What needs to change in vocational education

Jan 7, 2024
TAFE building, Railway Square Sydney

TAFE’s “Competency Based Training” sounds logical but dig a little and its roots are exposed. CBT has its origins in the post WW2 era of the “Scientific Management” of workers and production lines. In this world, products, processes and people are all standardised, the better for a hierarchy of management control. 

Apprentices commencing their studies at TAFE are a varied lot. Some have been offered their job after meeting rigorous selection criteria via a company HR department. Others may have their apprenticeship because their uncle/ friend of their mum/ best mate’s business owning family, thought that they were a nice kid and had a genuine interest in the trade, even if they hadn’t done well at school.

The learning needs of these two apprentices are clearly very different.

In the current TAFE system, one will readily learn from reading quite complex texts. The other will struggle with many tasks requiring more than very basic literacy, numeracy or oracy skills. Alas, the current TAFE system will likely serve up “theory” learning resources that are boring to one apprentice while simultaneously possibly dooming the other to failure.

The actual work of apprentices can greatly vary too. An apprentice plumber in an older inner city suburb can spend their days solving the problems of corroded pipes and damaged terracotta sewerage lines. By contrast, an apprentice plumber with a volume builder may work entirely with plastic pipe and have a strong focus on doing repetitive work faster than the competition. Our TAFE system tries to cater for these differences by imagining a sort of “Average Apprentice doing Average Jobs. On average, the results are pretty average.

TAFE’s “Competency Based Training” sounds logical but dig a little and its roots are exposed. CBT has its origins in the post WW2 era of the “Scientific Management” of workers and production lines. In this world, products, processes and people are all standardised, the better for a hierarchy of management control. A place for everything and everyone in their place. It’s a model that has been largely abandoned in real-life. However, to question CBT is deemed heresy.

Over the years, employers and unions have asked for more “employability skills”, “personal initiative development”, “communication skills” and the like to be included in TAFE programs. Attempts to devise such programs have largely failed. The 1950s’ world of CBT is unable to consider “education” in the broader sense. Rather than develop new philosophies and forms of vocation education, our TAFE system spends large amounts of time and money in creating rigid (and arbitrary) systems of measuring human capabilities and placing students on these on various scales.

Having created these scales and ranked all students, the next step is to attempt to ensure training “compliance”, an esoteric process involving extreme forms of semantic quibbling and TAFE teacher time wasting due to demands for ill-considered documentation linked to government payments to the TAFE or for-profit training provider.

The current Australian TAFE system is a lot to do with generating “busy work” – different branches (state and federal) of the apparatus taking in each other’s metaphorical washing. It makes for unexciting but well paid jobs and is a convenient source of consolation prizes for displaced politicians.

The world is a competitive place. The countries and companies that are doing well have left the training fashions of the 50s in their rear vision mirrors and are supporting a more flexible and participatory forms of vocational education.

Over the years highly respected experts have said that Literacy, Numeracy and Oracy skills must be “built in not bolded on” to TAFE vocational programs. This advice has been ignored and this is a major factor in non-completion. Literacy, numeracy and oracy skills development requires progressively challenging learning resources that can be individualised. This in turn requires extensive, diverse, carefully graded resources and new learning strategies and technologies. The same applies to the acquisition of job skills and knowledge.

Instead of TAFE continuing to serve up one-size- fits- all generic training, it needs to embrace 21st century technology. Apprentices need access to diverse specialist educators across many vocational areas – Online classes with students from across the country create the economies of scale to do this. Developing resources to extend a student’s reading, writing, maths and communication skills that are directly relevant to their jobs is a huge undertaking. So is creating the IT to effectively use these resources. Both must be done centrally, federally. The idiotic fictions of “market driven training competition” consume money and TAFE morale by the bucketful. TAFE needs a major reboot for Australia to become a world-leading vocational educator. Brendon O’Connor needs to put on his leadership hat and call the bluff on the vested interests that are slowly killing Australian TAFE.

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