Every decade it’s the same thing

Forty years after Kangan, TAFE is still facing many of the same problems; it’s time to break that cycle. By Adrian Marron.
Twenty years ago, I assisted a colleague in creating a strategic 10-year vision for our college. Re-reading it recently I was struck by the sense of optimistic newness about the themes and language and then realised that we have essentially been talking about the same things ever since. Although TAFE is different today, too many of the issues and challenges are fundamentally the same. This explains why I have often felt a bit like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.
Forty years ago, the Kangan Report (1974) articulated the importance of vocational education and training in Australia. In doing so, it identified that a hallmark of a TAFE provision should be flexibility and responsiveness to individual, industry and community needs. It was suggested at the time that VET was a public responsibility best discharged through a system of publicly funded colleges.
I have had the privilege to be involved in TAFE for more than half of its lifetime. It is almost too glib to say that from the beginning there has been a period of continuous change in the VET system. An early challenge was getting to grips with the National Training Reform Agenda, a precursor of unending phases of reform. Much of this has been positive and, although challenging, has led to innovation and a massive contribution to Australia’s development. Some of it has also been hard to fathom and some has been purely politically driven. But all of it has had consequences.
Each jurisdiction has experienced these reforms in its own way and has responded accordingly. Tension between the states, and between the commonwealth and the states, is a consistent factor in VET policy. Throughout, however, the public providers have continued to make a huge contribution to skilling the nation, changing the lives of individuals and contributing to the Australian community.
There have been plenty of watersheds for TAFE in these 22 years, but I do believe that now is a critical period that implicates the continuing existence of an Australian public provision. There is a real need to be engaged in building and presenting a compelling, coherent and enduring case for TAFE as a public provision, one that is informed by both the experience of the last 40 years and the potential of the next 40.
Many others are having similar thoughts. As I was considering this, comparable ground was covered in a good article by Ruth Schubert and Jeff Gunningham from South Australia in December’s issue of TAFE Teacher. That article reflects on marketisation and what it has meant for TAFE since the tension between private and public provision has emerged in the VET sector. It also raises legitimate questions about apparently paradoxical aspects of some current views of the public system.
The authors comment on the description of the Australian system as world class. This is a big claim under current circumstances. What is world class? A visitor looking at the past year in Australian VET might worry about the systemic standards used to judge such things. We certainly have some world-class components but we are some way off having a world-class system. However, building a sector that deserves the appellation should be our aspiration. What gets in the way are many of the same frustrations, tensions and inconsistencies that have bedevilled us for years. And this despite the considerable investments made.
Schubert and Gunningham also highlight the odd attitude some VET stakeholders take towards TAFE teachers. Christopher Pyne has spoken of the importance of good teachers in the school sector and the conversation about quality teaching in universities is persistent, yet teaching in TAFE is seen by some as a simple demonstration and instruction activity, leading to a constant devaluing of teachers. In fact, as in these other sectors (and driven by many of the same rapidly changing technological, behavioural and expectation stimuli that they are grappling with) the role of the teacher in TAFE is incredibly important and complex.
One gets the impression that this occurs because of a lingering mental model in some quarters of TAFE as an old-fashioned apprentice college alone. Despite so much political rhetoric about lifelong learning, sector policy seems to be dominated by the need to offer alternatives to school leavers. This is vital, make no mistake, but it is only part of the picture of what TAFE institutes actually do and could do.
One way to start looking forward might be to determine what we expect from TAFE – ‘we’ being all the stakeholders. What do we believe TAFE’s purpose as part of the VET system is (or should be) in contemporary Australia? Today that question would draw a spectrum of answers. This is a situation that seems to polarise stakeholder perspectives and lead to ambiguous and fragmented policy environments.
Which brings me to the heart of the matter. If there is to be a constructive future for a public system, then it is imperative that coming decisions are not sacrificed on the altars of confused ideology and sometimes cynical expediency.
VET policy such as it has existed beyond political rhetoric has been perceived as part of the economic policy of the nation, specifically as it applies to the supply of skilled labour. Most of us would agree that this is vital, yet we know we also need to be cognisant of responsibilities to individuals and our society and develop policy accordingly.
The potential to have a world-class TAFE system as a central part of a world-class Australian VET sector is there but to achieve it requires making some fundamental decisions. It requires resolution of current tensions, a general agreement as to what the purpose of a public provision should be, and a set of coherent policy decisions around its future. It would certainly seem to me that there is a most significant lack of this at present.
Often what frustrates is the application of policy frameworks that contain paradoxes. There are many elements to be tackled and difficult questions to be addressed. However, we need to ask whether such a vital element of our national educational and social infrastructure should be left to the vagaries and vulnerabilities of nine sets of political decisions, all with different electoral time frames. We have held high store in consistency of curriculum and qualifications but express little concern with regard to inconsistency in policy and funding.
We need an urgent, contemporary, constructive, national conversation and argument that is able to get quickly past the accusations of provider capture often tossed the way of the public system yet raises questions and issues in a rational and progressive manner. I am not an advocate of just turning the clock back; the public system has made so many gains in the last 20 years and constant change is not only inevitable but important.
The message here is also not one of bashing the privates but instead of differentiating between the private and public sectors. We lose the strength of a potential world-renowned system of VET if it ends up being driven by policies that see no value in difference but want a rump public system that mimics the mores and practices of the private sector.
Much of the current situation seems to position this mimicry as a desired way out. Another view might be that this is the result of fragmented policy and funding that drives a factional interest view, sets parts of the VET system in destructive opposition and makes an understanding of a bigger picture too difficult and dangerous. If it continues, then perhaps we face up and do away with the public sector and stop the hypocritical hand wringing whilst great community assets wither. That would be a great shame, however, when we could commit to a plural type of TAFE institution that is part of a national VET system that effectively and efficiently delivers for the labour market, the individual and the community. Groundhog Day (February 2nd) should be only once a year!
Adrian Marron is CEO of the Canberra Institute of Technology.

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