Transcript of Overcoming VET delivery challenges in regional Australia

11 May 2023

Vocational Voices: Season 8, Episode 1

Overcoming VET delivery challenges in regional Australia

Joanne Payne (00:04)

I think it's one of the great myths of TAFE, Steve, is that TAFE is not agile, but in a regional setting, as Tabatha was talking about, TAFE lecturers and TAFE staff in general have to problem solve on a daily basis. So if they've turned out to do some delivery in a particular location, and it's not working out the way they planned, they have to come up with another plan very often on the day, and they're able to do that.

Steve Davis (00:28)

Hello and welcome to Vocational Voices, the official podcast of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, or NCVER for short. I'm Steve Davis, and today's topic is Overcoming VET delivery challenges in regional Australia.

Our Vocational Voices today are Simon Walker, Managing Director NCVER, Joanne Payne, Managing Director Central Regional TAFE and Dr Tabatha Griffin, Senior Research Officer NCVER. Welcome to all of you. Now Jo, I'm going to start with you if you don't mind because there's a lot to get into in the detail but to paint a picture for us at Central Regional TAFE, what sort of landscape do you cover? What are we talking about in kilometres, in sparseness of population?

Joanne Payne (01:24)

Well, we cover essentially the central third of the state of Western Australia. So Central Regional TAFE has major campuses, our largest campuses are at Geraldton, which is a regional city on the coast through to Kalgoorlie which is a major mining city inland.

We've got campuses throughout the central wheat belt area of WA and we go up the coast as far as Exmouth. So if you imagine Western Australia and, and you look at the central third, that's approximately where we're operating. So we've got, as you can imagine, a couple of fairly large population centres, so Geraldton and Kalgoorlie northern in the wheat belt area but very sparse population throughout some quite remote areas of WA.

Steve Davis (02:21)

I would hazard a guess to say, if you pop around to your different campuses from time to time, podcasts would be a great companion in many hours spent behind the wheel.

Joanne Payne (02:30)

They are many hours spent behind the wheel, some hours spent on the plane, and I'm actually at the Kalgoorlie campus today.

Steve Davis (02:38)

Alright, well look, the reason we are holding this conversation is because one of the main findings from a recent NCVER report entitled VET delivery in regional, rural and remote Australia: barriers and facilitators is that, diverse and flexible training approaches are needed for the training sector to better meet the local needs of people in these locations.

And I might turn to Simon Walker now to start by quantifying just how much VET delivery actually happens in regional, rural and remote Australia. Are there some numbers you can put to this Simon? And perhaps describe some of the areas of focus of VET in these locations?

Simon Walker (03:21)

Sure. The first thing to point out, is that any overarching comparisons of delivery in regional and remote areas compared to metropolitan areas has to be quite generalised at a national level. And that's obviously because there are significant variations within amongst regions within Australia, they're quite different, and that's primarily because they have very diverse economies and labour markets and they prevail right across the country. So clearly, there's a difference in the needs for an agricultural region versus mining region versus a tourism centre, for example. So that just limits a little bit of the generalisations I can make, but nonetheless at a national level, and to directly answer your question, there are 4 million students. You know this by now, Steve, that annually participate in vocational education and training and just to remind everybody, about two and a half million of those are doing those small micro-credential courses like first aid courses.

If we look at the distribution of that delivery around a little over 30% is done in a regional area and about 3% in remote areas. That's using Australian Bureau of Statistics classifications. That broadly aligns with the overall population distribution across Australia although delivery of VET or participation in VET is slightly higher in the regional and remote areas compared to the metropolitan areas.

As I say, trying to get some generalisations across all these diverse regions is not easy, but some of the distinguishing attributes that broadly apply across all regional and remote areas are that regional and remote areas have a high proportion of students studying at lower qualification levels, and that's particularly true in remote areas.

They have a higher proportion of enrolments in engineering and agricultural related qualifications. That shouldn't come as a surprise because that's where all those industries are and they have a higher proportion of students who undertake their qualifications through an apprenticeship or a traineeship pathway.

