Higher education and TAFE professional development:
A distance education perspective

Clare McBeath
Curtin University of Technology

Roger Atkinson
Murdoch University

Abstract: After their initial teacher training, many TAFE staff seek to continue their professional development through further formal study. A challenge exists for higher education to respond to these needs by offering relevant and flexible higher degree courses especially designed for the purpose. This paper argues that such courses should be designed for national delivery through distance education. Courses need to consider the inclusion of industry and college based projects, and professional networking through new technologies and communications systems. A consortium approach is suggested with TAFE, industry, universities and Distance Education Centres in each state collaborating to design and deliver a shared pool of resources.

New directions for TAFE professional development

A precedent already exists for the involvement of higher education in TAFE professional development in the form of initial teacher training programmes for new TAFE staff. Initial teacher training, leading to the award of Dip Teach (TAFE), or to the Graduate Diploma (Higher and Further Education), is offered in Western Australia, for instance, by Curtin University of Technology. These are purpose designed courses, articulated from previous study in the teachers' areas of expertise. They are flexible, practical and relevant, and at least one of them is offered both on and off campus.

TAFE staff with these or other teaching qualifications may continue their post-initial professional education by means of B Ed degrees, postgraduate diplomas and masters degrees offered by various providers of higher education. However, almost invariably, these higher qualifications in education are designed for, and geared towards the special needs of teachers and administrators from the schools sector (Hall, 1987; Mageean, 1987a).

At a time when TAFE nationally is considering wide ranging reforms to keep in step with award restructuring, higher education should be paying close attention to the special needs of TAFE staff who wish to undertake postgraduate study as a component in their continuing professional development. A proposed reform package for WA TAFE requires particular attention to be given to regular annual staff development for all teachers and administrators, setting aside a set number of college hours, per person, per annum, for this purpose (Office of TAFE, 1989a). The documentation is quite specific about the meaning of relevant professional development:

The requirement for staff development may be fulfilled in a number of other ways, including return to industry programmes or tertiary courses which are in accordance with the performance management system's agreed plan for each member of staff (Office of TAFE, 1989a, 12).
Other clauses related to staff development emphasise factors such as
"Staff may negotiate ...";
"...linked to the career path...";
"...may attract TAFE travel grant or scholarship fund...";
"...the acquisition of required competencies [for promotion]...".
Here most certainly is a list of challenges waiting for a flexible and generous response from higher education. If our university faculties and departments of education could not discern the differences between the continuing and professional needs of TAFE and the schools sectors before, there can be little doubt left now.

The recently initiated "National Review of TAFE Teacher Preparation and Development" (Kirby, 1989) indicates key differences between school and TAFE needs in this area. The project brief cites explicitly the links between industry and award restructuring, the responsibility that TAFE carries in relation to these changes, and the necessity for ensuring that "newly appointed teaching staff are appropriately equipped, and current teaching staff expand their levels of competence, in terms of professional and vocational skills". However, there is no comparable need for the schools sector to be concerned with industry and award restructuring. A possible reason for this is that the direct path from school to employment is becoming less viable than the path via TAFE or higher education.

A further important difference is that higher education study is merely one of a number of ways that TAFE staff may choose for professional development purposes. While B Ed and M Ed courses for school teachers face little competition when it comes to professional upgrading, TAFE sector initiated "return to industry" programmes may develop as a very attractive alternative for TAFE staff. In the case of TAFE staff who do opt for higher education courses, they are more likely to choose to study in areas such as engineering, computing, management or administration than is the case with school staff. Furthermore, professional development for individual staff is only one aspect of a set of wider issues in staff development plans. These plans may be expected to include organisational development (Humphrey, l987; Henderson, 1981) and performance appraisal (Mageean, 1987b, 17-32; Office of TAFE, 1989a, 11) as well as TAFE-industry joint programmes.

In these circumstances, TAFE is likely to seek a strong influence on the design of higher education programmes for professional development of its staff. There are advantages to be gained by TAFE staff if their activities in industry programmes, staff development and organisational development can be integrated into their study for higher education graduate coursework awards.

Why distance education?

Why then advance a distance education perspective for TAFE professional development in the higher education scenario? Part of the answer is that this perspective is influenced by distance education's experience of how education may be delivered anywhere, anytime. This is important in relation to questions about practical constraints, such as inability to attend a university campus. It is especially important in relation to questions about whether professional education for TAFE staff should be centred on college and industry activities, in contrast to university centred activities. From a distance education perspective, these are not mutually exclusive approaches, but can be complementary.

Firstly, let us examine some questions about practical constraints. Many staff in TAFE are at various times engaged in after hours teaching duties, or other college commitments which restrict their ability to attend university campus lectures, even when they are held in the evenings. In common with many other part time students, TAFE staff often have domestic commitments and travel difficulties. Staff in non metropolitan colleges simply cannot attend weekly classes. Distance education is highly appropriate for overcoming these kinds of constraints.

