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Integrating external studies and contracting: The experience of Murdoch University with Regional Colleges of TAFE in Western Australia

Roger Atkinson
Murdoch University
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.


Late in 1985, the Chairman of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission (CTEC) Mr. Hugh Hudson attacked the compartmentalisation of tertiary education:
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.

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).

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.

Regional Colleges and contracting in Western Australia

In contrast to the major eastern states, Western Australia does not have non-metropolitan communities large enough to support autonomous higher education institutions. Higher education (university or CAE) is concentrated in Perth and provided by four institutions, the University of Western Australia, Curtin University of Technology, Murdoch University and the Western Australian College of Advanced Education.

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 ...

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).

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.

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:

  1. that specialisation between sectors should be maintained, but that access to education in areas too small to sustain specialised institutions should be extended by contract arrangements between institutions;

  2. that the range of educational opportunities should be extended by the planned integration of external study and other modes of study.
These were far-sighted guidelines and included an implied link between contracting and external studies, but the vagueness on the question of how to implement working arrangements persisted.

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 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 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.

External studies and contracting

The regional college delivery of first year units for the awards of metropolitan higher education institutions represents conventional classroom teaching encompassing lectures, tutorials and practical classes. Walsh (1986, p.l9) pointed out that "where they exist, external studies materials are provided to lecturers but not to the students". This paper proposes deliberate shift in emphasis in contracted courses towards students using distance education materials and methods and the inclusion of local external students in classes as their circumstances permit. That is, integrating contracting and external studies. This would have two important kinds of advantages:
  1. Staff and institution-centred advantages.
    Competently designed external study guides and course materials will provide a substantial part of the briefing required for the college staff, thus reducing the extra work required from institution staff. The time required for college staff to prepare classes is considerably lessened if they are given the detailed specification of course objectives, topic scheduling, content, worked examples, tutorial problems, assignment questions, etc., to be found in any study guide. Pressures on the college library would be eased if the course materials contained the required reference reading.

    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.

  2. Student-centred advantages.
    For part-time students, classroom attendance may be optional if the delivery is based on the distance education materials. The student may elect to study as a conventional external student with the regional college lecturer as tutor. Students have the assurances that there is the closest possible accord between the regional college and metropolitan campus deliveries and that they have a ready made local peer group of students, enrolled in the same course with the same tutor. Those who elect to continue into second year as external students instead of transferring to Perth will have gained valuable experience with distance education methods.
The integration of external studies and contracting raises issues which are wider than the immediate advantages outlined above. Firstly, from the perspective of distance education system designers, contracted classes and external study are viewed as complementary modes. Secondly, contracting makes a viable contribution to the development of a network of regional college study centres for all external students.

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:

Improving the tutorial support for new external students, with particular reference to the intake of school leavers into full-time external study.

For economy in enrolment, counselling, administration and library processes, Murdoch University categorises all students in contracted classes as "external". To ensure that decisions on the actual mode of study—attending classes regularly or occasionally—are made locally by student, tutor and counsellor, the host institution payments from contracting moneys to the college are calculated as equivalent full-time student units (EFTSU) without differentiating the actual mode of study. The university attempts to ensure that each student has access, if desired, to local tutorials for at least three quarters of the first year units the student has selected. The balance of the first year units are then selected from any of the elective units offered externally by Murdoch University, for study as a conventional external student with a remote tutor on the metropolitan campus. Alternatively, students may select units from the first year of Bachelor of Business from Curtin University of Technology which are available locally by contracting to the college.

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.

Formalising the link between higher education institutions and regional colleges by providing a study centre on a very modest scale for all external higher education students in the region and thus improving the range of services from the college to external students.

Conscious of the opportunity afforded by regional college contracting funds, Murdoch University has sought to formalise the provision of study centre services. One immediate concern was that students who elected external studies for their later years would expect to continue to use the college, seeking informal tutorial assistance, computing facilities, library study and social contact. Clearly it would be impossible for college staff to refuse to help these later year students and so resources would need to be made available. Therefore the payments by Murdoch University to the college include a modest amount, $160 per EFTSU, calculated by counting all Murdoch University external students in the college geographic region, including all disciplines of study. This money is intended to meet the cost of study centre services, with responsibility on the college to optimise the expenditure in accord with the local pattern of student demand for services.

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.

Integration of study centre functions and contracting

Thus there will be considerable further debate on the role of regional colleges of TAFE as study centres for higher education external students and whether this role should be funded from existing grants or should receive extra funding. There will also be debate on whether study centres should continue to be divided in an ad hoc manner between TAFE colleges and other kinds of centres such as community education centres and branch campuses. Decisions are required on whether study centres should be metropolitan campus services (Campion, 1985, pp. 87-94) or whether these centres should be strengthened by formally integrating their functions with the contract delivery of selected first year units.

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.

Implications for staff development

Consider the staff development task posed by the following scenario. A regional college perceives the scope for a new full-time teaching position in a particular discipline, justified by combining the teaching loads for delivering several units from several universities and CAEs, teaching subjects in a range of TAFE awards, and conducting community education non-award courses. This scenario presents the TAFE teacher with a complex task requiring skills in assembling the consortium of users, adeptness with course delivery using learning packages, flexibility to relate effectively to students engaged in very diverse learning objectives, from continuing education to degree study, effectiveness in acquiring resources for the library and other facilities and, in many cases facing the demands of further formal study to upgrade qualifications for teaching in the specific discipline.

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.


Campion, M. (1985). Student support operations at Murdoch University and some personal reflections. In Castro, A. S., Livingston, K. T. and Northcott, P. H. (eds), An Australian casebook of study centres in distance education. Geelong, Vic: Deakin University, Distance Education Unit.

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 University
Murdoch, WA 6150 Australia

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