Results of an ARC Discovery Grant project have recently been released.

It found students select higher education at a TAFE Institute because of the student experience and learning style provided and the relevance of the degree for their chosen field of employment.

What was it about, and where can I find out more?

At its heart the project, led by Monash University’s Professor Susan Webb and involving a national and international research team, is trying to:

“understand what new tertiary qualifications are being offered by Australia’s TAFEs through the recent expansion of higher education [HE] in traditionally vocational institutions and how these offerings of Bachelor degrees might drive innovation.”

 It also examines whether there is an increase the participation of all equity groups in HE, “and what, if anything, is distinctive about these HE offerings in TAFE Institutes?” Its website not only enables readers to access the dissemination report and highlights forthcoming publications from the project, it also lets you hear from researchers and collaborators themselves through a series of videos.

What did the researchers find?

Here we focus on the research questions and the related findings. The report also raises a number of policy issues, which they have described as ‘provocations.’

How to TAFEs position themselves in the H.E. market?

HE offerings in TAFE Institutes have grown organically “in response to local contexts and institutional strengths” and in order to offer a continuum of vocational qualifications oriented to industry needs in specific occupations that are often in new areas of para-professional work. They also focus on providing a learning experience that is distinctive to that at universities and;

“built on experiential and practical pedagogies facilitated by small cohorts and small class sizes.”

Why do students choose to study for a degree at TAFE?

TAFE Institutes attract specific cohorts of HE students, “especially those of mature age and from non-English speaking background (NESB)”. They come in through a diverse range of pathways, including via previous study in VET and HE. The research tells us that “the majority enter based on a portfolio of assessments and experiences, rather than an ATAR score and progression from year 12.” And, as we pointed out above, they were there for the experience and because of the relevance of the degree.

The funding model is different, though

The project found that:

“Higher Education provision in TAFE competes in a complex and precarious market and operates under different funding arrangements from the universities”

In addition, “the lack of a national strategic imperative to expand HE in TAFE Institutes impacts equity and access to HE in TAFEs because different funding models operate (at state and federal level) for students and institutions in the VET and HE sectors.” This and other issues have been highlighted in other articles in VDC News. Notably, there have been calls to reform and revitalise tertiary education from a number of quarters, including the work by the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University highlighted in the link above.

‘Provocations’ arising from this research for policy and practice

The researchers have asked a few challenging questions around the work they have done, including, for policy: Are there missing products in the mix of qualifications offered in Australia’s Tertiary Education System? How might we best facilitate a tertiary education system that can meet the needs of different stakeholders: different types of learners, employers, communities in different locations, different types of providers and lifelong learning for a highly developed knowledge economy? And: Where might higher education in vocational education sit in Australia’s tertiary education system?

In relation to practice the provocation questions include one related to the smaller class sizes and closer relationships between students and teachers that are seen as a distinctive characteristic of TAFE higher education provision, but would the removal of disincentives to offering Bachelor degrees by TAFE adversely affect this market distinction?

The research also found that TAFE-developed bachelor degrees offer a way to avoid the limitations of training packages. However, the more extensive development of degrees by individual TAFE institutions may re-introduce the fragmentation of offerings that CBT and training packages were introduced to avoid.

Earlier work that’s worth a look!

Readers might also be interested in work around this topic published in 2009 and entitled: Higher education in TAFE. In addition a series of short research overviews related to this research examine the implications for public policy, staff development, TAFE managers and teachers and around status.