Another practical constraint is that imposed by the new economic regime for higher education. Faculties of education need seriously to consider increasing class sizes in order to cope with staff to student ratios of the order of 1:15 or wider. This severely restricts their ability to deliver high quality graduate coursework programmes for small classes. As a specialised offering at the postgraduate diploma or masters level, continuing professional education for TAFE staff is not an attractive area for universities, unless some method can be found to enable resource pooling with TAFE and with universities in all states. A number of institutions are needed to provide coursework, delivery and communications infrastructures within a resource sharing framework, from which resources or course units may be used as required by participants to make up their own awards. Consortium delivery is possible only by distance education methods.

It would be possible to seek larger classes by grouping TAFE staff with secondary school or higher education staff, with the growing number of industry training personnel or with graduate students in other disciplines such as business or administration. However, this does little to promote "networking" between TAFE staff, a need mentioned in the literature with particular reference to potential senior staff (Mageean, l987a, 27). Whilst it may seem unusual to propose that distance education achieves better networking, it can in fact offer a larger and more relevant peer group, provided that the communications infrastructure is in place. As modern methods of teleconferencing, computer mediated communications and video conferencing begin to impact on Australian education, access to a national peer group is quickly becoming a realisable prospect (Mason & Kaye, 1989; Lundin, 1989; Steele & Hedberg, 1988).

Secondly, distance education can draw upon a wider range of resources for learning, from industry and TAFE, than is usually possible with campus based presentations. This is due in part to distance education's experience with multi media methods and communications technologies for delivering learning resources. It is also in part a matter of attitude towards sources of learning and environments for learning. In distance education there is no special status attached to the campus. There is, consequently, a greater interest in industry and colleges as complementary centres of expertise and experience, which can be communicated nationwide for professional education purposes.

Incorporation of this expertise into the presentation and conduct of campus based courses is severely limited or prevented by timetabling and travel factors. However, distance education methods give much greater scope for inputs to courses. For example techniques could include videotape presentations, participation in an assessment panel by teleconferencing, critical commentary on computer conferencing presentations, CD-ROM or other electronic publication of reference literature, and many others.

Thirdly, it is increasingly important that the teaching skills of TAFE staff include skills in new delivery approaches and new technologies in education (Kirby, 1989). Alternative learning strategies and open learning resource materials will be more widely used in TAFE teaching and for industry based training (Office of TAFE, WA, 1989b; Dixon, 1987). For many TAFE staff, experiences as distance education students can provide valuable understanding of these changes and the new methods, thus deriving an additional benefit from their personal professional development.

A flexible, practical and relevant programme

What sort of learning experiences do TAFE senior staff, or potential senior staff, need? What sort of subjects can higher education offer at postgraduate level? How can TAFE be reassured that courses will be relevant to college and industry needs, and not based merely on the academic traditions of universities?

There is a graduate diploma in educational administration offered specifically for TAFE staff at the Tasmanian State Institute of Technology. Its emphasis is outlined in the relevant Handbook (l989, 286):

...theoretical constituents inherent in a study of educational administration and to link them through experiential methods in promoting skills, knowledge and appropriate attitude for application in:
These are the sort of constructs which should be built into the course we are discussing. Experiential learning, certainly, should be fundamental. Interpersonal, information gathering and decision making skills are particularly important to a potential middle manager in TAFE, or anywhere else for that matter.

Experiential learning should be based on real life or simulated projects such as would be performed by senior TAFE staff. These might include the organisation of curriculum development or curriculum implementation; occupational analyses or industry surveys; development of innovative management plans or change strategies; installation of industry based training schemes. It could include things like evaluating the work of a TAFE-industry advisory group; undertaking demographic studies; generating entrepreneurial initiatives; sampling opinions; piloting programmes. It might include work on a budget; setting up a computer network or bulletin board; industrial relations; marketing courses; student counselling; or dissemination of open learning packages.

Formal interactions with a national peer group should be very strongly encouraged as components of the course. These could include activities such as presenting a paper at a national conference, publishing in the Australian Journal of TAFE Research and Development, or participating in computer conferences. The list is endless. Thinking up what to include in such a course is easier than organising how to conduct it. TAFE advisers certainly would make sure that course coordinators never ran out of realistic and useful higher degree projects.

Could ways be found then, to incorporate ideas like these into fully accredited postgraduate diploma or higher degree programmes to be delivered nationally by distance education methods?

Graduate coursework by distance education

A relevant example of graduate coursework for TAFE staff can be found in the offering by Scotland's Jordanhill College (Niven, 1989). The College's School of Further Education recognised that flexibility of delivery is of paramount importance and adopted a variety of modes including distance education. The post initial awards offer wide scope for choice from a menu of some forty modules, and progression through Certificate, Diploma and B Ed awards. A further set of modules for M Litt, M Phil and M Ed degrees, offered in collaboration with the Universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen, is available to B Ed holders.

Recent developments in distance education for managers (Asch & Smith, 1988) provide useful examples, including MBA degrees. Graduate coursework for TAFE professional development may be expected to have strong components or options in management studies, and indeed at the masters level there maybe some similarities to the MBA degree in both content and overall objectives.

