The contracting of higher education courses to regional colleges of TAFE is well established in Western Australia. Taking Hugh Hudson's attacks on inter-sectoral rigidities as a theme, this paper outlines the evolution of contracting, the increasing support for it from high level policy planners, and advantages of integrating it with distance education methods and study centre functions in regional colleges. Contextual factors in the small, non-metropolitan communities favour inter-sectoral integration, but staff development limitations to achieving this goal are noted.
The compartmentalisation of tertiary education is complete - so complete in fact that it can frustrate sensible solutions and dissipate scarce financial resources. It cannot be argued that the structure is organised in a way which gives prime consideration to the interests of students (Hudson, 1986, p.2).This criticism was important because, until recently, CTEC was the highest level policy adviser to the Australian Government on its funding and coordinating activities in tertiary education. The compartmental notion which Mr. Hudson criticised was the division of tertiary education in Australia into three distinct sectors; universities, colleges of advanced education (CAEs) and colleges of technical and further education (TAFE).
Referring to the requirements for a large, equitable and sustained increase in enrolments in tertiary education, in the context of very modest increases in government expenditure on education, Mr. Hudson mapped out some specific policies which were dependent upon a lessening of inter-sectoral rigidities, including the following:
... the multi-sectoral approach has even more significance when we think of the large number of non-metropolitan communities, which are underserved in terms of tertiary education services.These quotations remind us that we have explicit guidelines for instituting links between the diverse elements in regional colleges, contracting and higher education external studies This paper examines ways of developing these links in the Western Australian context with its relatively small non-metropolitan communities and colleges and where there has been, for some years, innovation with inter-sectoral contracting. In particular, it examines the advantages perceived by Murdoch University in an effective integration of contracting and distance education.
In most states TAFE facilities are being planned for population centres outside the major capital cities and the Commission will be looking very closely at the possibility of developing these in a way that will enable some higher education offerings to be provided ...
... I see the major TAFE colleges needing the flexibility to enter into agreements covering resources and academic matters with other local institutions; to provide all or parts of higher level courses w here particular TAFE institutions are identified, by reason of location, as the means of providing higher education in regional areas (Hudson, 1986, p.5, 9).
The major non-metropolitan centres of Albany, Bunbury, Kalgoorlie, Geraldton, Karratha and Port Hedland have populations of between 15000 and 25000 with relatively low population densities in their hinterlands. Each has an autonomous or semi-autonomous TAFE college as the sole facility for tertiary education, with the exception of Bunbury which has both a TAFE college and a small branch campus of the Western Australian College of Advanced Education (WACAE) and Kalgoorlie which has an autonomous college and a small branch campus of Curtin University, the Kalgoorlie School of Mines (Walsh, 1986, p2; White, 1986).
The colleges in each of these non-metropolitan centres are referred to collectively as 'regional colleges'. Though differing in the details of their administration (White, 1986), the colleges are similar in size and have teaching programs dominated by the occupational needs of urban or mining communities, with smaller provisions for the very sparsely populated agricultural and pastoral hinterlands.
Having no prospect of obtaining their own higher education institutions, educational and community leaders in these towns have been vigorous in their promotion of regional college contracting. Reviewing his experiences with contracting, Dr John Walsh from Curtin University commented that:
The initiative for contracting rests with the regional colleges. No contracted course has commenced through institutional initiative. The metropolitan institutions have always been in the reactionary mode (Walsh, 1986, p.l8).The basic format for contracting in WA has been a bid by a regional college to conduct the first year of teaching for a degree or other award from a higher education institution in Perth. From the college perspective, contracting has strong appeal: increased size and status as the accredited regional agent for metropolitan institutions; an attractive diversification of the teaching conducted by college staff; delivery to their communities of a viable alternative to the transfer of sons and daughters to Perth (at least for the first year of study), and a basis for expansion and diversification of staffing, library, computer facilities, and other resources.
