THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
‘Let there be no divide and conquer’: TAFE and top universities unite
By Vicki Thomson and Craig Robertson
February 22, 2019 — 12.00am
A number of years ago, then federal education minister Simon Birmingham coined a phrase and used it often: “Education should be seen as from high chair to higher ed.”
It made absolute sense. It fitted exactly what the Group of Eight universities (Go8) had been advocating for several years; that successful education – putting students and the future of the national economy first – could only come when politicians, policymakers and parents viewed education as a seamless process. It should encompass everything from early childhood to post-secondary.
In Melbourne on Friday, something most Australians would never have heard of, the Melbourne Declaration, will be both celebrated and re-framed by the current Education Minister, Dan Tehan. The declaration has, to date, been focused on schools and improving outcomes for students.
Both the Go8 and TAFE Directors Australia have been invited to attend. We have both accepted, with alacrity, because we see that invite, finally, as a glimmer of understanding that post-secondary education should be included. Both the Go8 and TDA hope the re-framing of the declaration is a line in the political sand.
If it seems a strange fellowship having us in the same sentence, that simply illustrates our point. We are both at the forefront of education, and we both believe and advocate the seamless proposition.
We are not competitors. We are different in what we deliver, and TAFE supplies an essential component of post-secondary education that is critical to the economy and it has been damaged by education policy. That must be redressed.
It is always seen as controversial for the Go8, which represents Australia’s eight leading research- intensive universities, to be critical of the landmark reform that freed up university places through the demand-driven system. But while the Go8 has always been, and remains, supportive of the DDS, it is disingenuous to suggest it has not had unintended consequences and created distortions in post-secondary education.
Not least, it created a vast chasm in the community psyche between universities and TAFE. It is unfortunate that the DDS was never implemented as initially intended. Its architects explain that it was meant to encompass all of the post-secondary sector. Instead, it was applied only to universities. University enrolments increased while TAFE enrolments decreased.
All too soon we were confronted with too much anecdotal information to ignore that schools and parents were, subtly or otherwise, pressuring school leavers into university, with any other study choice seen as second best. But TAFE never was second best.
Life and life-long learning is about horses for courses. The nation’s economy needs all education sectors growing strongly. If it doesn’t, then a nation is gradually left behind. Opportunities lessen. Living standards drop. Government funding is increasingly compromised as the tax-base dwindles.
Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Reserve Bank of Australia clearly demonstrate that growth in employment for people with any form of post-secondary education well exceeds that of those with none. We cannot condemn sections of the Australian community to a life of limited employment options – and all the problems that brings – simply because we failed to recognise the need for strong offerings across all aspects of the education spectrum.
Just as important is our responsibility to ensure our children grow up being able to find a career that fulfils them because happiness and success go together. Passion for their accomplishments from a quality workforce is what makes a business, big or small, successful. That in turn leads to a successful and expanding economy.
So, the Go8 and TDA want a review that targets any modification of the demand-driven system to ensure the post-school system can be directed to where need is most acute. Irrespective of background, every student seeking to enter post-secondary education should do so with equal opportunity in TAFE or university, framed by their interests and passions.
That means opening up a wider range of opportunities, including at sub-degree level in both vocational and higher education. Student choice should be based on the fit of the course to their learning style and aspirations and not be distorted by inequitable funding and regulatory arrangements between sectors.
Let us bring back a DDS that delivers on its intended purpose. This is essential for all students to gain the quality results that define both a career choice, and a strength as an employable young person that goes far wider than the learning strictures of one “job”.
For Australia’s sake, and the sake of Australia’s future students, let there be an interconnected post-secondary sector. Let there be fairness and equitable funding. Let there be no divide and conquer. Let us hope that the revitalised Melbourne Declaration paves the way.
Vicki Thomson is chief executive of the Group of Eight. Craig Robertson is chief executive of TAFE Directors Australia.