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Distance education and the TAFE-Higher
Education interface in Western Australia

Roger Atkinson
Murdoch University

Clare McBeath
Curtin University of Technology

Abstract: With particular reference to the Western Australian context, this paper examines the three main aspects of the TAFE-higher education interface, each having special relevance for distance education. Firstly, TAFE is a provider of external students to higher education. Vocational courses attracting higher education credits and further education courses both have relevance for prospective students in higher education. Secondly, TAFE's extensive reach into the community, with some 250 colleges in Australia, offers the most effective basis for realistic provision of delivery and study centre services. The concept of a "Distance Education Agency" in each regional college of TAFE is especially relevant in Western Australia. Thirdly, professional education and staff development in TAFE generate higher education enrolments but the requirements are distinctly different from those of secondary school staff. For senior TAFE staff there is an opportunity for a nationally coordinated higher degree distance education course.


Higher education in Australia has given little attention to its interface with TAFE, the technical and further education sector. Indeed, some observers may question the existence of this interface on the grounds that interaction between the two sectors is insignificant. This paper seeks to promote an improved perception of the importance of the TAFE-higher education interface, with particular reference to distance education's role in the three main activities. These are the progression of students from TAFE to higher education study, collaboration with TAFE in providing infrastructures for tertiary education in non metropolitan Australia, and professional education for TAFE staff.

In two of these activities, student progression and professional education, higher education certainly gives very much more attention to its secondary school interface. Secondary syllabus design, institutional advertising in secondary schools, entrance examinations, ranking and selection of school leavers and professional education for secondary teachers are major activities for higher education. The traditional pathway into higher education is academic oriented upper secondary schooling and it has not been necessary for higher education to "cultivate" its other interface. Nevertheless, this other interface is growing under a variety of influences including demographic changes, demands for reskilling the national workforce, restructuring of tertiary education, equity and access issues, award restructuring, desires for improved occupational and social mobility, and pressures from governments.

Distance education is a significant participant in activities at the TAFE-higher education interface, because of the kinds of services required. Most of the students working across this interface are adults with employment, domestic and locational constraints, often in very small groups in communities distant from the higher education campuses. There are requirements for networking to regional colleges of TAFE and for design of programs of study which integrate with diverse kinds of working environments, career paths and previous educational experiences. All this is everyday "business" for distance education. TAFE as a source of higher education students.

The complex issues affecting the progression of students from TAFE on to higher education have been discussed by a number of Australian authors, including Mathers (1981), Hudson (1986), Bradley (1988), Young (1988), McBeath (1989) and Atkinson and McBeath (1989). These writers have focused largely on matters relating to articulation, which is of greatest relevance for persons who hold a TAFE advanced certificate or diploma and wish to study further for a degree qualification in the same field. However, there should be increasing interest in the further education area of TAFE, which through short, non award courses can prepare students for admission to higher education.

Both groups are predominantly mature age persons with employment, domestic and locational constraints which mean that distance education will be a major mode for meeting their prospective higher education needs. For example, a study in progress at Murdoch University has indicated that at least 24% of the external students in BSc Computer Science had completed some TAFE study in computing (Atkinson and McBeath, 1989). The study by Anwyl et al. (1987, p43-50) indicated that the proportion of part time and external higher education students who commence on the basis of a TAFE qualification is in the range 6 to 20%.

Considering first the persons who have completed a TAFE award, articulation is "the process of achieving access to education and of gaining status or credit in one tertiary sector for study and experiences gained in another, in less than the compound duration of the courses undertaken" (Young, 1988). Major issues in articulation include higher education admissions practices, equitable credits for previous study and experience, the accessibility of part time study through distance education or appropriate timetabling of classes, and underlying fundamental questions about the real or perceived differences between TAFE and higher education types of students, curricula and methods. On some of these issues, Federal government policies have become forceful:

... If there is a lack of will in higher education in fostering and developing links with TAFE, let me assure you about the Federal government's resolve. Our interest will be rigorously and systematically pursued ... the need to improve credit transfer arrangements is not some passing whim ... we will, if need be, be prepared to give preference in the future in the allocation of growth to those institutions which have developed effective joint programs and credit transfer arrangements with TAFE colleges (Dawkins, 1989, p68-69).