And probably just to return back to the micro-credentials issues, one of the features of remote delivery is the high proportions of people doing those short, sharp courses, and I strongly suspect that's to do with the occupational licensing and work health and safety for training of people in the mining industry in particular.

Steve Davis (05:43)

We might kick up some more dust on that as we go through this conversation. But Jo, if I may, one of the common questions that arises for all sectors these days is, can you find staff? So from your position in the Central Regional WA, is it actually challenging to find your trainers, your educators?

Joanne Payne (06:05)

The short answer to that is, is yes, we've certainly had challenges over the last few years and, you know, TAFE colleges are like many other employers, we're like most other employers. We face difficulty in recruitment in some particular industry areas. We've got some particular regional locations that are particularly hard to recruit and retain staff in and I think that, you know, that's generally reflective of the shortage of workers in some of these industry areas or regional locations across the whole of the workforce. And it tends to become more difficult the more remote the location.

Steve Davis (06:47)

Jo, there's also a reference to thin markets in this NCVER report, which suggests to me that it's highly unlikely to find many private VET operators in these locations. Is  TAFE carrying the load in regional, rural and remote areas when it comes to VET delivery?

Joanne Payne (07:06)

I think it's true to say that regional TAFEs do usually occupy a pivotal role in delivering skills and training and opportunities to access education and training generally in regional and remote areas, because of our presence.

There are private providers operating in most regions. There are certainly private providers operating in the regions in in which our college operates and they fulfill a particular role in the training market so I think that TAFE is definitely looked to as  the major provider of probably post-secondary education and training opportunities across regional WA.

And TAFE colleges are equipped to deliver a broad range of qualifications. So, we are delivering qualifications right from introductory level training, so entry level training, it's certificate one level through to advanced diploma and all qualification levels in between.

And we've got a wide range of industry training packages and, and courses and the micro-credentials that Simon was referring to, the skills sets. So we've got a broad range of delivery on offer that accommodates learners from entry level through to advanced diploma level. So we are looked to as that major provider of opportunity in regional locations.

And again, I suppose characteristic of that is, the more regional we become and the more remote we become or the more remote we are, the more we are looked to fill that space. So colleges generally have close links to the communities and the businesses that we service, and we've got close working relationships with schools and community-based organisations so that places us well, it equips us well to be able to respond to that need.

Simon Walker (09:11)

Yeah, I was just going to add to that, that one of the features, particularly in Western Australia, which have some fairly small population centres, is the provision of trade training where you need specialist infrastructure and workshops and all that sort of stuff.

That's not easy for private providers to set up because the markets are so thin, whereas the economies of scale you get from a large institution like TAFE and the public support that they get, makes that available where you wouldn't otherwise get any provision.

Steve Davis (09:39)

I'd like to turn to Tabatha now, because without you, we wouldn't have this report to be talking about.

In it you sort of hone in on some of the practical realities of facilitating VET delivery in regional Australia, and that's the long distances involved, the extreme weather, the scarcity of housing and, and even some services. How influential are these factors in thwarting VET delivery? And did your research uncover any glimmers of hope on the horizon?

Dr Tabatha Griffin (10:12)

That's an excellent question Steve. Glimmers of hope. Yes. I think there are some. Look, we spoke to RTOs that were providing training right across Australia in a lot of different locations and yeah, it's hard work. It's really hard work. They come up across all sorts of issues and we categorise these barriers into sort of three main categories.

We talked about market and or RTO-based challenges. So these are the types of things we've talked about already. Thin markets and inability to find trainers and those types of things. Location-based challenges, the weather, the long distances, whether there's infrastructure in place, those types of things.

And then there are student-based challenges too, the types of cohorts that are making up the learners in those locations. Might have language literacy and numeracy issues, digital literacy, a need for culturally aware training, those types of things. And of course these challenges are different everywhere because the, you know, I guess delivering training in a regional centre like Geraldton or Bendigo is very different to delivering training in a small outback town, for example.

And the RTOs that we spoke to and the trainers that we spoke to, they listed all sorts of things that they do to overcome these barriers. These barriers usually can't be fixed, you know, you can't change the weather. You can't change the distance. So they're doing all sorts of things, but it was really what they didn't say that I thought was really interesting in this project, the less tangible things.

