Transcript of Reimagining the tertiary education system

28 July 2023

Vocational Voices: Season 8, Episode 2

Reimagining the tertiary education system

Tom Karmel (00:03)

I would see a professional university offering qualifications from certificates, maybe lower level certificates, but certainly certificates three and four, up to diplomas, degrees, and possibly coursework masters.

Jenny Dodd (00:18)

So a lot of what Tom's suggesting, we would absolutely endorse, with the exception of the utilisation of professional university, but we can agree to disagree on some things.

It's the title that concerns me.

Steve Davis (00:30)

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 reimagining the tertiary education system. Our vocational voices today are Simon Walker, Managing Director, NCVER.

Simon Walker (00:53)

Hi, Steve.

Steve Davis (00:54)

Jenny Dodd, CEO TAFE Directors Australia. Hello, Jenny.

Jenny Dodd (00:57)


Steve Davis (00:59)

And the man who previously held Simon's role at the NCVER, Tom Karmel, currently adjunct professor at the Future of Employment and Skills at University of Adelaide and the director of the McKenzie Research Institute at Holmesglen Institute. Tom, welcome.

Tom Karmel (01:17)

Hello, Steve.

Steve Davis (01:19)

Well, Tom, you threw the cat among the pigeons that gave us reason to meet for this particular podcast due to a couple of papers. You released recently a paper on the topic of potential structural reforms to tertiary education, it was entitled The University's Accord Needs to Consider a Binary System.

And this follows from previous research paper, which was released in 2022, What About Diplomas? and that paints a pretty bleak picture for VET, if we hold the view that VET should be offering a genuine alternative to higher education. Simon Walker, as always, you're a keen sense for important conversation topics, which is why we've invited Tom and Jenny here today. You thought you will sit this one quietly in the corner, I believe. Is that the plan?

Simon Walker (02:14)

I couldn't think of a better show than listening to Jenny and Tom stash this one out.

Steve Davis (02:19)

They're here to discuss the potential reforms to institutes, institutional missions and structures which have been floated by Tom, especially the notion of developing a dual system of practice-based professional universities and research focused comprehensive universities that would potentially see TAFE as part of the former.

So, to start our reimagining of the tertiary system, Tom, in your paper you argue the current approach to tertiary education in Australia, with its distinction between higher education and vocational education and training, or VET, is unrealistic. Can you elaborate on why you believe this and, and what problems that creates.

Tom Karmel (03:00)

Yeah, certainly. The distinction between VET and higher education is really a false distinction. And it's based on history. And we've set up these two sectors as if one's on Mars and the other's on Venus, and there's very little intersection. My starting point is that higher education is essentially vocational in nature. I mean, you think about how it started, it was to train theologians, priests for the church, about training nurses, doctors, accountants, engineers, architects. I mean, you can't get more vocational than that. So, it's really quite false to think of higher education as being in some sense higher, and not vocational.

Whereas if we look at the vocational sector in Australia, certainly as it's been set up in history, it itself is not that vocational. If you look at the match between what people actually study and the jobs that they get, there's a pretty poor match. And so a lot of what the VET sector is teaching is actually generic skills which can be transferred to a wider range of jobs.

And of course, they're fighting words at the moment because of the way Australia has used training packages in VET. The general education function of VET has been downplayed for many years, and many who argue that, that actually is one area that could be strengthened.

Steve Davis (04:40)

I am just going to throw in something that a friend said to me on the weekend, actually.

He is a retired, he retired early, a retired cognitive scientist. And he was tossing up whether to do a PhD or do an environmental studies diploma at TAFE because he has a heritage listed property in the hills. He wants to manage it. He opted for TAFE, and here's why. He said, you actually get hands on trained in what to do, and do you know what the pass mark, he said, Steve, is?

A hundred percent. You have to get a hundred percent or you don't pass. I might just, before we get into the other things, ask for a quick reaction on that from you, Tom, but also you, Jenny.

Tom Karmel (05:24)

Well, I'm not sure how I respond to that. If I had a choice between doing a PhD and a diploma in environmental science, I think I'd pick the diploma too. I mean, doing a PhD is a life experience rather than training.

