28 May, 2017

Seismic changes in TAFE

By Anne Jones

In 2017 TAFE is at the brink of seismic change. Over the last five years intensified marketisation of the vocational education sector, the uncapping of undergraduate degree funding and the decline of TAFE-based vocational education programs for schools have brought TAFE institutions to the brink of insolvency and incapacity. On the other hand, recommitment to TAFE in some states and prioritisation of TAFE access to the new VET Student Loan system have held out hope of a TAFE restoration.

Now, the Higher Education Reform Package announced as part of the May 2017 Budget Statement proposes two changes to higher education funding that, if not blocked in the Senate, could change the nature and purpose of TAFE: (1) from 1 January 2018 the expansion of Commonwealth Supported Places funding to ‘…approved sub-bachelor level diploma, advanced diploma and associate degree courses at public universities’[1] and (2) from 1 January 2019 a new competitive funding model available to universities and other higher education providers for enabling courses, sub-degree courses that provide underprepared learners with the skills they need to commence higher education.

The first of these changes will challenge higher level vocational education qualifications delivered by TAFE institutes. University sub-degree qualifications will be required to be ‘…developed with a focus on industry needs and fully articulate into related bachelor programs’. These are likely to supplant VET AQF 5-6 qualifications, vulnerable to takeover since most of them neither fully articulate into bachelor degrees nor meet industry needs. VET outcomes data show that most graduates from higher level VET qualifications do not gain employment in the occupations for which they trained nor do they use them as stepping stones into degrees with full credit for their vocational education studies (Karmel,T. 2015;[2]Stanwick, 2006[3]; Moodie and Wheelahan, 2009[4]). Even those few diplomas and/or advanced diplomas, such as Nursing, that are linked to professional registration are at risk since universities are already negotiating with professional bodies to obtain recognition for their own in-house diplomas and advanced diplomas. VET diploma and advanced diploma level delivery accounts for 25-30% of TAFE delivery and its loss, following other funding losses, would bring most TAFE institutes to their knees.

The second funding change may offer those TAFE institutes registered as Higher Education Providers an opportunity to obtain funding for delivery of higher education enabling courses. If not, it is likely that any increase in provision of higher education enabling courses will threaten TAFE delivery of qualifications such as the Certificate III in General Education for Adults and Diploma of Tertiary Preparation.

These challenges to TAFE institutes need to be considered in the context of broader societal needs. To prosper amidst the challenges of accelerated globalisation, automation, climate change and population ageing, Australia needs a strong, coherent tertiary education sector; supporting all individuals to develop the capabilities needed for lifelong participation in, and contribution to, sustainable twenty-first century communities and industries. All adults need to be able to navigate longer working lives, multiple careers, multiple employers and changing learning needs. Our national vocational education qualifications do not currently support these ends.

The current and potential contribution of vocational education graduates to Australia’s future is overlooked. In 2015, 4.4 million Australians participated in vocational education.[5] In March 2016 the Office of the Chief Scientist reported that ‘…people with VET level qualifications had a much higher level of business ownership compared to those with university level qualifications’ and ‘…of the STEM-qualified population, approximately two thirds held vocational education and training (VET) qualifications, while one third were higher education graduates with bachelor degrees or higher…The VET sector makes a critical contribution to Australia’s STEM skills base, a contribution yet to be fully reflected in the evidence base for policy development.’[6]

What does all of this mean for the future of TAFE? The most likely scenario is that as universities colonise AQF 5-6 and tertiary preparation courses most TAFE institutes are reduced to delivery of apprenticeship qualifications and lower AQF level courses that do not lead to tertiary entry. The transfer of most AQF level 5 and above qualifications to the university sector would create a more coherent tertiary education sector with more navigable qualifications pathways. However, it would also be a dangerously homogenous tertiary education sector underpinned by traditional higher education discourses and ways of thinking about the world. Australian society would lose the benefits that excellent vocational education brings to its industries and communities; practical knowledge, the understanding of practice and the innovative application of technical skills.

Things could be different, as they are in many countries that benefit from diverse tertiary education sectors valuing strong vocational institutions alongside universities. Countries such as Germany, Singapore, Denmark and New Zealand support their polytechnics and other vocational education institutions in a way that Australian does not. In Denmark, for example, 50% of the upper secondary cohort participates in vocational education with curriculum based on customised academic subjects as well as technical skills development. Vocational education teachers in Denmark are trained in pedagogy to at least bachelor degree level with a work-based teacher training model available for teachers entering education from industry. The new dual system proposed in the United Kingdom’s 2016 Post 16 Skills Plan is designed to strengthen vocational education with qualifications pathways extending to degree level apprenticeships and other higher level technical qualifications.

Australia is at risk of losing the value that vocational education knowledges and traditions bring to its communities and industries. Toner and his colleagues have demonstrated that people with VET qualifications are ‘…among the principle sources of ideas for technological innovation. Skilled production, trade and technical occupations are essential for the generation, design, installation, adaptation and maintenance of new technologies’ (Toner, Marceau, Hall and Considine 2004). It is difficult to see how a reduced and residual TAFE sector could support such technical creativity.

The alternative scenario is to include strengthened TAFE institutes in a diverse and coherent tertiary education sector; to value and nurture the practical knowledge traditions and pedagogies that characterise high quality vocational education; to provide parity of funding as well as parity of esteem to vocational and higher education. If universities are funded to freely deliver sub-degree qualifications, there will need to be significant rethinking of the role and funding of TAFE to ensure Australia’s tertiary education sector includes thriving public vocational education institutions. New Zealand provides a model. In New Zealand the institutes of technology and polytechnics (ITPs) are funded in the same way as universities to deliver qualifications from foundation courses up to postgraduate level. The ITPs are differentiated from universities by their technical education purpose, history and traditions. The availability of equal funding for equivalent qualifications has resulted in a very different distribution of qualifications amongst institutions than in Australia. For example, in NZ almost all degree level nursing courses are delivered by ITPs.

This scenario would be more difficult to achieve relying as is does on collaboration between Federal and state governments. It would require government and bureaucrats, policy makers and commentators, the media, industry and community to overcome their longstanding failure to understand and value vocational education, let alone public vocational education. The effort would be great, but the benefit to Australia’s future would be greater.

Anne Jones is an Emeritus Professor at Victorian University


[1] Australian Government (May, 2017) The Higher Education Reform Package. https://www.education.gov.au/higher-education-refo...

[2] Karmel, T. Skills deepening or credentialism?: education qualifications and occupational outcomes, 1996-2011. Centre for Labour Market Research.

[3] Stanwick, J. (2006) Outcomes from higher-level vocational education and training qualifications. NCVER Research Report

[4] Moodie, G. and Wheelahan, L. (2009). The signficance of Australian vocational education institutions in oepingin access to higher education. tHigher Education Quarterly. (https://www.ncver.edu.au/data/collection/total-vet-students-and-courses)

[5] Office of the Chief Scientist, March 2016, Australia’s STEM Workforce.http://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/2016/03/report-au...

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