Neil Hauxwell: Toward a great TAFE revival

Aug 29, 2022
Multiple class room tables
Image: iStock

The most important outcome from the Jobs and Skills Summit must be some federal government leadership. Our Vocational Education and Training system, including TAFE, is in urgent need of a major reset.

Currently, a motza is being wasted, results for both apprenticeship completion and new TAFE teacher retention are sub-optimal, and a mood of gloomy frustration hangs over many in the TAFE sector.

On shelves across Victoria, publications from The Macklin Review into Post-secondary Education and Training” slowly thicken their dust patinas as they await the arrival of the Implementation Fairy. If she does not appear, and the report’s “best before” date ticks over, Ms Macklin and her team’s valuable insights will quietly take their place in the filing cabinet in Canberra labelled “State Attempts at a Better TAFE”.

When we urgently need a dynamic, flexible TAFE to inspire and create new jobs and world- leading productivity, we have allowed a system to establish itself with pretty much the opposite characteristics.

When the late Laurie Carmichael introduced Competency Based Training (CBT) across the land for the Hawke government, it was a concept that fitted the times. Debate was minimal – No-one wanted to be seen in the “incompetent” camp, and (I suspect) Laurie could see the potential worker wage benefits from systematically documenting everyone’s skills and having standardised skill-level indicators across a swathe of industry sectors.

Times change, and the late 80s’ worlds of protected manufacturing, paper based training and multi-layered micro- management are mostly behind us. (Except perhaps in TAFE management itself)

Despite the changes, here in 2022, the “Competencies” (Skills and knowledge deemed necessary to do a job) in Competency Based Training continue to be defined by processes that are remarkably like those of Soviet Central Planning, sans the Zil limousines for status, or the threats of bullets or Siberia to focus deliberations.

At a time when workplace collaboration and flatter decision-making structures are becoming markers for enterprise success (or survival in international markets), nationally, our vocational education system still clings forlornly to the dreams of 1960s Scientific Management theorists. In the states, we continue to make ritual financial sacrifice to the Gods of Training Market Forces, despite having no evidence of their efficacy.

Back at local TAFEs, potential students have their literacy and numeracy skills assessed on a generic scale prior to enrolment in a vocational course. Those that fail to meet the arbitrary standard will probably be advised to “go back to school”. They don’t! By these testing mechanisms, entire segments of our workforce are being excluded from our national quest to “work smarter, not harder.” The answer, of course, is to integrate the job-focused extension of Literacy, Numeracy, Oracy and IT skills development into vocational education and training. Alas, our current Competency Based Training system has shown itself to be incapable of such feats.

Once-upon-a-time a young person left school, did some training, and quite often stuck with the same job until retirement. These days that life sequence is uncommon. Faster rates of technological change and the hybridisation of jobs means much more diversity in jobs and the ranges of knowledge and skills needed to do them. With more flexibility needed in vocational education, we have a CBT system which is governed by unreviewed protocols and a tendency toward plodding rigidity.

The Jobs and Skills Summit must produce leadership decisions to dramatically increase the range and effectiveness of TAFE programs. What’s needed is a wide choice of top-quality online learning materials and access to virtual classrooms to augment what’s happening at a student’s local TAFE.

Creating Australia-wide TAFE learning networks in every employment sector will give economies-of-scale in the development of new, far more effective vocational education programs. The networks will also keep pace with changes in technology and industry practices. They make for smarter TAFE work.

Simply providing our current and future TAFE teachers with central support in vocational program development and assessment will quickly extend capacity in TAFE. Learning resource development support for teachers will also halt the brain-drain of new and specialist TAFE teachers, who are leaving due to the frustrating inertia of our present TAFE arrangements.

Current information technology, along with multiple – “Industry Sector Learning Networks”, operating nationwide, will allow more TAFE teachers to share their knowledge, demonstrate their specialist skills, and pass on their industry insights to viable-sized student groups.

A key outcome for the Jobs and Skills summiteers must be the creation of a green-field thinking site, unencumbered by the numerous vested interests afflicting the current system, on which to plan and build a new, National TAFE.


Neil Hauxwell is a semi-retired former TAFE teacher and coordinator from regional Victoria. He has worked in adult education, apprentice support, VCAL, prison education, Foundation VCE , trade mathematics and workplace basic education and been a member of many different project teams over many years.

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