Steve Davis (05:39)

Yes. But Jenny, what's your reaction to that? Is that something you come across a bit?

Jenny Dodd (05:45)

I think the essence of what you've said there, Steve, that your friend said is around the applied learning component of it, which is exactly what Tom's talking about. Vocational education and training is about applied learning, and that's clearly what your friend thought was going to be incredibly valuable for their next stage in life.

And that is what the VET sector does so well, and will continue to do so well.

Steve Davis (06:13)

Hmm. Simon?

Simon Walker (06:16)

Possibly to pick up on the misnomer of you can only pass with a hundred percent. They are quite different paradigms. In VET you don't have a grading of, or a gradation of score. It is either competent or non-competent.

And I'm not going to go in today about the pedagogy of all that. But it is probably a bit of misleading to say it's a pass mark of a hundred. Because that suggests that there are other scores possible. And in fact, there isn't.

Steve Davis (06:43)

I love this topic already. Look, going back to your initial thoughts that we started on, Tom, if current trends continue here in Australia, you're predicting that VET will be limited to providing lower level training for short term industry needs, while university education will dominate the training for professional occupations.

How do you think we can address this decline and ensure a balance between practice based education and research oriented universities?

Tom Karmel (07:15)

Well, that's really the crux of this whole area. The universities have been very successful in basically colonising the professions and management more and more, and lower level occupations as well.

It's just become a matter of fact that the entry requirement for many jobs is now a degree. Whereas it used to be a diploma. So my point is that if the VET sector doesn't actually get into offering these types of qualifications, it basically has abandoned the top half of the labor market. And it will only train people for medium and lower level jobs.

And I think this is a great pity because I think the whole paradigm of practical learning and applied learning is a very good one. And I think one of the problems with the distinction between higher education and VET is the fact that universities represent higher education and they're totally dominated by the research agenda.

That's where all the kudos is. So it doesn't matter what universities say about how much effort they put into their teaching, it's quite clear that the main focus is on research output, research rankings, getting more international students, getting more money, getting more research. And practical learning, applied learning for the labour market is a long way from that.

Steve Davis (08:45)

Just before I turn to Jenny, I would like you, Tom, to tease apart a little bit more nuance here of this concept of a professional university which straddles the, the VET and higher education worlds. It focuses on teaching and practice. Could you perhaps shine a little bit more light on that, provide more detail on what this type of institution would look like and what sort of qualifications would it offer?

Tom Karmel (09:10)

Yeah, well I think the qualifications are the key element. I would see a professional university offering qualifications from certificates, maybe lower level certificates, but certainly certificates three and four up to diplomas, degrees, and possibly coursework masters. And this would be in areas that are clearly linked with the labor market.

So you could think of it as being vertically integrated in some sense. So you, if you're interested in the health workforce you would be training people from personal carers through to enrolled nurses, registered nurses, and other health professionals. So rather than an institution being comprehensive, it may, it would probably focus on certain fields and offer the training that you need to work in those fields at various levels.

Steve Davis (10:04)

And, you didn't mention GPs in that structure?

Tom Karmel (10:08)

No, I didn't, because I'm not sure whether I'm courageous enough to include medicine in this, because the medicos won't even talk to the health people. So, maybe that's something a little bit too distant.

Steve Davis (10:22)

Alright, I'll just bring it back to similar level at the moment, and I'd like to bring Jenny into this discussion now.
Jenny, with Tom's model, TAFE will be part of the professional university system. What are your thoughts on that?

Jenny Dodd (10:39)

So a lot of what Tom's suggesting, we would absolutely endorse, with the exception of the utilisation of professional university, but we can agree to disagree on some things. It's the title that concerns me.

But what the essence of the model has enormous merit and has enormous merit when we look at what's been delivered through the interim report from the University's Accord Panel, which was delivered last Wednesday in July. That too, the focus in that interim report is very strongly on teaching and learning.

It's very strongly on improving opportunities for equity groups to be successful in the sorts of fields of study that Tom is talking about. And that's going to have to happen through a more integrated approach to how people can grab bits of different types of learning in very practical ways through knowledge base, through practical skill development to create new courses and new programs.

