Eleven questions about the TAFE system

So I attended the rally to Stop the TAFE cuts on 10 May. It was a bit of a circus, but, to be honest, my heart wasn’t in it, for several reasons. Firstly, I’m not one to mindlessly chant slogans, like “Save TAFE, sack Ted”, no matter how well-intentioned. Secondly, I don’t believe it will make much difference. Finally, the usual suspects (unions officials, teachers, and a well-rehearsed student) said the usual things and at the time I thought we were definitely missing something.

That night I discussed the issue with my partner. Now she’s a labour economist with a pretty good knowledge of the TAFE workforce and of the state of relations between TAFEs, governments and unions over the last few years. I had no reason to suppose that, for all their bluster and clichéd phrases, the basic message my union was giving me wasn’t a reasonable picture of the current situation vis a vis funding for vocational education and training (VET). So I suppose I was being a bit of a mouthpiece for the unions. Well, she put me in my place. That wasn’t very comfortable for me, but the questions she asked, and the ones that have occurred to me since that conversation, are worth asking. Of course, the issues raised by such questions were barely alluded to at the rally.

I am a firm believer in the notion that education is a part of human welfare and, accordingly, the Government should make available a reasonable education to all. If you elect to withdraw yourself or your child from that system you alone should bear the cost. That some schools don’t perform so well or are somewhat hampered by the overall socio-economic status of their students is not a reason for not trying to advance the common good. Now, there’s a phrase you don’t hear so much any more, but maybe if more people got a reasonable education, there prospects would be so improved that they wouldn’t find it necessary or desirable to break into your house and steal your stuff or attack you.

I would take the same attitude with VET. Therefore, I find it galling that for-profit education providers should receive taxpayer funding. But I suppose it’s not so different to what’s happening in schools, hospitals, aged care homes, or so-called public transport. I don’t expect to see changes to those policies soon.

So what’s really going on? The previous Labour government introduced a demand-driven funding system. Virtually any course of study would be funded if there was a demand and registered training organisations (RTOs) could offer it. Private (mostly for-profit) RTOs provided most of the additional places now funded. Various problems have emerged and the responses to them have also been varied. Unfortunately, two issues which are really separate have become conflated. The first is the issue of whether the funding of training should have been opened to private providers. One may approve or disapprove of this on ideological or other grounds. (As readers may gather from my statements above, my position is ideological.)

The second issue is the discarding of prioritising training provision. Previously, the Office of Tertiary Training and Education tried to predict the need for skills in different industries and fund courses accordingly. My courses were deemed “low priority”. Now that’s maybe not such a comfortable position to be in, but it made sense. The then Victorian Premier John Brumby panicked at complaints about students missing places and, in a fit of neo-liberal fervour, introduced the so-called reforms. Under the new regime, the Office, now fatuously retitled “Skills Victoria” (whatever that’s supposed to mean), dumped at least five years of work. It is said that the then Deputy Secretary for OTTE, Patricia Neden, resigned in disgust. Maybe now that she’s the CEO of Innovation and Business Skills Australia (more on that body below), the Industry Skills Council for the area in which I teach, I should ask her if it’s true.

As a result, the huge demand for training was met. Those in favour of this “demand-driven” scheme would claim that prospective students can make rational decisions: if they are unlikely to gain employment in a given field or occupation, they’re less likely to seek training in that area. I’m pretty certain that there’s a significant proportion who won’t make a rational decision. They’re kids who have really very little idea of what they want to do and choose anything they think is cool or which someone (a marketer?) tells them is cool. One further “feature” of the scheme is that candidates have one “go” at receiving funding. After that, retraining in another discipline requires them to pay full fees, unless they are able to “upgrade” to a higher qualification. Well, if they’ve had no training or experience in the latter field before, that’s unlikely (at least not for the first year).

In my opinion, funding anything and everything according to student demand rather than on the basis of need in the wider economy is dumb. To do it just as the economy was tanking was a disaster. Why the supposedly better economic managers in the Liberal Party chose to continue the scheme is a mystery, except that perhaps it was just another form of worship at the altar of economic (ir-)rationalism. Even Christopher Pyne, Federal Opposition (Liberal) spokesperson on education has been reported in The (Ballarat) Courier [8 June 2012] as saying, “The problem with TAFE colleges in Victoria is they’ve been allowed to enrol so many more students than they could afford—basically subsidized by the Victorian Taxpayer.” Well, who dangled the carrot? The Victorian Government.

  1. Why did the previous Government junk the highly sensible scheme of funding according to skills need in favour of a scheme that produces bad outcomes for students and the economy and was bound to blow the budget?

