TAFE in the era of skills reform

5 January 2014

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An interview with Leesa Wheelahan

LeesaLeesa Wheelahan, formerly of the L H Martin Institute for Tertiary Education Leadership and  Management at the University of Melbourne, recently moved to Canada to take up the William G Davis Chair of Community College Leadership at the Ontario Institute for Studies for Education at the University of Toronto. Leesa has been a champion of the public TAFE system  and a strong critic of successive governments’ reforms of the TAFE and VET system in Australia, which has left the TAFE system in an emaciated state.  She has also researched TAFE teaching qualifications and professional development, and is a persuasive advocate of increased support and professionalisation of the TAFE and VET teaching.   In this “exit” interview with Pat Forward, the Federal TAFE Secretary of the Australian Education Union, Leesa ponders the future of TAFE in the era of “skills reform. This is the first part of the interview with the second part to be published in The Australian TAFE Teacher in March.

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Pat Forward: This is a big move for you, but it’ll be a big loss for the Australian TAFE system. You been a big supporter of the TAFE system and you’re also a product of the TAFE system?

Leesa Wheelahan: Yes. I started teaching in TAFE in 1994 in community development and I don’t think I ever really left that head set. That’s how I started – as a community development teacher and actually it was that that got me into everything I’ve done subsequently. So, I was at Victoria University, which as you know is a dual sector university, and I got seconded to develop a policy framework for pathways and credit transfer and open access and for me that was just taking community development inside the academy. It was a form of community development and everything I’ve done since then basically stems from that.

PF: There is a very strong sense in which you have maintained your TAFE roots and your connections with and political commitment to the sector and to its work?

LW: Absolutely, for a whole lot of reasons, because I think that TAFE matters a lot. And it changes peoples’ lives and it’s fundamental to the future of Australian society, and also in giving people the opportunity to do what they want with their lives. That’s why I’ve been so upset with so many of the policies over the last 20 years, because they’ve been narrowing TAFE’s role and function. So, for me TAFE is intrinsic to social justice, intrinsic to a just society and if you mess with TAFE you start to undo a key institution that can make an important contribution to socially cohesive, just and tolerant society. So I think TAFE’s role is fundamental for all those things.

PF: Governments are shifting the way in which the sector is organised and governed. The two components of that really are about the active encouragement of a much larger role for private, for-profit providers and at the same time a significant shift of the funding in the sector to making students pay much more for their vocational education. What do you think about those policy shifts and what impact do you think that will have on the work of the sector broadly?

LW: I’ve been trying to think about this for a long time as it’s progressed, and this is what has led me to start to think more and more what institutions are and the role they play in society. And again, this shows you how the academic can often inform practice, because in theory it looks fine, we have a market and the market is based on the notion that there’s interchangeable players and that demand will elicit supply. Well, that’s not actually what happens.

And the problem is that the role and functions of TAFE as I’ve been describing them aren’t amenable to exchange relations in a market which is focused on producing widgets or something like that. You can’t just say that the private sector is going to pick all this stuff up because the way in which vocational education has been defined is so narrow, the way in which it has been costed has been based on the narrow definition that the private sector, which is a for-profit sector, so the point is to make profit, and the private sector will deliver to those specifications.

Those specifications exclude all the things that can’t be easily counted. So we come back to the problem that in evaluation and measurement, which is: that measures that can be easily measured, but not necessarily that important, are measured; and that which is difficult to measure, but most important gets dropped off. And that’s what’s missed in policy. You need institutions to develop institutional capacity, to develop the kinds of curriculum and pedagogy that’s needed to support and engage students in learning not just narrow and specific skills and competencies, but in learning the knowledge, skills and attributes they need in order to engage in a meaningful career and to be creative, skilful workers who can exercise judgement. The current models don’t allow us to do that and I can’t see how if you organise the whole thing on a basis of a private market it ever could, because the specification of the market is always going to be towards particular products, whereas what we’re saying is it’s a much broader thing.