I do think we are at a moment in time where that distinction between VET and higher education is problematic. But within this argument we also have to understand the difference between a TAFE, and I represent the TAFE sector in this conversation, and there are 29 of them, with hundreds and hundreds of thousands of students. They are education organisations who have the ability to develop outside of the national training system, which to some extent has created some of this distinction between VET and higher education.

And so the close to 4, 000 other RTOs may not be well equipped to be in this more complex educational model, which is going to facilitate people's ability to learn both at Certificate III or a degree, to create a new qualification, new outcome that will be meaningful in the world in which we're in today.

It's certainly one of TDA's recommendations to the Accord panel that we have to be able to free up TAFEs in particular to work closely with universities to develop these new programs that are going to be so needed in the future.

Steve Davis (13:10)

Wow there's a few things to unpack there. The first one right at the beginning. You mentioned your discomfort with the term professional universities. Can I just circle back to that briefly? Was that more the baggage of the term professional, or more broadly the concept that Tom was floating?

Jenny Dodd (13:29)

The concept Tom's floating is great.

We're right on board with that concept. What we're not on board with is a title called professional university, and it's not about the term professional, it's about the term university. The term university is not necessarily encompassing of all our learners into the future. We cannot lose sight of the fact that TAFE as a brand, as a recognised brand, as a trusted brand has a lot of courage going forward into the future. And therefore labeling everything professional universities has a problem with it. But the concept, the concept Tom's talking about has enormous merit. So I don't want to get caught up into a title because that's fairly artificial at this point in time.

It's the concept of distinguishing between a university that's driven predominantly for research rankings as Tom said from an educational, tertiary educational organisation that is able to mix appropriate applied learning environments to deliver the outcomes we need.

And although Tom kept away from the doctors which you asked him, let's talk about the health profession because I think here is a really good example. When you look at the sorts of integrated learning that someone might gain from a Certificate III to work initially in aged care, they may also then decide to do a Diploma of Enrolled Nursing. And a Diploma of Enrolled Nursing gives them a lot of opening into the health system in a broader capacity.

But at the moment, because it's a training package qualification, it doesn't necessarily have that broader knowledge base that we would need for people who do registered nursing. So what Tom's really talking about here is create, I believe, is creating appropriate courses and appropriate programs to meet those applied learning needs of those industries that can mesh together some bits of CERT 3, some bits of CERT 4, some bits of Diploma, which is CERT 5 and certainly at the, at the degree level, which is Level 7. We can mesh those together. Now that's going to take enormous system change to enable that to happen because at the moment our systems, our funding, our policy, there are so many other regulatory systems that don't enable that to be easy.

But I do think now is the moment in time where we have to see the creation of some of that change process take place.

Tom Karmel (16:05)

I'm probably in heated agreement with much of that, but the term professional university is an interesting one, and it gets back to status. And when we were playing around with names for this there was a view that unless the word university is in the title, these will be seen as second rate institutions.

I mean, when we look at history and more widely over in Europe and so on. There are bodies called polytechnics, which are really what we're talking about. So, the names are sort of important because status is important. And I noticed that in the Accord discussion paper, there was yet another reference to parity of esteem.

But a parity of esteem is really rubbish. And, unless you're actually offering qualifications to get people into the good jobs. Because it's really about status of occupations rather than status of the TAFE versus status of the university.

Simon Walker (17:14)

And look, just to wade into this point, which I determined I wasn't going to be, but I do remember back in the early day or perhaps 10 or so years ago, one of the TAFE institutes in Western Australia decided to register themselves as a higher education provider. So they were a dual sector provider, but they also re-labeled themselves a polytechnic. So they were trying to distinguish themselves from a TAFE and a university.

Tom Karmel (17:38)

Yeah, I mean a great example here would be an institution such as University of New South Wales. A very long history. It would have started as a working men's college, and that's what the name would have been, and over time it's gone bigger and better and higher.
But the university label is one that has great value in a commercial sense, I think, more than anything else.

