TAFE in South Australia has been much in the news of late. This article aims to highlight a number of the lessons from a Senate Enquiry and particularly the Nous Group Review commissioned by the former South Australian Government. The review sought to identify the systemic issues within TAFE SA that contributed to ASQA’s adverse findings and set out the key reforms needed to lift performance and restore TAFE SA’s reputation in the market and the wider community.

This article aims to present a series of general messages, which would not only apply to public providers in Australia generally, but also to private providers.

The issue

In May 2017 TAFE South Australia (TAFE SA) was the subject to routine regulatory scrutiny. This audit process identified some areas of non-compliance with the requirements of the Vocational Education and Training (VET) Quality Framework. A range of qualifications, ten in all, was proposed for suspension. However, the decision to act was deferred until March 2018 while a reconsideration review was completed and assessed by the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA).

In his evidence to the Senate Enquiry, the Chief Commissioner and CEO of ASQA stated that:

“…in relative terms, TAFE SA has not demonstrated the same rate of non-compliance as other TAFEs and is comparable to non-TAFE providers.”

The Senate report also noted that:

“Evidence received during the inquiry clearly demonstrates that the current situation with TAFE SA is not an extraordinary, isolated incident, but is instead symptomatic of the deeper problems afflicting the Australian vocational education and training (VET) sector.”

So, what are the lessons that can be learnt from TAFE SA’s experiences? The report prepared by the Nous Group highlights a number of these.

What the Nous Review found

Don’t lose sight of the importance of quality as an end and as a means

What Nous suggest is that quality was ‘de-prioritised’ against targets for cost containment and revenue generation. This “overlooked the need … to maintain a reputation for quality in order to compete effectively.” Perhaps, though, TAFE SA would not be alone here, as likely they are not in the other areas the Nous report highlighted.

Make sure both strategic plans and organisational management are sound

Strategic plans can be sound on paper, but they also need to be communicated and executed effectively. The services provided need not only to be cost-effective, but also “well-targeted, well-managed, properly-resourced and appropriately governed.” Key skills for managers include strategic thinking, as well as skills in communication and resource management. This also requires the development and monitoring of effective performance metrics for the organisation.

Have an effective internal audit process and take notice of it

Nous reported that TAFE SA’s internal quality auditors had made discoveries similar to those later made by ASQA, and reported these possible areas of non-compliance ‘up the line’. The message here is that those at higher levels need to consider and act on that advice so that risk is effectively monitored and organisational reputation protected.

Ensure that there is a high level of professionalism and a good, strong organisational culture

Nous found that there is a “large contingent of highly-motivated and loyal staff who want to help restore confidence in the institution of which they are very proud.” However, it needs to be clear where responsibilities and accountabilities lie. In addition, sufficient resources need to be devoted to quality teaching and assessment and the maintenance of industry currency.

Take the audit process and any rectifications seriously

The last message is to take matters seriously, not only in preparing for audit, but in undertaking any rectifications required. This is where providers, no matter whether public or private, can easily come unstuck.