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We’ve not had a discussion on what the role of TAFE in society is… there’s been no recognition that TAFE plays a role in society and not just in providing skills needed for specific jobs.

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Now, there’s no way we’d ever say the same thing about schools or with  universities, there’s no way we’d ever say with universities the whole  thing can be put out to a private market. There’s always an emphasis in universities on the need to build institutional capacity on the university and understanding what the role of the university in society  is. We’ve not had a discussion on what the role of TAFE in society is, and that’s been the problem, and because there’s been no recognition  that TAFE plays a role in society and not just in providing skills  needed for specific jobs.

There hasn’t been a space to have that discussion. And because we haven’t had that discussion, then people say “well, why not? Why can’t private providers do this stuff?” The problem is that it’s never going to be the case that they’re going to be able to play that role. So, I’m not saying there’s no role for private providers, I’m just saying that if you have a system that’s organised around a profit motive where we have narrow specifications on what the product is and what the purpose is that you’re going to get a narrow, reductionist system and you’re going to lose all the sorts of things that we’ve been talking about. You can’t necessarily build these broader things into a funding model even though the government says “okay, well we’ll build that into the costing model” – well they don’t.

PF: And arguably, they can’t. Because they don’t know what ‘it’ is. But then, it begs the question, why hasn’t there been that discussion? Why is it now so hard to elevate the future of TAFE which is so manifestly under huge threat into the public arena?

LW: I think for a whole lot of reasons, but one of the reasons is that universities and schools have very powerful constituencies and universities and schools both produce the social elites. Those social elites are overlapping- they’re on the boards of the elite private schools; and they’re on the boards of the professions; and they’re the leading business people in society; and they’re in government. You don’t get many TAFE educated people in those sorts of positions. And so TAFE doesn’t produce social elites. As a result we don’t have social elites that understand what TAFEs do, or understand the role that it serves, or are able to come out and defend them. So as a result, TAFE is subject to much more unmediated intervention by the social stakeholders, that is governments, employers and unions without a constituency that is able to see what role and purpose of TAFE is in society more broadly. You have that in schools and you have that in universities and I think that is a big part of the problem. So TAFE is always the poor cousin in that respect because it doesn’t train the social elite, it’s not investing in the social elite.

Now the social elites and governments quarrel with universities, and they stoush and they have arguments but it’s never save-our-tafefundamentally that serious. So I think that’s one problem. That combined with the problem that since the 1980s we’ve had the transformation of society from a society in which the market supported the broader society, to a market society where the point of society is to be a market. And so the point of education is to produce people who can operate in the market, and we’ve had a narrowing of what education should be about because we’ve had a narrowing of what society should be about. And that has led to a narrowing of what TAFE should be about.

So I think when you put all those things together you find that two things come together. The first is the broader neoliberal discourse of marketisation, of investing in human capital as being the sole purpose of education. This is combined with the second which is TAFE’s absence of having social elites to defend it, or of having produced social elites who can then understand what it does. So it’s about social power and it’s the fact that TAFE trains people for occupations that are less powerful.

PF: TAFE is very precariously balanced at the moment. In Victoria TAFE market share has dropped to 40% and while that’s not the only measure of institutional viability or health, clearly when you have had a massive loss of market share the implications of that for the sector are dire because you lose institutional capacity, resources, funding. The capacity of TAFE institutions has been undermined and attacked. In a couple of the other states the drift is just the same. Poised as you are to leave, looking back, what advice would you give governments? What will happen if TAFE falls over? Is there any way back from where we are at the moment?
LW: It’s a very hard question. I think TAFE will survive, but as what kind of entity? In Victoria – I hear people saying “well, the system’s maturing and settling down” – I don’t think that’s true. What we’re finding in Victoria is that TAFE has now become a residual provider of expensive courses that private providers don’t want to run because they can’t run them in high volume cheaply. The foundational programs that TAFE provides have grown hugely, so it’s providing foundational stuff and expensive stuff in the expensive trades and is less able to provide the other stuff. So, we’ve constructed a residual provider, and this is going to be force it to become a residual provider of last resort. That’s one problem.

