Higher education institutions were delivered a few body blows last week. Proponents of TAFE (technical and further education) - the leading provider for vocational education and training courses in Australia - delivered the verbal battering.
According to ABC News, a number of courses have been cut and campuses closed down, with enrollment figures down by 25 percent as well.
TAFE New South Wales’ Managing Director, Jon Black, asserts that according to Australia’s Productivity Commission’s report, “university students are struggling to find employment relevant to their studies”. He also accused universities of producing more debt for students than TAFE does with their expensive programs.
The New South Wales (NSW) Education Minister, Rob Stokes, responded vigorously to Black’s accusations, saying:
“It is a mistake to talk down the value of universities in a populist attempt to pit the higher education and vocational education sectors against each other. We should be careful not to reduce the value of a university degree to an assessment on whether it prepares a student for one specific job which may not exist in the future.”
What seems clear is that support for TAFE has been waning in the last few years. ABC News reports that in the past 81% of publicly funded students were being taught through a TAFE system, a figure which dropped to 50% by 2015.
Image credit: NSW TAFE
The NSW Labor party has vowed that, if put in the seat of power in the future, a guaranteed 70% of government VET funding will flow back to TAFE. Some online commentators feel that the strain that exists between the two tertiary sectors may persist, but believe that TAFE must be saved for students who are not compatible with university-styled education and content.
No matter the sector, however, one thing is certain: if we fail to nurture a system which prepares students for life and a workplace which is constantly changing, we are failing them and the industries they work in.
Company dissatisfaction is already reflected in the changing of some hiring practices. There are those companies which have begun selecting candidates without regard for academic background. Ernst & Young, for example, have been accepting applicants without formal university education. This shift has everything to do with the realization that graduates are very often ill-prepared for the workplace.
Another issue arising from this emphasis on degrees is outlined by Joshua Krook, a Doctoral Candidate in Law at the University of Adelaide. In a piece for The Conversation, he alludes to the fact that Australia is a country of university degree acquirers. This, he says, forces Australia into a situation where there is rampant underemployment of non-vocational tertiary skilled graduates. He writes:
“Where a bachelor’s degree was sufficient to get a job in research, now a master’s degree is required. Where a master’s degree was sufficient to get a job in university tutoring, now a PhD is required.”
The answer must be a vibrant sector offering industry-driven courses, offered by both TAFE and private vocational institutions. These will ensure students can acquire practical proficiency in sets of skills required by the workforce today and into the future.
Some Twitter users clarify the benefits delivered by the vocational sector:
Twitter user @azza1993 writes:
“I could’ve gone straight to uni for an IT degree. Decided to go to TAFE first and it was second to none for practical experience.”
Another Twitter user named @sewviolets writes:
“Uni has been pushed at the expense of what used to be an excellent TAFE system.”
The vocational institution future
The push (or pull) of students to graduate with degrees is becoming more prevalent around the world. Already, however, there is some awareness that significant skill gaps are emerging and highly qualified graduates are either working in fields unrelated to their studies or finding themselves back at college.
German school leavers seem to have resisted this trend and the UK is addressing it quite vigorously. More recently there has also been a resurgence of technical and vocational institutions in the United States of America; with Trump calling them earlier this year, “the way of the future”. He intends to empower this education sector so that its graduates help reinvigorate the industries that require their more practical skill sets.
Brown, Michelle. “TAFE Hits out at Universities for Higher Debt, Weaker Job Prospects.” ABC News, 25 Oct. 2017, www.abc.net.au/news/2017-10-26/tafe-hits-out-at-uni-over-cost-and-job-prospects/9087252.
Doctoral Candidate in Law, University of Adelaide. “Degrees of Separation: Companies Shed Degree Requirements to Promote Merit over Qualifications.” The Conversation, 24 Oct. 2017, theconversation.com/degrees-of-separation-companies-shed-degree-requirements-to-promote-merit-over-qualifications-76150.