And so sitting above all these practical things that they did were a couple of characteristics of these RTOs and the trainers that we spoke to. The first one being a real desire and determination to ensure success for their students and to ensure that the industries and the local employers that they were serving got what they needed out of the training.

They showed they were willing to go above and beyond to make sure that people were getting the skills they needed. Secondly, they had a great mindset and a really flexible approach. Things were going wrong all the time, and so they needed to be good problem solvers. And so I think the, the glimmer of hope was really the passion and the tenacity of the training providers that we spoke to in getting it done.

Steve Davis (12:44)

Do you think part of that, is being in a smaller community, your level of accountability at a personal level is much higher because you're going be bumping into those people at the local footy or netball or, or whatever it might be.

Dr Tabatha Griffin (12:58)

Absolutely. You know, particularly those training providers that are working in smaller communities, they are part of the community and they talked about the role that they play in those communities and that everybody knows everyone.

So absolutely they're invested.

Steve Davis (13:13)

And just one other behind the scenes glimpse. When you were interviewing these RTOs in these areas, was there a sense of oh, thank goodness someone's actually asking about us? Did that come across at all?

Dr Tabatha Griffin (13:25)

Yeah, absolutely. They they're very proud of what they do.

And they were very happy to talk about how they go about skilling up people across the country for sure.

Steve Davis (13:37)

Jo, the report notes that student literacy and numeracy can be suboptimal in these areas along with the dominance of cultural differences between community culture and the requirements, the structure, the language of VET courses, do you see this yourself and have you observed any methodologies for bridging the gaps between these factors?

Joanne Payne (14:03)

Yes, Steve. I think there's general recognition that literacy and numeracy skills are critical to student success in VET and they're critical to the successful transition for students from training through to employment. And while I wouldn't characterise that as particularly a regional issue, I think there's recognition that the importance of literacy and numeracy skills and capability is an issue across training and across the workforce generally. But in a regional setting, there tends to be fewer other resources for students to draw on. So, going back to the previous point, it is very much about coming up with a solution on the spot for people on the day very often.

And I think, TAFE colleges, we've got a role to play there, we've got programs that are designed to boost the literacy and numeracy skills of people so they can engage in training in the first place. We've got programs for certificates in general education for people for whom English might be a second language, and then we've got other programs that support students while they're in training. So being able to provide some of those support services to students to boost their literacy and numeracy skills is a really important part of what we do. And I've definitely seen lecturers be very creative and very inventive about the way they weave literacy and numeracy support into the vocational aspects of their training.

I think as well, you know, the other part of that question around the requirements and the structure of VET. TAFE is quite agile and we're able to tailor and contextualise that delivery, you know, in a quite flexible kind of way and I've seen many TAFE staff working and being very adept at creating that flexibility.

Steve Davis (16:07)

Jo, that's actually very heartening. Simon saw my facial reaction when you mentioned that because I do have a sense of thinking of the infrastructure of a corporate entity when I think TAFE, and it was counterintuitive to me to hear you say that there's great agility and that ability to swing around and meet needs as they change.

Joanne Payne (16:28)

I think it's one of the great myths of TAFE, Steve, is that TAFE is not agile, but in a regional setting, as Tabatha was talking about, TAFE lecturers and TAFE staff in general have to problem solve on a daily basis. So if they've turned up to do some delivery in a particular location and it's not working out the way they planned, they have to come up with another plan very often on the day, and they're able to do that.

Steve Davis (16:52)

It also plants a new idea in my mind. I feel like those of us in metropolitan areas, in whatever RTO, educational institution we might be in, industry, there's something to be learned from what is happening on the ground, where necessity is a mother of invention at your end. I know Simon likes his micro-credentials.

I really think there's the makings here for something that can feed back and you can be teaching us about how to build this smart resilience into delivery of services and education.

Joanne Payne (17:33)

Happy to share, Steve.

Steve Davis (17:36)

I do want to pick up, keep this theme going though, Simon, because in Australia, especially outside the main cities, there is this can-do attitude.