Steve Davis (18:03)

Jenny, I'll come back to you on this because I know we didn't want to get bogged down in the labels, but there is plenty of nuance here where we've got status involved in the mix, as well as the brand equity that TAFE has in the marketplace as well.

Jenny Dodd (18:20)

So, I will make a couple of comments on that because I think if we're going around, if we are going to talk about the labeling. We need to dig deep into some of the experience of some of the dual sectors because indeed some, at least one of them now, is making a very explicit claim for a TAFE division within that branding exercise because they've realised there is actually excluding group of students from actually seeing that that's where they want to be.

They may not at that point in time think that that's where they actually want to be in a university and so they're actually reclaiming the brand of TAFE within that dual sector environment. However, I don't really want, I personally don't really want to get locked down into names because I don't think that is what is the future.

I do, though, think that there is some real opportunities around a much more innovative ability to bring the two core structures together in different ways. And I also think that we do have, what Tom said, it's often status is around occupation. Not so much around the labeling of VET or Higher Ed, it is certainly around occupation.

And if we think about that in particular in terms of very feminised occupations. It's a status that goes with occupation that can become the issue. So if there is evidence to demonstrate university would have carriage, maybe go that way. But let's not lock in an outcome of a name before we actually lock in the construct of the model, and it's the model that we're supportive of.

Steve Davis (20:13)

I'd like to dig deeper to the core of what brings us all together, which is the nature of what is being taught and learned, what qualifications result, because Tom, in your earlier paper, you noted the declining salience of diplomas in VET, as well as a steep decline in government funding for diplomas in VET.

Could you unpack that a little for us?

Tom Karmel (20:35)

Certainly. If you go back to the early 2000s, there were very large numbers of students enrolled in diplomas. If you look at what's happened since then, government funded diplomas have declined very significantly, particularly in recent years. And at the same time, university degrees are clearly increasing. So, university degrees are just crowding out the diplomas.

Now, you really have to dig into the data to understand this, but there are two fields that are really only in one sector. And one of them are the physical and natural sciences. That does not really exist in the VET world. And the other one is food, hospitality and personal services. And that doesn't exist in higher ed, but all the rest of them are in both sectors.

And so what we've seen, in IT, engineering, architecture and building, management and commerce, creative arts. There were either equal numbers of students enrolling in diplomas as degrees in the early 2000s or more diplomas. And now in each of those fields, it's totally dominated by degree.

So the universities with the degrees have completely crowded out that high end of it. The one exception is quite interesting, and that is education. And what we've seen in education, historically, there are very few diplomas compared to degrees. If we go back 20 years, go back 40 years, it's a different story. But in recent years, the number of diplomas in education has increased to almost the number of degrees in education, and you think what's going on here?

Well, regulation. That's all it is. It's about diplomas for childcare rather than education, rather than education in terms of primary school or secondary school. So we can see that the regulatory environment can play games in these things and can determine what goes on. My bet is in childcare, it won't be long before a degree will be the qualification that you need. And so there will be another area lost to the VET sector.

So it seems to me that if the VET sector, if we're talking about practical, practice based learning, if you want to be in the game of the whole workforce, rather than just a very narrow section, the sector has to offer degrees.

Steve Davis (23:22)

Jenny, can you please react to this degree-ification of the landscape?

Jenny Dodd (23:29)

Tom paints the correct history. We have to remember, though, that a lot of that change occurred with Gillard's reforms around demand driven which then made degrees so accessible, and that was a moment in time of enormous change to the diplomas.

I entered the TAFE sector as a teacher and we had at the time, zillions of students here in Canberra Institute of Technology doing diplomas, because largely they could not get into university. And we were able to secure a first year at the university for the qualification we were delivering and most of our students who went on ended up with distinction and high distinctions in the second and third years.
I do think the style of learning, the applied learning and the focus on teaching and learning that occurs through TAFE is undervalued in terms of opportunities for addressing some of these big equity issues that the Accord talks about. And therefore I'm very much in support of Tom at the diploma level because the diplomas in and of themselves are outcomes, but they are also opportunities for further learning.

