From education to employment

Insights from Australia’s Technical and Further Education (TAFE) system

olly newton

As UK skills policy takes centre stage, what lessons can we learn from jurisdictions around the globe? Following successful virtual study visits to explore VET in places like South Africa and Singapore, Edge recently visited Australia to learn more about the country’s Technical and Further Education (TAFE) system. Here’s a taste of what we learned.

What is the TAFE system, and how does it work?

Broadly analogous to UK FE Colleges, Australia’s 29 Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutions are well-established, public vocational training providers. While an additional 3,000+ privately registered training organisations also receive public funding to deliver national qualifications, Australia’s TAFEs account for the lion’s share of vocational training provision in full qualifications, especially high cost entry such as training of plumbers, electricians and enrolled nurses. The largest institution – TAFE New South Wales (NSW) – supports half a million students. As established institutions, TAFEs are respected by industry and trusted by learners nationwide.

The TAFE funding model is quite complex, varying between states and territories. The majority of funding comes from the commonwealth (or federal) government, however through a national partnership agreement which assigns tax income to individual states. The states and territories then distribute funds to registered training organisations in line with their regional frameworks. The complexity of this system partly led to the foundation of TAFE Directors Australia in 1998. Edge spoke to the peak body’s current CEO, Jenny Dodd.

As a representative body, TAFE Directors Australia supports TAFE directors nationwide. As state/territory employees, the directors require a forum through which they can communicate with the federal government on pressing issues. Jenny advocates for these providers at a federal level, coordinating their networks and providing professional development opportunities for all TAFE staff (including dual universities with TAFE divisions).

Some familiar challenges

Hearing many of the challenges that the TAFE system faces, one, in particular, was sorely familiar. Like FE colleges, recruiting appropriately qualified trainers poses a significant challenge. Teaching cannot compete with industry salaries, and due to high employment in Australia, booming industries like construction – which require the most trainers – are ironically harder to recruit for. In addition, all industry trainers must obtain a high-level training and assessment qualification, putting many potential recruits off. Jenny explained that one approach is pushing the benefits of permanent employment with a state service workforce. While salaries cannot compete with industry, teaching roles usually offer more stability than casual work. For many trainers, the flexible lifestyle is more appealing.

Another familiar aspect of the Australian system that Jenny highlighted was financial incentives to encourage employers to take on apprentices. While these have been helpful for improving apprenticeship completion rates, employers have now come to expect subsidies. She suggested a need for front-loaded employer incentives, i.e via recruitment incentives, and to find alternatives to encourage take-up, rather than subsidies alone.

TAFE and HE: An applied approach to work readiness

TAFEs have long offered VET programmes and they have almost 20 years of experience of offering HE programmes. As degree apprenticeships gain currency in England, what might we learn from their experiences?

Moving away from the traditional lecture/tutorial model, TAFE Higher Education have an applied approach. Courses rely heavily on problem-solving, teamwork and project-based learning, all facilitated by academics who are also industry experts. Even assessment includes a raft of applied measures, from presentations to online chat networks, quizzes, projects, short essays and the occasional research report. The applied nature of the programmes doesn’t stop there, either. It also shapes approaches to staffing and the curriculum.

In addition to academic qualifications, all teaching staff must actively engage with industry to ensure the ongoing currency of their skills. TAFE’s also regularly review each subject via course advisory committees. Comprising external academic and industry partners, these committees ensure that courses remain responsive to industry needs. For instance, when the accounting degree’s advisory panel recently recommended some new financial software training, which can then be immediately added to the curriculum.

Skills-focused and inclusive

Unlike traditional universities, TAFE’s HE provision is unapologetically skills-focused, relying on small student-to-facilitator ratios to ensure maximum impact. It’s also highly inclusive – while course leaders recognise formal qualifications as evidence of prior learning, they also accept applicants who did not graduate high school, if they can demonstrate relevant work experience.

TAFE’s attract a very different cohort from traditional universities. The results are that graduates on their courses regularly go directly into employment. Meanwhile, many students are taking these newfound skills back to support the economy in their local communities – a true measure of success.

While the TAFE system lies within a very different policy and funding landscape, there is much the UK could learn from these approaches as we seek to diversify VET provision in further and higher education.

By Olly Newton, Executive Director, Edge Foundation

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