It's a mindset that, you know, solutions can be found to most things. Typically, a piece of fencing wire, she'll be right mate, we will get it done. Now, if, if some of the problems are, are due to a mismatch between the, the state training priorities and programs and the real needs on the ground, should we actually be exploring ways to empower local providers. Everywhere, not just in the regions, but to be more flexible in what they offer and how they roll it out.

Simon Walker (18:10)

Well, short answer, absolutely. I'm a great fan of devolving those decision makings to the institutions that are closest to the clients. That's, the first thing I'd say.

But it might be useful to draw on some experiences when I was in the West Australian government to understand what we mean by state priorities and how that actually translates to delivery of services. And one of my responsibilities, or a number of my responsibilities was first of all to identify what those state occupational needs were. Then to translate that into what training would be required to meet those occupational leads, then to build a policy around that that actually tries to incentivise providers delivering those particular qualifications and of course, encouraging students to enrol in those qualifications, and then ultimately contracting that out through funding arrangements from the governments.

But the one thing I would say, and this is potentially peculiar to WA although I don't really think so, is the state training priorities can be developed through quite good evidence and data at a state level. But what it can't do very successfully, it is a very imprecise science to begin with, is understand what it's like at an individual regional level. You don't have the data. All right? So whilst it's probably reasonable to assume that those state priorities, particularly the highest ones probably prevail across most regions, what it doesn't pick up is the individual priorities that individual regions need. So you've got to be flexible to allow that regional priority to evolve with the training provider, the local employers etc. And that's not something, quite frankly, that I think should be done by anybody else but the institution that's actually delivering services to those clients. So why anybody would impose or prescript the nature of the offerings that, for instance, Jo offers her local clients sitting in an office in Perth is madness.

All right. You must allow providers to meet their needs, as Tabatha said, the vast majority of training providers have the needs of the students at heart in everything they do. They're the ones that deal with them, they're the ones that are delivering the services, they know their local communities. They ought to be empowered to make those decisions.

Steve Davis (20:25)

Jo, would you like to reflect on what Simon's just shared? If it doesn't get you into trouble with the WA government?

Joanne Payne (20:31

I'm not sure whether it will get me into trouble or not, but yes, I think one of the strengths, and this is reflected in the report, one of the strengths of regional TAFE colleges is their connectedness with the communities and the businesses that they serve.

And that's where we're able to get that close, you know, local information about what's needed in the community or by businesses or by local employers. And that that forms the core of our understanding about what it is that we need to deliver, how and, and where. Of course, we are always cognisant of and working in line with state government priorities for training, because that's the lever that government is using to move training in the direction that that's required across the state for the workforce.

The ability to be able to understand firstly and then to customise training at a local level is a really important part of what we do.

Steve Davis (21:39)

Tabatha, just picking up on the, the, all those strands, starting to tie them together. Were there some other findings that your research uncovered that could help lead us towards a myriad of improvements?

Dr Tabatha Griffin (21:53)

Yeah, so look, we've definitely touched on some of these things already. You know, ensuring that training is matching what's needed in local areas. And Jo very importantly brought up the importance of building relationships and partnerships in communities. And this  came through really strongly in the research and you gain a whole heap of things from doing that.

So, you know, you ensure that communities and local industries are getting what they need from the training. It might get you access to infrastructure and resources, particularly if you are a small training provider, you might not be a TAFE, and you might need somewhere to go and do training. You might need access to machinery or something. Building those types of relationships with employers and the such can help in that way. And sometimes it's really important to get that community support, community buy-in for the training and this was particularly true for small Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, where it was really important that the whole community understood the benefits that could be gained through people undergoing training. So building those relationships is really important. But what we found is  it's resource intensive and an organisation like TAFE, they have dedicated resources to be able to do this stuff. Not all RTOs are in that same position. I spoke to some very small RTOs and they're trying to balance doing the training with building these relationships and forming these partnerships, which they know is really important, but they don't always have the time. So we suggested in the report, and this is based on what people said to us, that maybe there needs to be some facilitation of these relationship building and partnership building opportunities. And maybe government has a role to play there or some other bodies might have a role to play there.