And if you look at the Diploma of Nursing, which is, you know, takes to about 70% of that, we're only restricted in some ways by the limitations placed on us by the number of places we can do through the regulatory body of the nursing profession in ANMAC. But that qualification... is a diploma. It's not easy. It's difficult. But for many of the students who come into TAFE to do that diploma, they would not really succeed at university. It's the way in which teaching and learning occurs and the focus on teaching and learning in TAFE and the wraparound services that we give students that is so important for those qualifications.

And I actually very firmly agree with Tom. We've undervalued that level. And I think another good example that we're starting to see emerge in TAFE is cyber security, where TAFE's collectively around the country working together on a certificate IV in cyber security. Now, it's not a diploma, but it's in that higher end of VET. And that's a really important and valuable applied learning outcome.
The other comment I want to make is at least 50% of TAFEs are higher education providers in their own right. And so they have very good pathways between the VET diploma and their higher education offerings. And that is because they really recognise the value of teaching and learning.

And it's some of those models that are exactly what Tom's really talking about in terms of the professional - whether you call it university or some other utilisation of name, professional tertiary education organisation that Tom's talking about - we already have some of those models in place in a lot of those TAFEs.

But the poignant point that Tom makes is, there's no government funding. So TAFE can't get Commonwealth supported places for those students. So the students are by and large disadvantaged. Why is that? Why should a student who chooses to come to a TAFE to do higher education and starts at a diploma and might move on to higher education be disadvantaged financially? In particular, when our focus is on equity based students and those who have struggled in the learning environment in the past.

Simon Walker (26:57)

Well, just to pick up on that last point of Jenny's, one of the benefits or potential benefits of the model, this integrated model that Tom referred to initially was that VET has a far greater success at giving eligibility and access to disadvantaged students. For example, First Nations people, but plenty of other demographics involved there as well.

And having an integrated model allows people to scaffold through their training from lower level certificates all the way through, if they have the ambition, through to degrees, rather than have the universities try and attract them straight into a degree. So if we're talking about equity, and that's a big part of government policy, it's a big part of the university's accord, then this alternative integrated model has got to offer a low range of benefits that would be very difficult to do if you want direct entry into university.

Tom Karmel (27:50)

Well, yeah, I would totally endorse that. When I was reading the Accord discussion paper, I was struck by the fact there's a lot of talk about equity and the way this was going to be addressed was there were going to be extra higher education places. That to me is completely missing the boat.

If we're talking about equity, you have to focus on the individual and the support has to happen before people get to university rather than at university. So a model such as a professional university with the full gamut of qualifications is much better placed to actually help individuals navigate the system.

And Simon's point about money that is absolutely right. I mean, there's nothing stopping TAFEs offering degrees now or getting them accredited. But of course, if there's no government money, they're really being shut out. And universities can do a lot of these things. But it remains the fact they are really focused on research. And it doesn't matter how much they protest, research is what comes first.

Steve Davis (29:00)

Jenny, any reflections on that? I particularly Simon's point about the integrated model and a student being able to scaffold their way through the, a rubric of different types of learning and qualification. And any comments or reflection?

Jenny Dodd (29:18)

Absolutely. I agree with both sets of comments.

Tom's right. Universities are focused on research, and the people who work in universities, by and large, do very little training in education. Those who are delivering to students, as opposed to in a TAFE model, where there is first off a mandatory qualification, regardless of the value of that certificate, but more importantly, ongoing professional development that is all about teaching and learning.

It's all about student behavior, it's all about student management. That is what We do. We are there to teach and we're there to help students acquire the skills and knowledge they need to be able to participate in the workforce. That's so fundamental, a different purpose to why we exist. TAFEs are government based organisations with a high community service obligation still imposed on them to be able to deliver right across the country.

And our purpose is to help people gain the skills and capabilities they need for the workforce. To enable Tom's model, though, we're going to have to accept that some of the restrictions that exist in the current VET sector, which is around national portability of qualifications, will need to shift.

Those sorts of restrictions are not going to enable this more integrated approach, and we will therefore need, and we have put forward very strongly to the Accord panel, that TAFEs as educational organisations will need the ability to self accredit with universities in some of these, to achieve some of these more integrated ways in which programs can be delivered in new institutions.

