Collaborate to Compete – the TAFE SA Solution

As the “student entitlement model” as a means of increasing competition in the VET sector is rolled out across the nation, 8 different models of reform have emerged. Victoria’s model , with its seeming focus on untrammelled competition, seems the radical outlier. Despite significant differences in approach, policymakers in other jurisdictions have been careful to avoid the “turbulence” that has accompanied introduction of the Victorian model. In this article first published in Campus Review, Dr Ruth Schubert, director of business transformation at TAFE SA, sets out the South Australian approach.


TAFE SA 2TAFE as a system and public provider is under review and scrutiny in a way not seen for a generation.  The national agenda is seeking to maximise the skills and qualifications of the National Workforce, at the same time as achieving efficiencies in the costs associated with the delivery.  The national imperative is for higher skills as a means of driving innovation in smart and globally competitive industries and enterprises.  However while the end result has bipartisan political support, the means to the end does not.

The policy drivers to achieve the changes are many and varied across the State jurisdictions; one key mechanism is the student entitlement model as a means of increasing competition in the sector.  The implementation and management of the student entitlement for Victorian TAFEs has been at best turbulent, and indeed the full impact on the Victorian TAFE system is yet to be seen.  The recent injection of adjustment funds now has amalgamations and mergers being seriously considered.

In South Australia, the decision to implement Skills for All, which is the student entitlement demand driven model, also required that the TAFE system was at arm’s length from the funder and government agency.  The move to establish a Statutory Corporation as a government business has enabled the Chair of the Board to report directly to the Minister of the day.  The appointment of a highly qualified and well-connected board has enabled a degree of independence not previously possible.

So while the governance of TAFE SA moved from within a government department (Department of Further Education, Employment, Science and Technology) to a fully functioning board and Chair, the other remaining question was how will TAFE SA actually operate within the State?  Given the decision to have an open and fully contestable market, driven by student demand, the question was then asked and had indeed had been asked for some time, would TAFE SA be in a better position to compete if it was one organisation, as one Registered Training Organisation (RTO), instead of as a federated three Institute model?

During the past six months this question has been seriously questioned by both the Board and Senior Management.  The concept of ‘Stronger as One’ was endorsed by the Board and then put to all the staff of TAFE SA for their view; this has been overwhelmingly supported by all levels of the organisation with a 96% yes vote in the March survey.

Since that time a full scale restructure has been in train.  The new Chief Executive Officer of TAFE SA – Jeff Gunningham commenced on  the 3rd of June, the most senior executive positions have been filled and the Directors of Business Units appointed.  The model is about four pillars, Education being managed and delivered under the direction of the Executive Director, with the three other equally senior pillars providing dedicated leadership and account management services in the areas of Business Development and Regions, Operations, and Finances.

The fundamental principle in the way TAFE SA is being positioned and transformed is that as one system, one RTO, and one structure, the organisation is best positioned to capitalise on the expertise and innovation within all areas of the business to ensure effective and efficient service across the State in an open market.

The ‘Stronger as One’ model allows for a complete integration of delivery across the State.  In the background over the last three years, infrastructure planning has moved to support dedicated and specialist centres such as the Regency International Centre, Adelaide College of the Arts, Veterinary and Applied Sciences Centre, Urrbrae Education Centre, Sustainable Industries Education Centre under construction at Tonsley Park and the soon to be built Mining and Engineering Centre.  These specialist centres are part of a spoke and hub model.  In regional locations, infrastructure investment has supported the further development of comprehensive community level facilities.  This has seen significant investment in the campuses at Whyalla, Mount Gambier and Murray Bridge, with further development planned for Port Augusta.

A strategic Head Agreement with the three major Universities in South Australia has also enabled the development of closer relationships with the University sector as a means of facilitating an increase in articulation arrangements both to and from the University sector, contracted and joint delivery of University courses, while still maintaining Higher Education (HE) registration as TAFE SA.  As one system with one RTO, these partnership arrangements enable delivery of niche HE products and services to regional and remote parts of the State, with an increased University presence at major regional sites.

Service delivery in South Australia poses some unique challenges, largely due to the concentration of population in the capital city (over 70%), with many small centres across a vast area.  TAFE SA has developed considerable expertise in online and blended delivery methodologies.  This has been in response to these thin markets where the critical mass was not in one location, but also as a means of ensuring consistency of service to customers and students.   This expertise and innovation is a key strength for the new one TAFE SA.  The appointment of the seven Directors of the Business Units, under the leadership of the Executive Director, means that for the first time both the management and strategic leadership for education delivery will be consistent across the State.

In any amalgamation, a concern for those in regional locations is that amalgamation will be in effect centralisation; this is not the case for this change with the commitment to appoint Regional Managers in each of the Regional Development Australia regions.  These positions will provide a Senior Officer presence for TAFE SA in the regions, with a focus on external engagement, business development and support for locally based staff.

The transformation of TAFE SA is still a work in progress; however what sets this process apart is the united commitment to one system, one RTO and one structure, and the realisation that collaboration is an effective and efficient business model.    It also positions TAFE SA on both the State and National stage as a major player in the Vocational and Education market, a potential yet to be fully realised, however one that is a rare opportunity and firmly on the radar of the TAFE SA Leadership team.

This article was first published in Campus Review on 8 July 2013

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