We have been encouraging students from a range of backgrounds, particularly disadvantaged ones, to participate in higher education and for many of these people TAFE provides the first step to continue their education beyond school. Yet, in such circumstances when credit transfer would assist such students to move into higher education, we have been putting quite needless barriers in their way. Credit transfer and articulation arrangements across institutions are significant components of the equity strategies which are a feature of the agenda for reform. Those students who have not traditionally participated in higher education: women, migrants, Aborigines, the disabled, students from rural and isolated areas and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, but have found their way into TAFE colleges, possibly through part-time study, through adult education courses or vocational courses, will now have greater opportunities to move on to higher education (Ramsey, 1989, p90).

These quotations illustrate both the government's determination on these issues and encouragement to broaden TAFE's further education role, to include more explicit responsibility to provide a wider variety of first steps, "technical" or "further", towards higher education. In doing so the policy makers are careful to insist on an overall perspective for TAFE: "... reforms to our higher education system involving TAFE ... must not devalue those prime roles of TAFE which lie outside higher education", and, "In abolishing one binary system we do not want to create another" (Ramsey, 1989, p88).

In some respects it is an advantage to higher education to be sourcing adult students with some recent study experience that is focussed strongly on the development of self confidence and study skills, in contrast to the focus on specific subject knowledge that tends to make upper secondary level study, by itself, less suitable for adults returning to study. TAFE's further education reach into the community is very extensive and has grown very quickly, to the point of attracting ministerial criticism for too much growth in preparatory programs (Dawkins, 1989, p70). Over sixty percent of Australians have taken some form of adult education courses, and such participation increases substantially the chances of returning to formal education for a higher qualification (Evans, 1988).

Although some of the most immediate issues in the progression of students from TAFE to higher education are now showing much better progress, there are wider issues to be developed. Some authors look towards full "vertical integration" within broad occupational areas such as engineering (Bright, 1989), which is in accord with those proponents for award restructuring who seek "shop floor to managing director" career opportunities. The nature of the secondary school interface for both TAFE and higher education may be subject to further questioning: "Is there an argument for full time vocational courses in technical colleges, parallel to upper secondary, leading to certification and also providing a basis for entrance to tertiary education?" (Bright, 1989).

There are too few examples of advanced articulation in which there is cross sectoral integrative curriculum planning (e.g. Lane and O'Brien, 1987; Burchett, 1987; Davies, 1989). Perhaps the new Distance Education Centres, with their experience in sub degree awards and their scope for innovative curricula which can be offered statewide and nationwide, will generate innovative new examples. Certainly the Western Australian Distance Education Centre will seek to expand the interaction with Western Australia's TAFE, TAFE External Studies and K-12 distance education.

Regional colleges of TAFE and distance education agencies

Ramsey (1989, p89) has reminded us that "it is Commonwealth capital that has put a TAFE infrastructure throughout the country to a point where now any town or centre of modest size has a TAFE facility". The problem about higher education collaborating with TAFE to use this infrastructure is that towns of modest size generate classes of modest size. Rarely is it possible to have conventional higher education classes of viable size in regional colleges of TAFE and therefore it is mandatory to use distance education methods. In order to teach effectively with small classes and to integrate with other services to students, the concept of a "Distance Education Agency" is proposed here.

In the Western Australian context, the country centres in question are Albany (Great Southern Regional College of TAFE), Geraldton, Kalgoorlie, Karratha and Port Hedland (Hedland College). The last three are autonomous colleges but all five are similar in their activities and the generic description "regional colleges of TAFE" is appropriate. A sixth regional college, Peel in the Rockingham-Mandurah districts relatively close to Perth, is emerging. Bunbury, a larger centre, has the South West Regional College of TAFE and the Bunbury Institute of Advanced Education, a small branch campus of the Western Australian CAE. There are also three specialised and small branch campuses of Curtin University, the Western Australian School of Mines at Kalgoorlie, Collie Federated School of Mines and Muresk Agricultural College near Northam.