The other problem is that government policy is basically a form of privatisation by stealth. So it’s forcing TAFE to act as if it were a commercial provider. Brendan Sheehan’s explanation is that we’ve moved from a contestable market to a commercial market. Where you have a contestable market things might be a bit contestable, but you still fund TAFE to play the role it plays. When you move to a commercial market, TAFE can only make decisions on the basis of commercial criteria and so in a way, it’s still government owned, it’s still TAFE, but actually it looks completely different. Now, I think we only have to look at the Commonwealth Employment Service to get an idea of where things might go. Now we have this fragmented approach to job service providers. I don’t know if we’re better off with this, I don’t think we are, the Job Services Network’s a whole other issue, but that’s what TAFE could be looking at. That might be a fairly gloomy outlook, but I think that’s the trajectory in which things are heading.

There’s going to be all sorts of implications as a result. Not just for individuals and social inclusion but also in the longer run for skills, and the development of the economy. This is because you’re only going to get the type of provider that responds to immediate requirements. Whereas what TAFE has been able to do is to take an approach to industry to say “How is this industry developing and where should it go in the future and how can we help that?” Who’s going to do that? That’s where the gap’s going to be, it’s going to be in that. And so in some funny way it’s going to lead to the disconnection between skills development and orientation to the future and social inclusion, because TAFE’s job will be to fix up those who can’t be fixed up in any other way, and then just to respond to immediate demand for the future. We’re not really helping to build the kind of occupations and career structures that can support people in undertaking social mobility.

So what advice can I give to government? Stop! They need to recognise what institutions do. And that it’s not just a matter of interchangeable actors in a market responding to market signals, that the role that TAFE plays is a longer term developmental one that needs to be funded and supported. That’s what’s at stake.

PF: Do you think, even in Victoria you can turn it around? Do you think it is too late?

LW: When I speak to TAFE directors, existing TAFE directors, I think they’re still committed to a broad role for TAFE. I think tafe4all1TAFE teachers are still committed to a broad role for TAFE. What we’ve seen is that the Victorian government got rid of all the councils and the chairs of the boards of TAFE and installed people who would implement and enforce the government’s policy framework. Now, there is always a natural antipathy between teachers and senior managers and there always will be, because they’re in different positions and different dynamics and I think TAFE managers have always been more focused on the market than the TAFE teachers have been. I think that’s always been the case. But none the less I think that the TAFE managers we’ve got are still committed to that broad role. What’s going to happen when we don’t have them? I think the next ones to go will be the TAFE directors. The government has installed new chairs, but until they get rid of the current TAFE directors they’re not going to get the most compliant types. The government will be looking for generational change in TAFE senior managers. Basically what they’re doing is setting up TAFE to sale.

The other thing is the Adult Community Education (ACE) sector. ACE and TAFE have always had a synergy. Now ACE has taken a pounding. But I think that ACE still has the orientation that’s needed so that’s going to be helpful in the future when it comes time to rebuild. The problem for TAFE is that you can’t just get rid of an institution, and then recreate it.

PF: At the moment we are anticipating the destruction of the institution, but also the destruction of the profession. When we contemplate institutional capacity it’s not just about the bricks and mortar or the classrooms it’s actually about the people in the institution, and the work that they do. It’s about teachers as well.

LW: I think that’s right, but I also think bricks and mortar count. For instance in Queensland…

PF: Yes – you sell the buildings, you’ll never get them back, you will never be able to build it up to the level that it is now.

LW: Yes – it is the bricks and mortar that matter, but also all the other stuff as you say and if we look at tech school, look how hard both the Howard and Gillard and Rudd governments have tried to get Tech Schools back and they just can’t. You can’t recreate them. And it’s the same with the institution of TAFE. You can’t recreate them either.

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