Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Why TAFE as an institution matters

A few weeks ago I went to work as usual and bumped into a colleague in the foyer of a metropolitan TAFE here in Adelaide. We had a vibrant 10 minute conversation about life, education and work and then we both went on to deal with the rest of our normal work day. It was one of many occasions in the last few months where I've been aware of being part of an large organisation like TAFE, and the incidental value one accrues from simply being part of it. I am on the verge of being offered (though I may not be) a handsome sum of money to walk away in the relentless drive to reduce the cost of TAFE on the public purse. If I leave TAFE such vibrant incidental conversations with colleagues will become a thing of the past.

In an interview with Leesa Wheelahan in the Australian TAFE Teacher magazine this month she stresses the importance of TAFE as an institution, and how this is being neglected in the rush to reduce TAFE to just another competitor in the Australian Vocational and Education Training (VET) sector. When you work or study at TAFE you typically come to a large campus with impressive buildings and well-kept grounds that signify value. A student may well feel that they have come to a place of importance because obviously a lot of money has been spent on substantial infrastructure. I imagine that it is an easy jump for a student to conclude that what they have signed up to do - a course of study at TAFE - is a worthwhile pursuit because the scale of the organisation and the quality and variety of facilities on offer signal its importance.

Even on the mundane level the idea of having a canteen or cafeteria that is relatively cheap and comfortable and that caters to basic human needs conveys subliminal messages that TAFE matters, and so therefore does the course you're doing. And in the canteens and corridors of TAFE campuses you can't help but notice the diverse range of people that TAFE attracts - migrants, women, tradies, quasi-academics, etc and I'd argue that this incidental contact with a broad spectrum of society provides a valuable and vicarious experience of the pluralist society we live in.

All TAFE campuses typically have a reception area that is central and hints at an institution that is organised. You can always go to this main area if you're lost or for all manner of general enquiries. That is, there is a central area that is staffed with people who are there to support you. And over time you might get to know the staff who work in the reception area and acknowledge them as you walk past each day.

All TAFE campuses have a library. It contains resources to help you with your study, and staff whose job it is to find suitable resources and advise you how to use them. You can work on any of the many banks of computers available, and as with the canteen, you can't help that notice the diverse cross-section of people who share the library with you.. And if you're a regular visitor to your campus library staff can become members of your regular support team, or even friends. These kinds of encounters might give students the chance to develop the soft skills of communication, negotiation, and problem solving.

Though it seems TAFE in South Australia is determined to remove the Student Services part of the organisation, this arm of the organisation was another level of support beyond the classroom teacher who could offer you extra support with your studies, provide counselling on personal issues, and even help you find work.

These kinds of services - canteen, reception, library, and student support - are the services that are often associated with institutions. And they are there to not only offer support in a student's studies, but to also ensure that a TAFE student's basic needs are met, and show that the organisation cares about you as individual and will provide all the resources necessary for you to succeed. And it is these same kinds of services that are being slowly eroded in the new TAFE where the focus is only on a student coming to class and passing as quickly and cheaply as possible.

So the trappings of TAFE as an institution - a place that offers multiple levels of support and has as part of its mission a commitment to providing an enriching study environment that is not solely focused on the classroom - seem to have gone. And as Leesa Wheelahan notes, this would never be tolerated in the schools or Higher Ed sectors because those sectors produce social elites that will defend the integrity of a fully supported and enriching study environment. TAFE is not in the business of creating social elites so there are no such champions willing to defend it from becoming a place where people are pumped in and pumped out as quickly as possible, and where market forces and reduced funding are at the root of EVERY decision.

In conclusion, Leesa Wheelahan once more:

"...since the 1980's we've had the transformation of society from a society in which the market supported the broader society, to a society where the point of society is to be a market. And so the point of education is to produce people who can operate in the market, and we've had a narrowing of what education should be about because we've had a narrowing of what society should be about. And that has led to a narrowing of what TAFE should be about."