11 August 2011

TAFE < Uni? On snobs, schools and skills

It annoys me the most is the fact that university always considered to be more than TAFE. But different is not better. VET has a different knowledge set, different pedagogy, and indeed much of it is more powerful (useful) than university study.

I now teach accounting in a TAFE, at the degree level. There is a LOT of similarity between the Diploma of Accounting and the Bachelor of Accounting. Similar body of knowledge, and (perhaps unfortunately) the style of teaching is delivered rather similar also. But they are in no ways substitutable. 

I graduated from a Masters of Professional Accounting, got the workforce, and I found myself frustratingly useless.  I had paid close to $50,000, gained a large number of “critical thinking” skills and essentially none of it was useful for taxation practice.  All the know-how was missing, but I had plenty of analyse-why.  For my $60’000 and 6 odd years of my life, there shouldn’t have been ANYTHING missing.

I found the real-world-workforce very difficult as I simply had to learn the craft of bookkeeping - from scratch - on the job. This slowness cost my employer money, and he let me know about it. It damaged my confidence, disappointed my employer and crushed any hope of promotion in that firm.  

Good accountants need good bookkeeping skills; likewise doctors SHOULD have good nursing skills.  This is almost never the case, and perhaps this is the root of the problem.  

Many believe that if one can do high order statistics and vast amounts of metric algebra, you should also be able to do the “basic” mental arithmetic. The truth is  these are completely divorced skill sets.  I openly and honestly admit that my primary school was completely lacking.  During the 1980s Steiner Schools was all the rage.  Basic numeracy and spelling was irrelevant, but the child’s creativity was sacrosanct.  Now we have an adult generation tht sp33l lik dis, u no wat i mean? Steiner was extremely damaging to an entire generation of workers.  Thanks hippies.   

Aside: I am in the strange position where I cannot do something that my parents, and children seem to do very naturally - add, subtract, multiply and divide my head.  (Oddly enough, I can also actually do something that neither my parents, children can do: and that is program a VCR.)

Employer groups agree: the current model is in desperate need of change.  They aren’t getting what they expect from the kids.  The “kids” come out of higher and higher levels of school and they are still terrible when they hit the ground.  I met a senior person from the Swinburne TAFE Curriculum Development Unit who described their industry discussions.  Here is a liberal paraphrasing:
Swinburne asked “What do you want as employers?”
Industry: “We want graduates who are equipped with both the foresight (analysis) enough know-how (skills) to put it into practice.
Swinburne: “YES! We’ve got this great program where kids go from TAFE to Uni, which means…”
Industry: “No no NO!  You have got it backwards. They should go to uni FIRST so they know why they are there, and THEN to TAFE to learn how to put it into practice.  This way they learn practical skill more efficiently since they are not blindly following orders”.

So TAFE should follow uni?  Now there’s a real education revolution.

You mean "hire" education right?
So what is it about higher education that is "higher"?  If there is so much more nitty-gritty stuff at the TAFE level, then why is it seemed to be “less than” university?  In the egalitarian society that Australia is, it is extremely common to see the bookkeeper earned $70-$80,000 per annum. At the same time a graduate accountant will earn a meagre $35,000.  While one can always argue that professional accounting has an essentially endless upper ceiling, if you found the expected wage adjusted for attrition, including those graduates who just simply “didn’t ever make it into the industry”, you would find that the expected wage for accountants is far less than those of their “brainless” bookkeeping counterparts.

Somehow the mechanic in this country seems to earn more than the engineer. 

Ultimately it all boils down to supply and demand.  The professions are in constant flush supply of eager young graduates.  Employers are spoilt for choice, and consistently demand that all the training be done at school, and never on their own expense.  Compare this to industry skills, where employers are constantly falling over themselves to update the staff skills of technicians, and the savvy technician can easily outstrip the wages of the professional.  Anyone who has worked in mine can attest to this.

Compare my brother and myself.  My brother (the tradesman) complained to me about the pathetic wages he received as an apprentice during his trade school years.  He told me of how the unions were out there to protect him from the evil capitalists.  In my case I went to undergraduate, and then postgraduate studies, both at Go8 universities. I was never paid to study, rather, I racked up an obscene amount on the HECS bill.  At least six full-time years of my life have been poured into higher education. Only now is paying off.  Not a great ROI in any financial analysis. 

On the other hand, my brother was paid the entire time throughout his training, and being a VET level course he was essentially subsidised by the government such that it cost him less than $100 a semester to go to school.  On the other hand my textbooks were frequently $150 each.

Social expectations
So what is "quality" or "better" anyway?  Students mistake a higher price tag for higher quality (since it's all about exclusivity).  Employers mistake "higher qualifications" for "better" qualifications.  Students love elitism, but hate hard tests and failing.  So they just BUY elitism if they can afford it.  But when they graduate, they quickly become are one of the many; as important as a full stop in the National Library. 

The problem is both snobbery and simultaneously the lack of it. If we weren't snobs we'd look to the VET sector to provide skills that we need.  Or if we were absolutely snobby to the point of a caste system, then we wouldn't care less about skills, since caste is about who you are and not what you know or can/can't do.  

Both purgatory and no man's land are likewise unhappy medium places.   

In a stratified society, such as those in Asia, or indeed the United Kingdom, this snobbery could be justified.  Australians, with their so-called “fair go” ways, have an inherent distrust for anybody who believes in this snobbery.  Essentially the financial rewards simply aren't there, and nor are the social aspects either. 

There are opportunities for the open minded
There is a very large number of young and able students, who see the VET articulation path as a price driven opportunity.  Doing a VET diploma for one year and then articulating into another two years of higher education, essentially means that you are receiving a one third discount on your entire degree. 33% Cheaper you say? Forget about upfront HECS payments, this is the way to go.

Essentially the solution should include 1 of 2 things: ONE, either we restore they returns to higher education and really do make it “higher” where it simply is failing students currently, or TWO we should drop the backwards notion that TAFE is less than university at all. Going from Uni to TAFE isn't a downgrade - it's sharpening the knife you just forged. 

TAFE is different, it is not less than higher education.  

-Tetracarbon out