Steve Davis (31:12)

I want to pick up on the spirit of that last comment, Jenny, in our closing question for this. I really wish we had two hours to spend here. Do we think, I'll ask you each at a time, Australia is ready to take up the invitation of Mary O'Kane, who chairs the Accords Review Panel, to be bold and think big, and challenge the way we think about tertiary education, especially in relation to the topics discussed today.
Jenny, you were hinting at a need for this. Is it within grasp?

Jenny Dodd (31:49)

I think we've been talking about this for probably 20 years. Certainly since Bradley Review. I do actually think the, it's not just a post school student that we're talking about here. The ongoing need for people to uplift their skills, to gain new capabilities, to gain new qualifications, to gain the first qualification, is never been more important. And to be able to match and grab from different parts of what has been constructed now as a binary system is really important.

So the continuation of a binary system is not going to serve us well into the future. That national reform is probably really poignant in terms of shifts and changes that occurred not only through the pandemic, but shifts and changes that have occurred throughout our understanding of sovereignty, our understanding of Australia's place in that international environment.

It is time, definitely time, to review The National Training System for Vocational Education and its over concentration on private value as opposed to public outcomes. And how do we do that other than by creating potentially new institutions, such as Tom's talking about, that enable quite a degree of new innovation in the way in which people can learn in applied learning ways and the way in which we support them to those outcomes.

So yes, Steve, I think the time is right.

Steve Davis (33:30)

The time is right? Do we have the gumption?

Jenny Dodd (33:37)

Well, it's all about money often, isn't it? And so, do we have the will for a funding shift? That's part of it. I think the other part of it is do we have the will in vocational education to recognise that maybe the market system that has dominated VET since the last National Schools Agreement and now we're negotiating the next one, so since about 2012 over 10 years ago, is that the right structure going forward? Are we expending significant amounts of regulatory environments on to sustain an environment that is about training, not about these sort of professional education components that Tom is talking about? And within those professional education components there are enormously important areas of education such as cultural capability, such as high level foundation skills to meet certain workforce outcomes and occupations, all sorts of educational components that don't necessarily exist in our current national training system throughout our training package construct.

That's the challenge. Are we prepared to challenge our current Policy constructs and see system change plus with funding to achieve these outcomes. Time will tell.

Steve Davis (34:59)

And perhaps Tom will tell. Tom?

Tom Karmel (35:02)

Well, I think we have a real opportunity at the moment with the negotiations around the University Accord to rethink these things.
And it was encouraging in the interim report for some discussion of having different sorts of institutions. So there obviously is a little bit of an appetite there, but I must admit I'm a bit pessimistic. There are we saw what happened with federalism over COVID and I was beginning to wonder whether I actually lived in a country rather than just lived in a place.

There are huge, there are big vested interests in this. The universities are very powerful. The industry bodies are powerful. People will have to give ground on the way the world works for this to succeed. And I'm not sure whether that will happen.

Steve Davis (36:03)

All right, and finally, Simon, you can't sit here neutrally in the corner.

Where will you put your penny down? Do we have what it takes for bold change?

Simon Walker (36:13)

All right, well I'm going to strike a middle ground between Jenny's optimism and Tom's pessimism. To do, or to achieve a pure version of what we're talking about, requires an enormous systematic change. So we're talking policy, regulation, funding, product, pedagogy. That you cannot do in a big bang to be realistic about it. But we have had precedent in various parts of public policy where we might pilot specific areas of interest where we give some flexibility and freedom to the normal rigidities and structures which have to change to make this happen. And I think we do have the wit to do that, and in which case, it is theoretically possible to start the journey but I would make no prediction as to the end point.

Steve Davis (37:07)

And that is why you're the CEO. Simon, thank you very much.

Simon Walker (37:11)

Thanks, Steve.

Steve Davis (37:12)

Tom Karmel, thank you.

Tom Karmel (37:13)

Thank you.

Steve Davis (37:14)

And Jenny Dodd, thank you for joining us again on Vocational Voices.

Jenny Dodd (37:17)

Thank you for having me. It's been fabulous.

Steve Davis (37:19)

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