In recent years policy advisers such as CTEC and the Western Australian Post Secondary Education Commission (WAPSEC) have become more supportive of the concept of contracting. The efforts of regional colleges and of the pioneering proponent of contracting Dr John Walsh, have facilitated a change in attitude to contracting, overcoming the effect of earlier negative assessments of policy advisory committees on the value of inter-sectoral contracting. In retrospect, earlier assessments now appear short-sighted and vaguely conceptualised. For example, the Partridge Committee on Post Secondary Education in WA reported in 1976:
On many occasions during our discussions in country towns, it was put to us that there is a need for a facility whereby a prospective tertiary student could complete at least part of the undergraduate course (say the first year) in the country before going to the metropolitan area to complete it ...Nevertheless, within just six years the option labelled as impracticable by the Partridge Committee was inaugurated in 1983 by the Albany Technical College (now Great Southern Region College of TAFE) which introduced teaching in first year units for the Bachelor of Business, Western Australian Institute of Technology (now Curtin University) (Walsh, 1986, p.8). This initiative (and similar initiatives by proponents of contracting) occurred without any formalised arrangements by the policy advisory bodies.
However desirable such courses might be, in respect of the expense involved in maintaining a country student in the metropolitan area for an entire year, we do not regard this solution as practicable. To provide the staff and the courses for the wide range of studies that would be needed to meet the first year requirements of the metropolitan tertiary institutions would, in our opinion, place a burden on the community college that would seriously inhibit its ability to fulfil its other functions. Furthermore, from the viewpoint of the metropolitan institution, the student's first year is vital and critical for success in his course, and there is little doubt that they would be extremely reluctant to entrust a range of first year studies to institutions and persons over whom they have not control (Partridge, 1976, pp. 112-113).
In the intervening years between 1976 and 1983 the proponents of contracting had received increasing endorsements from other reports. For example, in 1978 WAPSEC provided positive advice on higher education links for the proposed new autonomous colleges at Karratha and Port Hedland (WAPSEC, 1978, p. 48).
A high level endorsement of the principle of contracting emanated from the Williams Committee in 1979. In its letter submitting the report to the Prime Minister, the Committee summarised its most important general recommendations (Williams, 1979, p. iii). The first two were:
The most significant breakthrough occurred in 1984 when WAPSEC was permitted to allocate some funds for regional college contracting from the Western Australian CTEC allocation for additional higher education places. The funds allocated allowed for 92 equivalent full-time student units (EFTSU). The higher education institutions gained a very successful stimulus for contracting, because they were not required to reduce their quotas and funds for the intake of metropolitan students (Walsh, 1986, 25, 17). Indeed, the metropolitan institutions benefited because the students who completed first year with a rural college continued to be funded by the contracting funds upon transferring to the main campus or to external studies.
By 1987, the quota for contracting had increased to 243 EFTSU covering all regional colleges and three metropolitan providers, Curtin University, the Western Australian College of Advanced Education and Murdoch University. The range of awards available has expanded, with nursing and computer education being added to the original business studies.
These practical achievements have explicit endorsement in current policy advice to governments. A committee established by CTEC to review the efficiency and effectiveness of higher education made a number of comments which illustrate the change achieved in the decade since the Partridge Committee:
In the Committee's view, the most cost-effective means of providing new higher education opportunities in regional areas in the absence of a previously established university or CAE is through cooperative arrangements between higher education institutions and TAFE colleges ...The Western Australian country towns named earlier have passed beyond the stage of battling to build up "the tech school". They are now regional centres acquiring a realistic multi-sectoral tertiary education presence. Given that the policy leaders are encouraging certain expectations, the providers must examine ways to refine and extend the scope of regional college contracting for higher education. One important direction is integrating in those colleges the twin functions of providing the earlier years of higher education courses and the use study centres for external students.
... the provision of the earlier years of higher education courses, in association with higher education institutions, and the development of study centres for higher education students (as well as TAFE students) undertaking external courses ... will strengthen the links between higher education and TAFE, and should lead, in the longer term, to a true continuum of opportunities in which TAFE colleges become community colleges ... it should be possible to look towards the ultimate development of a 'binary' system of ternary education in which students can avail themselves of opportunities on the basis of free movement between the three sectors. (CTEC, 1986, pp.204, 205).
The integration of full-time students and the part-time students who attend only on an occasional basis, provides a further advantage to the institution. This is the attainment of a more viable group size, especially important in these relatively small communities.