The initial development of regional college contracting (Walsh, 1986; Atkinson, 1987; Standish, 1989; Atkinson, 1989) focussed upon "the teaching of the early years of higher education courses under contract in TAFE institutions using TAFE employed staff" (Ramsey, 1989, p90). The advantages for the students involved have been summarised succinctly by Ramsey (1989, p4), notwithstanding his lack of mention of Western Australia, Sunraysia College, Mt Gambier College and others pioneering in this area.

The advantages to regional colleges in undertaking higher education work are associated with resource sharing, and increased size and status as the accredited regional agent for metropolitan institutions. The teaching load that is required to justify a new staff position is more readily obtained if TAFE and higher education teaching loads can be summed. Whilst the summation of teaching loads could not be used for fields of study that are not represented in both TAFE and higher education, for example hospitality and trades, it is a relevant concept for important fields such as business and nursing, and individual subject areas such as English, mathematics and computing. Diversification into higher education teaching, although limited to first year level, improves the attractiveness of regional college teaching appointments. In addition to benefits for staffing, resource sharing with higher education can extend to other areas such as library, computing laboratories, science laboratories, counselling services and student facilities.

Major issues and disadvantages in regional college contracting have been discussed from different perspectives by Atkinson (1987, 1989) and Standish (1989). The issues of class size and appropriateness of the method of delivery are important. For example, one particular unit delivered in 1988 at one college was based on two lectures and one two hour practical per week, an "expenditure" of about one sixth of a college lecturer's total teaching load, for an "income" of just 0.375 EFTSU. In general, local classes attain a reasonable size, greater than ten students, only in business studies and possibly nursing also.

However with distance education enrolments, regional college services may be varied in a flexible way to take into account factors such as class size, readiness of students for autonomous study, inability of some students to attend regularly owing to other commitments or distance, quality of the distance education package, availability of college staff qualified in the subject area, etc. Thus, for an individual student, college services may include conventional classroom teaching for larger classes, often assisted by a distance education package; or a weekly tutorial to support the study of a distance education unit; or in other units the services may be modest study centre functions including occasional informal academic assistance.

The emergence of Distance Education Centres is likely to promote interest in regional colleges as collaborators. Firstly the new DECs will seek to develop their infrastructure arrangements, including study centres at regional colleges, on a larger scale than previously possible. Secondly, the DECs will be in a pre-eminent position to engage regional colleges in contracts for local tutorial based delivery, having at their disposal high quality study materials to assist the local lecturers and students.

DECs may benefit in three important ways from an association with regional colleges. The first is improved recruitment of students through a regional agent which has good contacts with the community, particularly with school leavers who wish to commence higher education without having to leave their home town, and with persons who find that participation in the college's further education courses opens a pathway into higher education. Also, regional colleges may attract persons who lack the confidence to commence distance education, unless "bridged" into this mode by a transitional phase incorporating local tuition in selected first year units with an experienced tutor-counsellor. The second type of benefit is improved retention, to the extent that this is achievable through support from appropriate and high quality local services, especially for inexperienced students in their first year of study. The third type of benefit relates to physical resources, such as library, computing facilities, laboratories, and the emerging new functions of a communications node. This may include computer mediated communications, teleconferencing facilities, and interactive television networking. For example, Karratha College is installing television links between its campuses and industrial sites, with substantial funds provided by industry and the Federal government (Davy, 1988).

The formal title "Distance Education Agency" is proposed as a conceptual structure for relationships between a regional college of TAFE and DECs. Conceptually an agency is a function within and controlled by a college, with responsibility for negotiating with one or more DECs to obtain contracts for teaching local tutorials in appropriate courses or units, and for selling study centre services.

