how quickly a small to medium or even a quite large-sized private provider can react.  This is a problem that just TAFE needs to grapple with however a lot of very large businesses and government departments face the same problem, lean, agile businesses, with flatter management structures and well delineated autonomous decision-making at all levels are adapting and responding to markets in ways traditional companies and government departments simply can’t.

The other big challenge is simply that of change itself, as someone commented to me the other day, there are a lot of people in TAFE who are there because they believe in public education, they believe in TAFE and have worked in an environment for years which mapped very closely to their values and ideology.  A market driven system is seen as changing this, as putting their personal values and ideology at odds with the values of the system they have worked and believed in for years and this change is therefore quite stressful.  I was mildly criticised for being a little less than empathetic when I suggested that change is inevitable and in the world outside of TAFE and Government, if you can’t work within the value and ideology of an organisation then you are going to have a hard time and it is probably better to leave before you are asked to leave.  Even though I take the criticism on the chin, I stand by my statements, there are no jobs for life any more and change in both inevitable and in most cases necessary, we need to either accept that or move on to somewhere that fits better for us.  I also think that a lot of long-term TAFE facilitators might be pleasantly surprised to find that if they came over to the dark side of private providers how many of these providers might be a good match for their values and ideology.

So what is the answer, I don’t know, but I think that TAFE needs to be leaner, more agile and responsive, less infrastructure and resource heavy and more focussed on the needs of not just students but of organisations and employers as well.  They also need to be for the most part self-sustaining, if a TAFE isn’t getting enough students to pay the bills, they need to seriously think about their future.  As I said to someone the other day, old TAFE is dead, and everyone needs to either embrace the new TAFE direction or get out of the way.




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