In 2019, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) released a shared vision for the future of VET in Australia. In it, the following seven points were presented:
- Provides workforce skills and relevant, up-to-date qualifications that are well-matched to the evolving opportunities and challenges of Australia’s modern economy
- Is flexible in providing skills at all points in an individual’s career cycle whether it be foundational training, initial training, upskilling or re-skilling
- Delivers high-quality education and training for all learners in recognition that VET and higher education are equally valued pathways into employment
- Provides useful and accessible careers information that enables prospective learners and trainees to make informed decisions about their future
- Is responsive to the needs of private industry and the public sector, ensuring employers have ready access to a highly skilled and adaptable workforce, while acknowledging industry has shared responsibility for growing a skilled economy
- Provides VET qualifications to school students that are valued by employers and provides a clear pathway from school to careers that require VET qualifications
- Delivers positive opportunities and outcomes for all Australians regardless of geographic, social or personal circumstances [and] includes access for learners in regional, rural and remote areas, and to foundational skills when individuals need them
It is clear from this vision that the focus of VET, from the perspective of COAG, is on workforce participation and economic development. In fact, the first five points all directly relate to these dimensions, with only the final two broadening the vision to include education pathways and positive outcomes for individuals (in general), including those in regional, rural and remote areas and those requiring foundation skills.
In its vision, COAG does not distinguish a separate role for public and private providers, and perhaps it is was not within the purpose of the document to do so. With its 2012 announcement of the National Partnership Agreement on Skills Reform, an agreement between the Commonwealth of Australia and the individual state and territory governments aimed at contributing to reforms of the VET system, however, an acknowledgement of a distinct role of public providers in the VET system is given, whereby public providers are recognised as an “important function in servicing the training needs of industry, regions and local communities, and [with a] role that spans high level training and workforce development for industries and improved skill and job outcomes for disadvantaged learners and communities” (p.3).
More recently, however, how TAFE institutes differ from private VET providers from the viewpoint of the national level has become somewhat cloudy. Firstly, the website of the federal government’s Department of Education, Skills and Employment makes no mention of a differentiation of public providers and private RTOs, and the only mention of TAFE institutes is in relation to its $50 million commitment to revitalise TAFE campuses, stating only that “TAFE plays a valuable role in supporting people to skill, reskill or upskill” and the infrastructure spend is to ensure “TAFEs are equipped to deliver training to the standards expected by industry and students” (Department of Education, Skills and Employment, 2019). Secondly, the Productivity Commission, in its interim report of the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development Review (2020), acknowledges that “State and Territory governments support public providers to deliver community service obligations” (p.12), yet comments that what these obligations are varies from state to state and are not clearly defined, leading to their conclusion that they should be clear, transparent and contestable. By contestable, the Productivity Commission believes that where there are additional community service obligations, “public provision is not necessarily the only or best option” and “at face value, governments should fund public providers based on explicit, transparent community service obligations (which should be subject to market testing and contestability rather than simply earmarked for TAFEs)” (p.31). With its focus on efficiency, the Productivity Commission calls for clarity on the specific role of public providers.
In Victoria, on the other hand, the distinction is more definitive. VET reforms starting over a decade ago allow private RTOs to now share VET service delivery with that of public TAFE institutes, yet this transition to contestability has been unstable, with the 2015 VET Funding Review informing “the system has suffered in recent years as a succession of policy changes have resulted in lower quality training, students having their qualifications withdrawn, and a mismatch between training and labour market needs” (p.5). The funding review, produced by MacKenzie and Coulson on behalf of the Victorian Government, aimed to address these and other issues, and also points to a distinct role of TAFE institutes in Victoria, declaring, “There has been insufficient regard given to the role and value of the institutes of TAFE” (p.5). The review mentions links with industry, the importance for regional Victorian communities and contribution to international exports as key differentiators to private providers and gives a recommendation that “the Government, through the Minister for Training and Skills, make a statement outlining the role of TAFE institutes in VET in Victoria” (p.73).
