Teaching the Training

Barrier Reef Institute of TAFE

Despite common misconceptions, the population of regional Australia is rising. The Australian Bureau of Statistics projects that the population outside capital cities will grow by 26 per cent in the two decades to 2026.

However, for many years there has been a significant differential in higher education attainment between urban and regional Australians, increasing with distance from a major city. In 2006, 27 per cent of people aged 25 to 64 who lived in major cities held a Bachelors degree or above, but the number declined to 15 per cent for Australians living in inner regional areas, 13 per cent in outer regional areas and just 10 per cent in very remote areas.

Moreover, historically parents in less geographically accessible regions have had relatively low expectations for their children’s future education levels compared to parents in major cities (according to research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2011). In 2010, the Australian Council for Educational Research determined that young people in regional Australia continue to be less likely to aspire to a higher education: while 63 per cent of young people in metropolitan areas intend to enrol in higher education, only 39 per cent in provincial areas and 32 per cent in remote areas intend to do so.

In Queensland, TAFEs have been in operation for more than 130 years; their vocational training has been an invaluable asset to both rural and urban communities. Change is in the air though, and in Queensland at least, it is “a very challenging and dynamic time at the moment.” So says Robyn Dyer, Institute Director of the Barrier Reef Institute of TAFE in Townsville. The state is going through a major restructuring programme for its TAFEs and she explained to us the implications for students, industry and the communities her team serves.

After the 2012 change of government in Queensland it was decided there was a need for a full review of vocational education and training in the state and the administration appointed a task force of high-level representatives of industry, community and government. It made recommendations in reference to TAFE and other educational establishments.

In the case of the TAFE network, the advice was to increase responsiveness and capability to provide for the training needs of the future whilst also opening the training market up to greater flexibility and competition and driving down the cost of training.

Right now the process of amalgamating 13 TAFE establishments around the state into seven is being completed; the Barrier Reef Institute is joining with the Tropical North and Mount Isa institutes to form a single very large institute covering essentially the whole of north Queensland.

Is there an implied criticism of the old TAFE structure (not unique to Queensland)? Probably. The need to open up to competition suggests that TAFEs have in the past not been close enough to their marketplace; private organisations tend to be more marketing-conscious and aware of the trends. Robyn explains that private training companies are often able to provide niche capabilities and different strengths. “Part of the aim is to create better value for clients, for students, but also, from a state perspective, it’s about the government being an enabler of services rather than the provider,” she says.

The expectation is that by opening the market up to competition there will be greater choice for clients and for industry in being able to access the training that best suits their requirements and makes it a fully contestable environment.

Historically, opening state monopolies up to private competition (globally, not just in Australia) has been a recipe for the private sector to cream off the profitable bits and leave the poor old state with the sectors that don’t make economic sense; either that, or the unprofitable sectors simply get shut down. Regional and rural areas are especially vulnerable in this context, simply because it costs more to provide services there than in metropolitan areas. This is one of the challenges that Robyn and her team are facing now. However, she explains that, “by reshaping how TAFE operates we should be able to compete on a level playing field against private providers. We will always have a responsibility to provide for the training needs of our community, but we will also function as a business. We will deliver training in a viable and effective manner, but we will not deliver training that is not cost-effective for the operation.” She concedes TAFE will operate much more commercially than before. The new structure gives her greater autonomy than the old government department status and that will be an enabler of greater cost-effectiveness.

But Robyn underlines that providing training in regional and remote areas (such as the far north and Mount Isa) has never been a burden and the three TAFEs were always viable. “Part of our business, and our competitive advantage, is that we understand regional communities and their needs. The efficiencies for us will come from streamlining our back-of-house functions and improving our ICT capability.” No, that does not mean all training will be delivered online – “that is definitely not where we are going,” Robyn asserts. Technology will be supported very strongly with human content, with the teacher at the end of the phone or available via video-conferencing – a sort of updated tertiary version of the Schools of the Air.

TAFEs would have been progressing down this road even without the government shake-up, but there are additional economies and efficiency enhancements to be achieved by amalgamating the three institutions. State funding will be reduced after the settling in period, making such savings an absolute priority if service levels are to be maintained. Robyn explains that students, members of industry and all stakeholders will actually see better value as well as improved choice.

But she understandably refutes the corollary suggestion that TAFEs have not hitherto been offering good value for money or the right courses, reminding us that, “we are only ever funded for the training that we deliver and complete. Our interaction with industry in providing for the needs of industry in our community has been the major tenet of our operation. Our curriculum is a national one based upon nationally endorsed training packages that come from industry.” In addition, “we engage very closely with our local industries to make sure we are addressing their specific requirements – either their day-to-day requirements in business or the development of their employees, our students, to be able to progress.”

So, if the TAFEs in northern Queensland have been delivering good, targeted training for the last 20 years and more, will employers in the region notice much difference under the new regime? “I believe they will notice greater flexibility,” shares Robyn. A common topic among employers is whether they would prefer their students to come to TAFE to study in a block or to go on day-release or to have training at the workplace. “A lot of employers do not want to lose their employees from the workplace. We will see some greater flexibility in how the training is delivered. But it is not going to be, and does not need to be, revolutionary for employers.” Opening up to competition – real or potential – will make TAFEs focus ever more strongly on which areas of business to operate in. The new institutes will be more firm in making decisions that affect courses where the numbers are in decline or the industry in a state of contraction, says Robyn.

But one aspect of the TAFEs’ service offer that will not change is the unbudgetable one of providing higher education levels in the regional and rural areas. Townsville is a thriving city and Cairns a tourism hub, but “we are very important in small communities across Queensland and right up to the Cape, including Aboriginal communities,” says Robyn. Effective and direct vocational education remains a vital element of retaining populations in these areas.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 16, 2018, 3:51 PM AEDT