Another thing that could be beneficial is some kind of pooling of training needs to try and counteract some of those thin market issues. So if somebody was able to facilitate a scenario where you're pooling together, the needs may be across different employers and enabling training to happen there it can overcome some of those financial viability issues that do come up.

Steve Davis (24:21)

Jo, do any of those resonate with you perhaps more than others?

Joanne Payne (24:25)

Yes, so certainly we operate in, you know, most of our, most of our environments are thin markets, so ideas like pooling learners, you know, pooling people who are wanting to access training from different areas into a group to make a viable group, you know, to make the number viable, those things are, are definitely things that, that we, we have looked at and that, you know, maybe some facilitation by another party would certainly assist some of the smaller providers. Yes.

Steve Davis (25:00)

And Jo, just finally, if there's someone in, say, Brunswick in, in Melbourne, sees a job ad to go and join TAFE, over with you, perhaps based at Geraldton, is there any sort of training they need outside of just the VET aspects they'll be delivering to help them adapt to living in a remote or regional community. Let's face it, it's on the other side of the country for many Australians so there is a bit of a shift that I imagine that would have to happen, what's needed here and is there something, some sort of process already in place?

Joanne Payne (25:42)

I think we do a lot of training for our lecturers in particular in working in remote locations and regional locations. I think as probably has come through in, in the report or in research, there are some people who are drawn to that lifestyle and that way of working, and there are some people that are particularly good at it.

But much of what we do, the models that we develop for training, the structure of the courses the,  way the training is put together, that's often worked out in consultation with the lecturers and they're bringing their own expertise and their own understanding as a community to that planning.

And I think if there was somebody new that was coming in who maybe is coming to work in a regional environment from a metropolitan environment, they would be the things that I would like to say to them is that we need to have that flexible mindset, we need to have that adaptability, we need to make sure that you become close to the community that you service and the industries and the employers that you work with, so that those relationships exist.

So that when it comes time to plan a training program that maybe needs to take account of a particular location or a particular cohort, the people that are doing that planning have that close understanding and knowledge of the community or the businesses that they're working with.

Steve Davis (27:12)

Wow. Well I think in all the time that I've been involved with this podcast, looking at different reports, this is one report from NCVER where you've got the focus on helping VET delivery in a certain way, a certain region that has a two-way valve attached.

I think there's much that can be learned. At the other part of Australia in dense metropolitan areas in reading this report with different eyes to see what we can learn from what's happening on the ground. I'm really excited by that. Quickly around the table. If you were king or queen and you had the control over our sectors of the world, what messages would you like to send to government or people sitting on various committees within VET sector in relation to this report?

What would you hope they find? Tabatha, I'll start with you.

Dr Tabatha Griffin (28:01)

Yeah. Look, I'm really happy to answer this one because we found that a lot of the barriers that were coming up were not sitting just solely in the vocational education space. You know, there was some issues that that training alone can't address.

So I think there needs to be a more holistic approach to regional development to help with some of the other issues that come up, like lack of housing and social issues and things like that.

Steve Davis (28:29)


Simon Walker (28:30)

Oh, well, just to follow on from Tabatha, that comes up in every regional study I've been involved with.

Just to reiterate, the notion of empowering local training providers to find local solutions, it just makes perfect sense to me.

Steve Davis (28:42)

Yes. And the final word to you, Jo.

Joanne Payne (28:45)

Yes. I think recognising the value of regional TAFE in the community. It's about more than training provision and supporting that value.

Steve Davis (28:56)

Joanne Payne, Dr Tabatha Griffin, Simon Walker. Thank you all for being on Vocational Voices.

Simon Walker (29:02)

Thanks Steve.

Joanne Payne (29:03)

Thanks Steve.

Dr Tabatha Griffin (29:03)

Thanks Steve.

Steve Davis (29:05)

Vocational Voices is produced by NCVER on behalf of the Australian government and state and territory governments with funding provided through the Australian Government Department of Employment and Workplace Relations.

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