Kim Wells, current Victorian treasurer, said in Parliament on 7 June, “The issue with which the government was faced was a TAFE system that was clearly unsustainable. It was a system inherited from the previous government where proper costings and governance had not been done.” [Quoted in Victorian TAFE Association Media Release, 15 June 2012] If the system was that bad, why did you maintain it?

  1. Why has the present Government continued this utterly stupid system of funding?

The discipline I teach involves technology and facilities that are very capital intensive. For this reason, there will be few, if any, new entrants. Before the “reforms”, there were a number of private schools and a number of TAFEs. One might argue that there were too many, but those who couldn’t get a publicly funded place and could afford it could go to a private school. Now that private RTOs receive funding the number of entrants to such courses is higher. In our experience, the quality of entrants has fallen. Since most make applications to more than one school, one does see many candidates of quality, but the increased number of Government-funded places reduces the likelihood of enrolling them, especially under the “winner takes all” selection system run by the Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre (VTAC).

  1. If the Government has such faith in a “demand-driven system”, why does a selection body like VTAC, which regulates the number of offers (and therefore the demand), still even exist?

With the new funding scheme, it would seem that private RTOs have moved in in a big way. One of the complaints at the rally and in the AEU magazine is that, while places have increased by 44% since the so-called “reforms” were introduced, most of this has been in the private sphere.

The implicit message from the union is that the government has actively sought to fund private RTOs rather than TAFEs. Is there really any evidence for this? Claims that private RTOs spend a lot more on marketing at the expense of training provision or other resources necessary to the delivery are probably true, but if any RTO can offer a course and attract students it will receive funding. Haven’t TAFEs been free to pursue students? If so, why haven’t they marketed themselves better and as a result retained more of their market share?

  1. Why haven’t TAFEs marketed themselves better to attract the funding for the increased numbers of student places?

A second claim, which there is no reason to doubt, is that several hundred TAFE teachers have been made redundant. No reason is given. If private RTOs have gained market share, have they done so at the expense of TAFEs—meaning that the numbers of students TAFEs are training have decreased, necessitating staff redundancies—or have they merely soaked up the additional places that can now be funded, and the TAFEs’ number of students has stayed the same? This should be explained.

If private RTOs are attracting students at the expense of TAFEs, then one must ask again why it is that TAFEs have not marketed themselves better.

  1. Why haven’t TAFEs marketed themselves better to compete more effectively with private providers offering the same courses?

The key claim against private providers is that so often they skimp on actual delivery of hours and divert public funding to marketing or pure profit or both. Pat Forward, AEU Federal TAFE Secretary, in The Australian TAFE Teacher claims the “Victoria is now awash with dodgy, fly by night private providers delivering qualifications in a fraction of the time it takes at reputable providers and offering financial and other inducements to students and employers to enrol in courses”. [The Australian TAFE Teacher, Autumn 2012, p.9]

One hopes that any regulatory body overseeing RTOs would discover keep such practices in a timely manner and seek redress. In an ideal world, every RTO would be compliant, but since some TAFEs aren’t, or aren’t all the time, I don’t hold much hope that private RTOs would be. So what level of non-compliance would be deemed acceptable? Without figures relating to actual breeches, the question is somewhat abstract. But awash? Unfortunately, Ms Forward does not in this article, and has not at any other time that I can recall, actually produced figures. In what proportion of funded places successfully filled by private providers have such practices been found to occur? And how does that compare to TAFEs’ non-compliance? Bad news always attracts attention, whereas good news is largely ignored. In other words, are private providers all so bad? It simply cannot be.

Philip Smith, a teacher at Gippsland Institute of TAFE, writes on the TAFE For All campaign website: “The fully contestable system of VET funding in this state has seen the rise of private RTOs delivering at times sub-standard training to the students of Victoria. In many cases using their one chance at a subsidised training place.”

The phrase “at times” is telling. Has the AEU or any other body done any qualitative research to establish how prevalent “sub-standard” training is? Or even to establish, across a range of industries and courses, what the minimum standard for training should be? Until someone does, any evidence is purely anecdotal and not worth much at all to observers or policy makers.

  1. Has the proportion of Government-funded places where students received “sub-standard” training increased since the introduction of “reforms” or the change of government?

Union representatives are right to expose cases of rorting and non-compliance, but is it productive to focus on them almost exclusively? In my opinion, they’d make a much better case by focussing on what TAFEs do well and what private providers generally do less well (if, indeed, that is the case).