The Asch & Smith (1988) examples and the Jordanhill experience (Niven, 1989) suggest the importance of having a series of post initial awards. For example, progress towards the first stage of a masters level award may be recognised by the award of a postgraduate diploma or specialist B Ed, which would counter to some extent the criticism that postgraduate awards subject the student to "long distance education" [1].

The proposition that postgraduate degree studies can be offered effectively through distance education cannot expect to be free from criticism. Among a wide range of comments by distance educators on this topic, the studies by White (1980), Bynner (1986) and Laverty 1988) may be cited as examples which isolate the key objections and propose realistic solutions. Whilst a discussion of these is beyond the scope of this paper, it is relevant to draw attention to the role of new technologies in overcoming two of the major objections. These relate to access to library resources, and interaction with a peer group of postgraduates and supervisors. Being located in colleges, TAFE staff may be better able to benefit from new technologies for addressing these problems, compared with other distance education postgraduates.

Firstly, access to library resources for project research is essential. The newest solution is to deliver relevant resources to the student's college library, by laser optical disk and by online access to remote databases. For example, one laser optical disk in the commonly used compact or CD format may store up to 100,000 pages of text and indexing (Fletcher, 1988). With modern methods for producing digitalised text from typescript copy, it is quite feasible for a national project to create a 100,000 page "reader", containing select documents from Australian TAFE authorities, which could meet a major need for project writers and be used for other purposes also.

Secondly, face to face meetings or residential schools are not the only medium available for providing interactivity with a peer group of students and supervisors. A number of other media may be used also, in a multi media approach. Videoconferencing, although relatively expensive, is developing rapidly with impetus from the airline pilots' extended strike in 1989 (Cranswick, 1989), and regional initiatives such as the Pilbara videoconferencing network for the region's colleges and major companies (Lange, 1989). Teleconferencing is economical and easily available, but under utilised by higher education (Lundin, 1989). Computer conferencing, relatively new to Australia, is an economical medium with advantages due to the freedom from time constraints (Mason & Kaye, 1989).

Organising a national higher degree course

Consider the potential application of a distance education approach to a higher degree course for TAFE middle level or prospective senior staff, as recommended by Mageean (1987b, 40). The national organisation of such an award may be somewhere between the two extremes, which are: However, these extremes and the undesirable aspects associated with them can be avoided by using a number of strategies. In looking at these it is important to note that in the unified national system only eight DECs are "licensed" to design and produce distance education courses. Only two of the eight DECs so far are providers of initial teacher education for TAFE - the South Australian College of Advanced Education and Curtin University of Technology in the Western Australian Distance Education Centre. Therefore, most of the providers, including the large providers in New South Wales and Victoria, will need to make arrangements with a DEC if they wish to participate in a distance education higher degree specifically for TAFE senior staff.

Instead of individual arrangements between established TAFE teacher education providers and individual DECs, national collaboration is the desirable alternative. In order to do this a wide range of possibilities require research and development. For example, each of the providers may offer their own awards with their own course structures, but with collaboration in the form of a shared pool of resource packages. Some relevant instances of national collaboration of this type have been achieved in TAFE distance education (McBeath, 1988; Ashurst, 1988). Certain types of units, for example project based units, could have national participation integrated into their delivery, by a computer conferencing or teleconferencing system, without infringing upon regional autonomies.

Further levels of collaboration may be added in the future to the minimal levels outlined above. These could encompass multi campus, multi sector course teams for both design and delivery, relating to agreed areas of higher degree coursework or even to the entire degree. This does not imply a rigid uniformity. On the contrary, higher degree students may expect to benefit from access to a wider choice of units, national availability of the highest quality regional and industry specialisations, interaction with national as well as regional peer groups, full participation by TAFE as a design and delivery partner, use of comprehensive resource packages, and minimisation of locational constraints.


It is not possible to develop details for courses of this type in isolation. Extensive negotiations will be required between TAFE authorities, DECs and institutions presently providing initial TAFE teacher education, to ensure optimum design and commitment to collaboration. Australian institutions are not used to collaboration in consortia, TAFE higher education partnerships or course team approaches. Nevertheless, the concept of a higher degree award for TAFE professional development offers the opportunity and we have outlined some parameters and some directions for urgent further research.


  1. This phrase was used by John Halfpenny in an address to the 9th Biennial Forum of the Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association, July 1989, in the context of industry criticism of excessively lengthy periods of study for higher education awards.


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Please cite as: McBeath, C. & Atkinson, R. (1990). Higher education and TAFE professional development: A distance education perspective. Australian Journal of TAFE Research and Development, 5 (2), 66-74. http://www.clare-mcbeath.id.au/pubs/ajtaferd1990-mcb-atk.html
Dr Clare McBeath
Faculty of Education
Curtin University of Technology
GPO Box U1987, Perth WA 6001 Australia
Dr Roger Atkinson
Academic Services Unit
Murdoch University
Murdoch, WA 6150 Australia

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