The specification "college controlled" is essential, to encourage local initiatives, give maximal scope for efficient utilisation of resources, and ensure a link between local needs and the selection of a DEC or DECs to meet those needs. As an example of local initiative, Albany's Great Southern Regional College conducts an External Studies Agency, originally with some Federal funding. An integrated service for both higher education and TAFE sectors of distance education, it has developed to a level that uses 1.5 equivalent full time staff for coordination, counselling and secretarial functions (Davy, 1988). It is also important to have the allocation of agency income determined by each college in accordance with local priorities. For example, in some circumstances the appointment of additional teaching staff in an expanding subject such as computer science may be the most immediately effective measure for securing further and larger contracts. In other circumstances, some other allocation such as appointing a specialist coordinator-counsellor with distance education expertise may be more effective in terms of expanding the agency's contracts.

The concept is not dependent upon any particular set of outcomes from the extensive debate that has occurred over the role of study centres in Australian distance education (for example Gough, 1980; Castro et al., 1985; Northcott and Shapcott, 1986; Dekkers et al., 1988). The level of services is a matter for bilateral negotiation. For example, the contract between a regional college and a particular DEC may be nothing more than an occasional invigilation of examinations, whilst the same college may have an extensive contract with another DEC, covering many services ranging from an appropriate share of a college specialist for student recruitment and counselling, through to hiring of specified periods of satellite television reception. Both of these extremes are amenable to fee for service accounting or other arrangements (several years ago TAFE External Studies College gave a facsimile machine to each college in a very effective barter deal).

This discussion implies the encouragement of a "market" relationship between DECs and agencies. In this "market", DECs and providers of TAFE distance education may offer payments, from their normal recurrent funding, to colleges for the performance of specified functions, whilst the colleges' agencies may choose contracts with one or several providers, at varying levels according to the services they can afford to deliver at the offered level of payment. This is not an argument in favour of "marketing" as a general principle in education, but a mechanism arising from fundamental equity and access claims by regional communities.

Access by regional colleges to more than one DEC is important in relation to two problem areas. Firstly, if there is pressure on admissions quotas at the metropolitan campus this is likely to result in there being no places available for "extra" students at a regional college campus. Also, entry standards determined by the tertiary entrance score for school leavers or imputed score for mature age applicants may vary significantly for the same course at different metropolitan campuses. Lower ranked applicants seeking regional college delivery may miss out if the college is contracted with a metropolitan campus that has a high cutoff. The second problem area is that devolution of tutoring functions, and on campus sessions where required, to colleges instead of using metropolitan tutors and on campus sessions is very dependent upon the attitude of the academic school, faculty or department involved. If confronted with too many disappointments and disadvantages, the regional colleges and their prospective students could seek the services of another DEC, notwithstanding the severe restriction that this may place upon an important option that should be open, which is to transfer to conventional full time enrolment on campus in Perth for second and later years.

Conversely, colleges that do not offer good services and sufficient numbers of higher education students will secure only minimal contracts and will suffer in the informal local accountability processes that operate in regional communities. The Western Australian Distance Education Centre with its personalised links to WA's regional colleges will have to "cultivate" both sides of the interface in order to develop the agency concept.

Professional education and staff development in TAFE

Professional development for TAFE staff is the third important aspect of the interface with higher education. For example, Curtin University is Western Australia's provider of initial teacher education for new staff in TAFE, through the BA(Education) TAFE. This is an articulated course incorporating block credit for trade or para professional qualifications, delivered in day release classes or by distance education. It is not a course solely for TAFE staff as enrolments by industry training officers and related staff are increasing. TAFE staff with this or other teaching qualifications may continue their professional education by means of graduate diplomas, postgraduate diplomas, BEd degrees, and masters by coursework provided by Curtin and other Western Australian providers.

Distance education is an important mode of delivery for TAFE staff seeking higher awards in education, in their subject areas, or in educational management. Many staff have after hours classes in their TAFE teaching duties, which places constraints on their ability to attend after hours classes at the higher education campuses. Furthermore, TAFE staff will become increasingly involved with alternative learning strategies and open learning resource materials (TAFE WA, 1989) and experience with distance education methods can be an additional benefit from their personal professional development activities.

Participation by higher education in staff development for TAFE is not simply a matter of placing additional students in existing undergraduate or graduate classes for secondary school staff, or into existing graduate coursework and research in specific subject areas. There will be little participation by the university whose registrar, quoted by Hall (1987, pl9), suggested that "TAFE teaching is not so different from other teaching". Staff development in TAFE, as in many other large and diverse organisations, will be determined by the organisation and the individuals in it, choosing the most appropriate mix of internal resources, higher education resources, and industry or commerce resources in accordance with internally negotiated performance management and career path considerations (for example, TAFE WA, 1989).