Pat Forward also claims that private providers are “required … to pay their trainers only a fraction of the wages paid in the public sector” [The Australian TAFE Teacher, Autumn 2012, p.9]. After speaking to several colleagues who have worked for private providers in the area I teach, I have no doubt that’s true. Nevertheless, people are willing are work for the private providers. Perhaps they’re unaware of the superior pay at TAFEs or perhaps they haven’t been able to get a foot in the door with the increasingly restrictive requirements for qualifications of trainers. (Note that I’m not arguing against these restrictions, but it would have to be acknowledged that such restrictions would inevitably provide a disincentive for some who might otherwise become trainers at TAFEs.)

Perhaps one might ask why TAFE trainers are paid so much. It’s because they have had aggressive representation during wage negotiations. I am a beneficiary of union advocacy, and thankful for it. The reasons cited at the time related to professionals and teachers in other areas, and in that respect I think the union argued its case well.

The union would be better advised to promote TAFEs as a better place to work. Of course, the jobs have to be there and if they’re not it’s probably because of the lack or failure of marketing (which brings us back to the previous questions).

  1. Why are the AEU and NTEU focussing purely on the negative instead of properly promoting, with evidence, the virtues of TAFE?

So because of the budget blow-out, the Baillieu government is cutting funding to VET. The AEU would have us believe that these cuts are being borne exclusively by TAFEs. In October 2011, the government announced cuts in seven “high-growth” areas and cuts to “differential funding” at eight metropolitan TAFEs which enabled the latter to offer student services that private RTOs don’t offer. One can appreciate how the latter measure would greatly affect TAFEs. Since private RTOs are offering “cheap” courses and this is, we are led to believe, where the cost blowout has occurred, one would expect private RTOs to be affected by the cuts to high-growth areas and not the TAFEs. Could it be that some TAFEs have been diverting money from student services to otherwise unviable courses?

  1. Other than in the provision of student services, why is teaching in TAFEs so affected by last year’s cuts if it was the private RTOs that grabbed the lion’s share of places?

Is any additional benefit flowing to private providers as a result of the recent policy announcements? Removal of fee maxima and minima might allow a provider to charge whatever it supposes the market will bear and receive Government funding into the bargain. If this is prevalent, one would have thought that it could provide TAFEs with an advantage. If the removal of fee “caps” prompts some private providers to use only government funding without additional fees to resource their courses, the consequent decrease in quality should become evident… again providing TAFEs with an advantage. Perhaps it’s too soon to tell whether or not TAFEs will use the opportunity.

On the subject of quality, one measure might be compliance with curriculum and assessment standards. The most common seem to be the Australian Qualifications Framework and the Industry Training Packages. In my experience, albeit limited, quality audits focus on delivery of hours and documentation. Quantity seems to be the emphasis. The assumption is that if students have been delivered the 70 hours that are allocated to the delivery of a unit, then all is good. There is no accounting for the content of the teaching or the manner of assessment. One would have some sympathy for an auditor having to examine these things, especially in a field of training with which he or she had little familiarity.

The content of the Training Packages seems to be highly variable. I have found the one I am expected to work from most unsatisfactory. Many units are so vague as to give no indication of what assessments should comprise. Sometimes this does allow trainers and assessors to focus on a specific occupation or workflow to which a set of skills might be applied. Sometimes it’s just plain annoying. It's as if the knowledge and skills in my field were not well established and subject to negotiation (which, at this point in the history of its technological development, is just not true).

This problem is compounded by underlying assumptions built into qualification levels. I teach in two courses, one Certificate IV and the other Advanced Diploma. The Advanced Diploma seems to be predicated on the fact that anyone training at that level will be a “manager”. The units are mostly about managing processes rather than doing them. In my field, this is ludicrous. It’s an industry where practitioners will often have to generate their own employment or act as contractors. The few who rise to management level will have done so by being advanced and highly competent practitioners. No one is going to leave the Advanced Diploma course and become a director at a television station or creative agency and no one close to becoming a director or manager will find that a TAFE Advanced Diploma greatly increases their prospects for promotion. This may not be true in other industries, but in mine it makes the assumptions on which the AQF levels are based utterly nonsensical.

The current Training Package is better than the previous one, but not by much. There were several glaring flaws in the original units. One participant in the review process told me there was a process for reviewing units and bringing changes. This was never publicised. For years, we struggled with really bad units not knowing that we might have had some prospect of improving them!

  1. Why has Innovation and Business Skills Australia, the Industry Skills Council for my industry, produced such a woeful Training Package and why have they not publicised or implemented a proper process for revising it?

During the 2008-2009 review of my Training Package, one participant explained that the Units of Competency are not curriculum documents but descriptions of outcomes. I think they’re often poor descriptions but this statement does make sense. And yet, TAFES and other RTOs are funded a set number of hours for each unit as if the delivery will take the same amount of time no matter what. During the Training Package review, members of my Department were asked about hours for units but their responses didn’t always translate into something reasonable and the process of determination was far from transparent.