Following this review, the Victorian Government set out a series of new reforms under the title of Skills First, in which the contestable system remains but, in the words of the then Minister for Training and Skills, The Hon Steve Herbert MP, “secures the future of TAFEs, which will be at the centre of the reformed system” (Department of Education and Training, 2016, p.1). Along with this, the minister provides detail on “the distinct role TAFEs … as public providers who partner with industry and Government on key economic priorities, lead the training system in excellence and innovation, provide essential life skills and support services, and help disadvantaged students and communities” (p.6). Further, five areas of this distinct role are provided:
- A benchmark for quality and a trusted adviser to Government: delivering the training needed to drive key Victorian priorities
- Centres of Excellence: competing on a global stage by partnering with industry to ensure productivity, innovation and the skills students need to get a job
- Providing more than just training: addressing the training and support needs of students to ensure they are work-ready graduates, providing a campus experience with support and other essential services, and helping disadvantaged and high needs students who might otherwise slip through the cracks
- Pivotal in regional communities: continuing their links with local businesses, and knowing what skills employers seek
- Leaders in international education: working collaboratively, Government will enhance TAFEs’ global reach and support an expansion in international education
An examination of the annual reports of each Victorian TAFE institute provides ample evidence that these particular facets of partnership, quality, excellence, experience, support, essential life skills and community involvement are not just state government discourse, but are deeply embedded in the missions and visions of these institutes. Wodonga Institute of TAFE, in its 2019 annual report, provides a particularly comprehensive purpose statement:
As the educational provider of choice servicing regional Victoria, Wodonga Institute of TAFE plays a critical role in supporting continued growth throughout our community and industries. With a mission to strengthen our communities and industries through accessible and innovative learning, Wodonga Institute of TAFE’s success is underpinned by an uncompromising commitment to; driving student success; helping build our communities through education; working in partnership with all industry; inspiring futures through innovative and sustainable practices. On top of this, Wodonga Institute of TAFE focuses on empowering and supporting our staff so they too can have productive and fulfilling careers. In all, we strive to build success through learning. We are a thriving community that facilitates positive and productive interactions between students, staff, industry, and the community, to share knowledge, support one another, and work together to ensure the future prosperity of the region. (p.5)
This distinct role was reinforced in 2018 by consultants KPMG in their report The Importance of TAFEs to Victoria’s Prosperity, prepared on behalf of the Victorian TAFE Association. In this report, KPMG provide specific details of how Victorian TAFEs have a broader responsibility than the delivery of training and education alone and provide the following six social impacts.
- TAFEs have a significant and positive impact for key student cohorts
- TAFEs develop and maintain strong and successful partnerships with industry
- TAFEs develop regional capacity and support their local communities
- TAFEs have a key role in providing graduates with educational pathways
- TAFEs play an active role in contributing to social cohesion
- TAFEs confer transferable skills to drive workforce participation
KMPG expands upon each of these impacts in their report, but particular note for the purposes of this paper can be made about this final impact. Here, KPMG states it is “critical to the role of Victorian TAFEs in delivering the future workforce, through education and training activities, [that] students develop a range of transferable, ‘hard’ skills, including literacy, numeracy and information technology skills, and also ‘soft’ skills, such as creativity, interpersonal and cross-cultural communication, and teamwork skills” (p.14). These transferable skills largely fit within the bounds of foundation skills, so here KPMG is recognising the importance of foundation skills development to TAFE students.
This point turns the focus of this article to foundation skills support services. If the assumption that the purpose of these services follows that of the TAFE institutes in which they operate holds true, then it is clear that their purpose not only includes supporting students with foundation skills required for the content of the vocational program they are enrolled in, but also the foundation skills as they relate to life, in general, and engagement within a community. In essence, the scope of these support services is not limited to vocational programs alone, but extend beyond the workplace, and the Victorian government’s acknowledgment of the distinct role of TAFEs provide a broad purpose and expansive field for foundation skills support services to operate within.
The domains foundation skills support services can operate within are, therefore:
Education and training
- Vocational education programs to individuals at all points of their careers
- Educational pathways
Workplace and employment
- Vocational education (as above)
- Industry partnerships
Personal and community
- Individuals irrespective of geographic, social or personal circumstances, particularly disadvantaged students
- Essential life skills
- Social inclusion
- Local community support
From here, a vast array of models and programs can be developed by Victorian TAFEs and their support services that go beyond the training package and assist students with more than just the foundation skills required to pass their courses. From numeracy with personal financial management to organising and communicating local charity drives, the possibilities are extensive.
Australia. Productivity Commission. (2020). National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development Review. Retrieved from https://www.pc.gov.au/inquiries/current/skills-workforce-agreement/interim/skills-workforce-agreement-interim.pdf
Council of Australian Governments. (2012). National Partnership Agreement on Skills Reform. Retrieved from https://docs.employment.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/skills-reform_np.pdf
Council of Australian Governments. (2019). Vision for Vocational Education and Training. Retrieved from https://www.coag.gov.au/sites/default/files/communique/vision-for-vocational-education-and-training.pdf
Department of Education and Training. (2016). Skills First: Real Training for Real Jobs. Retrieved from https://www.education.vic.gov.au/skillsfirst/Documents/Brochures/SkillsFirstBrochure.pdf
Department of Education, Skills and Employment. (2019). Skills and Training> Retrieved from https://www.employment.gov.au/skills-and-training?page=1
KPMG. (2018). The Importance of TAFE to Victoria’s prosperity. Retrieved from https://assets.kpmg/content/dam/kpmg/au/pdf/2018/importance-of-tafe-to-victorias-prosperity-kpmg-final-report-june-2018.pdf
MacKenzie, B. & Coulson, N. (2015). VET Funding Review: Final Report. Retrieved from https://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/about/department/VET_Funding_Review.pdf Wodonga Institute of TAFE. (2019). Annual Report 2019. Retrieved from https://www.wodongatafe.edu.au/Portals/0/Annual%20Report%202019_digital_30042020_web.pdf