Thus higher education will have to design and negotiate attractive programs of study or combinations of coursework and research in order to secure a role in TAFE staff development (Mageean, 1987b). There are three main areas: beginning TAFE teachers (Krzemionka, 1987), post initial study in either education or a subject area, or in both (Hall, 1987), and senior staff (Mageean, 1987a). The first of these areas is relatively well developed through a single higher education campus in each state including the NT and ACT, except that NSW has two. Block release, day release and internship methods are used widely, plus in four states, distance education methods (Krzemionka, 1987). Only two of these providers have DEC status, Curtin University in the Western Australian Distance Education Centre, and South Australian CAE-Adelaide University.

However, the post initial and senior TAFE staff areas are relatively poorly serviced. Criticisms have been made about the use of secondary BEd courses, although there are in some cases a few units specifically addressing TAFE needs (Hall, 1987, 17-20). One problem is that many of TAFE's specialist areas, such as trades, hospitality and secretarial, have no ready identification with university departments, in contrast to the case with secondary teachers. Also in contrast to secondary teachers, industrial and commercial study leave or placements for skills renewal, consultancy or local applied research and development are likely to become increasingly significant in TAFE staff development, in competition with subject specific graduate qualifications offered by higher education. The opportunities for higher education to link industry based projects for TAFE staff into graduate coursework credit should not be overlooked.

As part of a reform package under discussion by Western Australia's TAFE, all lecturers and senior lecturers will undertake individual staff development plans each year. The relationship between lecturing hours, staff development hours and other duties is complex and is linked to other proposals such as the 50 week, 3 semester year, but the proposed amount for staff development is substantial (TAFE WA, 1989). The typical distribution of this time between the various avenues it may be allocated to is yet to emerge, but for those who put their elective time into higher education enrolment the translation may amount to 0.25 to 0.4 EFTSU. The prospective addition is locally significant, but of course will not occur unless attractive programs are offered, with distance education as an option to give time and location flexibility. It is interesting to note that the University of Technology, Sydney, Institute of Technical and Adult Teacher Education (ITATE) has signalled its intention to "go external" (DEET, 1989, Agenda paper 6).

With respect to the needs of senior TAFE staff, a nationally coordinated, higher degree distance education course has been proposed (Mageean, 1987a, p37-40; Mageean, 1987b, p27). It deserves a high priority on the DEC's agendas for it is potentially one of the most feasible candidates for a national approach, being a specialised area with extensive formal and informal national networking. Mageean (1987a, p40) recommended that it be "designed for, and to a significant extent by, TAFE senior staff from all authorities".

Concluding Remarks

The three activities at the TAFE-higher education interface influence one another. At the local, operational level it is not unusual to encounter regional college lecturers who wish to discuss, with innocent juxtaposition, higher education admissions or credits for their current or former TAFE students, the higher education teaching they are conducting or wishing to conduct, and the question of which external graduate diploma they should choose for themselves (with accompanying small talk about the distinctiveness of their isolated community, advice on long distance driving, the college director's opinion of Perth campuses, etc.). The message is clear at local, operational level.

The message is also clear from Federal government level. The part that is not clear is whether higher education has fully appreciated these messages and has the will to respond.


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Cite as:Atkinson, R. and McBeath, C. (1989). Distance education and the TAFE-higher education interface in Western Australia. Paper presented at the Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association 9th Biennial Forum, Gippsland Institute, Churchill, Victoria, 10-14 July, 1989. http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/confs/aspesa89.html
Dr Clare McBeath
Faculty of Education
Curtin University of Technology
GPO Box U1987, Perth WA 6001, Australia
Email: c.mcbeath@curtin.edu.au
Dr Roger Atkinson
Academic Services Unit
Murdoch University
Murdoch WA 6150 , Australia
Email: atkinson@cleo.murdoch.edu.au

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