These issues influenced the initial venture of Murdoch University into contracting, with the delivery, commencing in 1987, of the first year Bachelor of Science in Computer Science at Great Southern Regional College of TAFE in Albany. This has a deliberate emphasis on a cost-effective, mode-integrated implementation which has two objectives:
In this case, the contracted classes may be characterised as distance education delivery centred upon optional, weekly scheduled tutorials and practical classes contrasted to the conventional once per semester residential school which is the method adopted by some distance education providers. However the method proposed here is quite consistent with distance education orthodoxy which emphasises the value of concentrating extra resources on the first year of study, during which students encounter the most critical phases of the transition from teacher and classroom-centred learning to autonomous learning. The desired outcome is a second year student who is well equipped for either a transfer to Perth to study on campus, or continuation as a part-time or full-time external student. In the second option the student can continue the regional college association - as suggested in the next section.
The attempt to formalise a diversion of contracting funds into study centre functions calculated on the basis of the sum of all regional external EFTSU is a risky initiative. Although the de facto role of regional colleges as study centres is readily acknowledged (Walsh, 1986, p I 1: CTEC, 1986, p205), the present initiative does not have the endorsement of CTEC or WAPSEC. Also, a nationwide review of study centres in distance education (Northcott and Shapcott, 1986) has suggested more ambitious initiatives for the funding of study centre functions and such initiatives may not be taken if lower cost alternatives become established.
At issue most certainly will be the question of whether future study centre funding should be drawn from present recurrent funding per EFTSU, or the optimistic alternative, a new category of recurrent grant to TAFE colleges (CTEC Review of funding in TAFE, 1986, para 6. pl21). The prudent planner concerned with study centres would note that CTEC's Review of efficiency and effectiveness (CTEC, 1986, chapters 6, 7) is ambiguous on this question. The principle that external EFTSU receive funding from the same grant as internal EFTSU is inconsistent with the principle of a new category of recurrent grant for external students only. Any suggestion that the first principle is acceptable, may be construed as "undermining" the bid to secure additional funding.
The factors of relatively small size and extreme geographical dispersion may preclude Western Australia from entering into the debates about study centres for external students which may occur in the larger systems in the eastern states. The situation in Western Australia is such that tertiary education resources provided in non-metropolitan communities need to be pooled across all three sectors. Indeed, the integration of contracting, study centres, cross-crediting and distance education represent the most important Western Australian response to CTEC guidelines on the provision of external higher education. Individually, branch campuses of WA higher education institutions cannot be afforded, but collectively, with the TAFE sector, student numbers would be sufficient to ensure the viability desired by the non-metropolitan communities.
However, staff development does not begin and end at the regional college. There is the wider staff development problem underlying the attacks of Hudson on inter-sectoral rigidities, cited at the beginning of this paper. The limited knowledge which staff has about other sectors and the attitudes towards the work and role of those other sectors may be important factors maintaining inter-sectoral rigidity. Regional college contracting provides both parties with direct experiences of the work being done in another sector. The demands for improved education in the smaller, under-serviced, non-metropolitan communities of Australia may become one of the more potent catalysts facilitating inter-sectoral integration.
Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission (1986). Review of efficiency and effectiveness in higher education. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.
Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission (1986). Review of TAFE funding. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.
Hudson, H. (1986). The TAFE/higher education interface. Australian Journal of TAFE Research and Development, 1 (2), 1-11.
Northcott, P. H. & Shapcott, M. (1986). The role of study centres in overall student support services in distance education. Geelong, Vic: Deakin University, Distance Education Unit (A report commissioned by CTEC Evaluations and Investigations Programme).
Partridge, P. H. (Chairman) (1976). Post secondary education in Western Australia. Perth: Government Printer.
Walsh, John R. (1986). Contracting in Western Australia as a case study in intersectoral cooperation. Perth: Curtin University, Centre for External Studies and Continuing Education (A report commissioned by CTEC Evaluations and Investigations Programme).
Western Australian Post Secondary Education Commission (1978). Report on post secondary education in the Pilbara. Perth: Government Printer.
White, M.A. (1986). Community colleges in Western Australia - historical accidents and policy dilemmas. Australian Journal of Education, 30 (1), 92-106. April.
Cite as: Atkinson, R. (1987). Integrating external studies and contracting: The experience of Murdoch University with Regional Colleges of TAFE in Western Australia. Australian Journal of TAFE Research and Development, 3 (1), 56-63. http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/confs/ajtaferd1987-atk.html
Address: Dr Roger Atkinson
Academic Services Unit
Murdoch, WA 6150 Australia