Since RTOs offer Certificate III and Certificate IV courses as entry points to some disciplines, trainers must spend a certain amount of time teaching basic knowledge and skills, not just assessing. In light of this, it would make more sense to reach a consensus about the minimum number of hours required to adequately assess and then decide how much time should be devoted to teaching the basics and developing skills before assessment commences. This would give trainers greater flexibility. Admittedly, such a mix of “basic training hours” and “assessment hours” for each unit may be subject to abuse, but it’s no worse than having to deliver fixed hours, the determination of which is utterly opaque and for which no one is accountable.

  1. Why do State Governments continue to fund courses as if the Training Packages were curricula, when the latter are so obviously not?

I am generally happy with my wages and conditions. Actually, I work a lot of overtime. I’m employed three days a week and typically put in the equivalent of an extra day every single week, and sometimes more.

In my field—a creative one—it is simply not possible to have 30 students in one facility. At most, four students can do meaningful work at a time and have a good experience. It would be most detrimental to everyone to have the other 26 sitting around supposedly watching but in reality chattering, playing, watching YouTube videos, and generally being bored and disruptive. To give more students more to do and to make their experiences varied and fulfilling, I and my colleagues have introduced a system where we provide technical services to other areas in my Department. Unfortunately, that requires that we often work to their timetable rather than our own. I am run off my feet supervising up to eight groups of students in five rooms in four different buildings. Because our activities cannot be restricted to the times listed on the timetables, I cannot spend an hour or two each day doing or completing assessments and performing other administrative tasks. I have to spend that time with the students as they work outside timetabled hours. So I take a lot of work home or go into work on the two days I’m not supposed to be there.

Furthermore, I’m the go-to guy for technical issues in my area of teaching. I can barely sit in the office, even on the days I’m not supposed to be there, without someone knocking on the door every five minutes. The students assume that because I’m there I’m there for them even though I’m not their teacher on that day. Other staff frequently ask me to solve their problems, provide expert guidance, and even tutor them in the basics of equipment operation. Everybody comes to me… as if I didn’t have enough to do already!

Am I being pressured to do this? No. Rather, it is a situation of my own making, partly in response to the lack of facilities—not surprising given they’re extremely capital-intensive and subject to quite rapid technological change—and the students’ (reasonable) demand for meaningful “work”.

Because I’m so busy, I have neither the time nor the inclination to get involved in union politics or to pay much attention to goings on. For example, I have not scrutinised my actual conditions of employment. The union negotiated the last award and at the time I was generally happy with the approach to negotiations as it was presented to me (yes, I did attend meetings). But I have heard it said that the current award is the last bit of feather-bedding in the public service. When I heard it I wondered how could that be? And then I remembered one example: “self-directed duties”.

You won’t find the phrase “self-directed duties” in the current award. That’s just what it’s called in my workplace. The idea seems to be that in non-teaching weeks teachers can perform whatever duties they like wherever they like. In my case, it’s catching up on the assessments I barely had time to do during the term, either because I was so busy or because the students didn’t hand their work in on time; it’s fixing things that are broken, or installing things that I hadn’t got around to yet; it’s hardware and software maintenance; course development; and anything else that has to be done. The difference is that I do those things at my workplace. I spent the last holidays installing a major new piece of equipment and remodelling and rewiring the facility it belongs in—every single day of two weeks, mind, not just the three days a week I was paid for. But that’s my situation brought about through my choice.

Now, I wouldn’t make any claims or draw any conclusions about my colleagues’ activities during holidays. I often don’t see them at all. My experience of their dedication suggests that, if they're slacking a bit during the hols, they deserve it in lieu of the overtime they did during the term! But that's really irrelevant to the current argument: the person who called this provision feather-bedding is right. In which other industry could employees get away with not turning up to their workplace for two weeks straight without any supervision? Working at home is all very well, but it rightly must be monitored and there surely has to be some measurable output. Come to think of it, do we even need an explicit provision for this? It’s the sort of thing that teachers could negotiate with their supervisors without it being written into an award or called a fancy name.

  1. Pat Forward, why were you so militant in demanding that archaic practices, so easily exploited and requiring of staff no accountability or justification whatsoever, be inserted into or maintained in the most recent award?

Many would contend that the TAFE system, and maybe the entire vocational training system in Victoria, is a mess. Governments (Labour and Liberal), unions and industry and regulatory bodies are all to blame. Is any of them big enough to admit it?



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