April 29, 2018

Saving TAFE: what will it take?

By Leesa Wheelahan

Federal Labor has made two key promises if it wins the next election. The first is that it will reinvest in TAFE, and the second is that it will establish a national inquiry into post-secondary education in Australia. The inquiry will examine the role of TAFE and universities with the aim of developing a coherent tertiary education sector in which TAFE and universities are equally valued.

This is just in time. TAFE is a shadow of its former self and it needs massive reinvestment if it is to recover from the systematic disinvestment by multiple governments over the last decade. We also need a national review that will re-establish public TAFEs as the centre of a strong public vocational education system, to overcome the damage that has been caused by casting TAFE as ‘a provider’, one among many, in a for-profit VET system.

TAFE is reeling from 30 years of reforms to create a VET market and system in which it is forced to deliver low quality, fragmented competency-based qualifications in competition with for-profit providers. The scorched earth marketisation policies of the last 10 years in particular have resulted in a low trust, scandal plagued, fragmented system, and the decimation of TAFE.

The problem that the inquiry will need to confront is: how can Australia move from the wreckage of the past to a high trust system with trusted qualifications that individuals, employers, unions, governments and communities have reason to value? A high trust system needs to be based on trusted institutions, with TAFE as the anchor of that system, supported by enabling institutions, policies and frameworks.

What might this look like? A first step would be to articulate a positive mission for TAFE and its role in our society and economy. The last major review of TAFE was in 1974, and then the Kangan Committee defined TAFE as doing what universities and schools didn’t do – that is, it defined TAFE residually. Instead, we need to articulate a positive mission for TAFE that is different from the other two sectors.

TAFE is about far more than skills. Because TAFEs are deeply enmeshed in their local communities and regions, they will be a key institution contributing to renewal through sustainable and socially inclusive regional social and economic development. TAFEs don’t just respond to ‘demand’ for skills; they are key local institutions which have responsibility for working with local communities and industries to develop solutions to problems and to creating opportunity.

TAFE is an institution, it isn’t a provider. There is a big difference between the two. The notion of a provider implies one among many, and it doesn’t much matter if it is this or that provider which is providing the ‘service’. Providers come and go, and wax and wane in response to market demand. In this vision, the invisible hand of the market results in the provision of training for skills when and where as needed, with no need to invest in institutions, institutional capacity or teacher development. Governments only need invest in markets, not institutions. Competition is seen to be a self-evident good, with profit as the incentive. The problem is that in a for profit market the point is (as we have seen) to make profits, and monstrous profits have been made by driving down quality and bringing the system to breaking point.

In contrast, institutions are underpinned by social relations of trust in local communities. They are able to mediate between national and state governments and local communities by developing, in partnership with their communities, locally responsive and contextually appropriate solutions, while ensuring that the requirements of national policies are met.

Anyone who has ever worked in a TAFE knows that this is what TAFE does, even if it has never been recognised in policy or funding. TAFE directors and senior managers are part of the local economic and social development committees; TAFE teachers and outreach staff (when we had them) work with disadvantaged communities to build supportive pathways into education and training. Learning support staff (again, when we had them) help those students who need additional support to develop the literacy and numeracy skills they need to function as citizens in our society. TAFE teachers work with local employers to improve their products or processes, and to develop effective workplace learning strategies. This is why damage to TAFE is also damage to local communities. The decimation of TAFE is the decimation of local community infrastructures.

But TAFE can do much more than this – TAFEs can be a powerhouse for local socially inclusive and sustainable social and economic development. Rather than limit its work to responding to existing requirements for skills, TAFEs need to be funded to consider the knowledge and skills that will be needed for work in the future, and to develop, codify and institutionalise this knowledge.

This is important scholarly activity that will support innovation, and it should explicitly be built into TAFE’s mission. For example, the teachers of electrical trades apprentices should be supported to consider how the latest insights from engineering will change the work of electrical trades apprentices five or ten years in the future. Or, teachers of aged care workers should be supported to consider, and develop appropriate curriculum, to ensure that the aged care workers of tomorrow understand the implications of the latest research on dementia for working with elderly people with Alzheimer’s.

If TAFE is to support its communities, then it needs to be funded to offer a sufficiently comprehensive range of programs that will enable students to realise their aspirations. A particularly pernicious consequence of existing policies is that students who go to TAFE can only get public funding for their studies for courses in areas in which employers claim there are skill shortages. In contrast, students who can afford to go to university can choose anything they want. Moreover, this is pointless policy because most VET graduates do not work in occupations directly associated with their qualification.

TAFE should, within a national qualification assurance framework, be entrusted with developing local qualifications that meet the needs of students, communities, local industries and regions. Training packages are now 20 years old – it is time we recognised that they are bad qualifications based on bad models of curriculum that result in rigid, one size fits all qualifications for all Australia. We have had review after review that tinkers at the edges of training packages in vain efforts to fix their many deficiencies. We need a new model of qualifications, one that places the development of the student in the context of their broad intended occupation at the centre of curriculum and pedagogy.

Achieving these goals for TAFE will require investing in TAFE teachers and in TAFE teachers’ qualifications. Strong institutions require well prepared, qualified staff. As well as being industry experts, TAFE teachers need to be supported to become expert teachers. Being an expert teacher in TAFE means something different to being an expert teacher in schools or universities. Expert teachers in TAFE should be able to engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning so they can consider the transformations to work in their field and what that will mean in the future, implement a repertoire of responsive pedagogic strategies to work with the most disadvantaged students, and support sustainable social and economic development and innovation in their communities.

TAFE is the anchor of its communities. It needs to be funded to support sustainable and socially inclusive social and economic development. It can work in partnership with schools and universities to achieve these goals, based on an understanding of its distinctive contributions and locally responsive and locally focused missions.

Leesa Wheelahan was the Associate Professor at the LH Martin Institute for Tertiary Education Leadership and Management at the University of Melbourne. She is now the William G Davis Chair in Community College Leadership at the University of Toronto.Leesa has taught in tertiary education for approximately 22 years, which includes time as a TAFE teacher