Recently, in a moment of utter frustration and despair, a TAFE student felt driven to remark, 'Is this what TAFE thinks of their main clients!' The immediate source of this student's concerns was an apparent lack of responsiveness and trust displayed by a TAFE college towards its student clientele. Specifically, the student claimed that his TAFE college refused to make any provision for students to gain after hours access to facilities and equipment on the basis that 'there is too much risk of damage or theft'. Institution and student were, presumably, at odds with each other rather being part of the same organisation and the same process of teaching and learning.
This is a simple enough incident, surely, and not one to be taken too seriously? But as it is definitely not an isolated one (peculiar to one particular TAFE College and, therefore, easily repudiated or reversed) the incident, in fact, highlights something far more disturbing than a simple lack of trust. For looking below such surface appearances this incident demonstrates that TAFE's reputation as a provider of high quality and accessible support services and amenities is itself at stake here. And unless immediate steps are taken to become once again service-oriented and client-responsive, TAFE's share of the market for international and domestic students may set into an irreversible decline.
These are some of the conclusions reached in a recently released report entitled Are you being served? Client perspectives on student services and amenities in TAFE. Commissioned by the Education and Student Services Standing Committee (ESSSC) of the former National TAFE Chief Executives' Committee, and managed by the Victorian TAFE Students and Apprentices' Network (VTSAN), the report is the first national study to focus on the question of how effectively TAFE is meeting client needs for support services and amenities. And the picture which emerges is a gloomy one.
The vocational education and training sector, of which TAFE is still the largest part, has undergone dramatic changes in recent years, with the advent of an open training market in which TAFE colleges are viewed as just one of many providers. TAFE colleges are increasingly required to compete with their private sector counterparts for government training funds and students have been cast as 'consumers' of programs and services, for which they are increasingly expected to pay. In this climate, TAFE colleges have been encouraged to become more client-focussed and commercally oriented however, in general, it is industry, rather than the individual student, which is now viewed as TAFE's principal client.
Traditionally, of course, student services and amenities have performed a vital role in TAFE by supporting the access, participation and retention of students, especially women and students with special needs. Over the past decade, however, TAFE has been subject to significant budgetary restraint and government demands for increased efficiency and productivity. Historically under-valued and under-resourced, TAFE student services and amenities have often borne the brunt of recent budget cuts and organisational restructures.
This research study was designed to gauge the relative importance and effectiveness of student services and amenities in TAFE from a client perspective. Based on the findings of a survey of 2339 TAFE students across Australia, the report provides a national overview of student perceptions of, and satisfaction with, support services and amenities. Although its principal focus was with TAFE, the report's findings and recommendations have wider implications for the vocational and education training sector as a whole.
Client Perceptions and Satisfaction
Such is the crucial role performed by student services and amenities in facilitating the educational development and welfare of TAFE students, that over one in five resondents (and almost one in three special needs students) said they may have dropped out of their courses if such assistance had not been available. Almost half of all respondents believed that students services were 'very important' in helping them to get the most out of their courses. In the words of one student, 'The services provided by organisations such as the student union, or sport and recreation, mean that a college education isn't just an academic one'.
From a national perspective the three most important support services identified by respondents were employment services, information services, and facilities, closely followed by health, medical and safety services, learning support services, student association services, financial assistance, and counselling services. In terms of client satisfaction with the quality and level of provision, over two thirds believed that TAFE was performing well in the areas of information services; learning support services; and counselling services, however, of the top eight priority service categories, five were reported to be provided poorly, or not at all - in regard to financial assistance; health, medical and safety services; student association services; facilities; and employment services.
Overall, women students allocated higher priority than men to the full range of student services and amenities, with at least one in ten more respondents identifying, as essential or fairly important, such areas as employment services; counselling; and child care. Women, as well, were notably less satisfied with the health, medical and safety services provided in TAFE. Services which students with special needs identified as important, but poorly provided for, included learning support services, disability services, and child care services.
Only 2.3% of respondents reported having 'no problems' with student services and amenities, with many feeling that support services were 'sub-standard', and would not be tolerated in a university environment. Many felt that more resources (funding and staff) should be devoted to student services and amenities and that TAFE student organisations should be more involved in the planning, management and evaluation of student services and amenities.
The findings of this study certainly suggest that TAFE's priorities, resourcing and delivery of support services and amenities are out of kilter with the requirements of its student clientele. The problem, however, does not lie with teaching and student service staff, who the students generally recognise as operating under adverse conditions. These students attribute the decline in the quality and level of service to the impact of severe budget cutbacks, as these require a greater rather than a lesser commitment of resources.
Customer service and consumer rights
In 1994, individual students numbered around 1.7 million across Australia, and contributed about $111 million in student fees and charges, substantially more than industry and enterprise clients. Income from full fee international students in TAFE reached around $40 million nationally in 1994. If TAFE is to become more client-focussed and competitive in the training market, it must in future respond more effectively to the needs and concerns of its principal client base; that is, to individual students.
The new environment of market competition poses several challenges for TAFE in particular, and vocational education and training in general. With fewer administrative overheads and minimal student services and amenities, low-cost private providers present a formidable commercial threat to TAFE. Many TAFE colleges have resorted to rationalising student services in an effort to become more price competitive. The result is that TAFE's capacity to provide high quality and accessible support is steadily declining. The principal losers are women and disadvantaged groups, many of whom rely heavily on services in TAFE such as child care, learning support and disability services.
In the end, TAFE itself may be the biggest loser. As recent research commissioned by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research shows, high quality support services and amenities are one of the few market edges which TAFE has over its private competitors. Yet, as the ESSSC report shows, TAFE colleges have been slow to recognise and exploit their marketing potential.
College managers claim that, unlike their their private competitors, TAFE is disadvantaged by the resource allocation models now used by governments. They contend that competitive tendering and associated funding formulae create a financial disincentive for public providers to maintain 'non-core services'. In the ESSSC's view, all recipients of public training funds, whether public or private, should be equally obliged to provide essential support services. To this end, its report recommends that support services and amenities in future be adequately funded and monitored as a core component of government training contracts. To do so 'would ensure that the playing field is more level for providers and clients alike'.
The reasons behind the relative neglect and recent decline of student services in TAFE are as much cultural as they are financial. Coming from a trade school background and imbued with the new 'managerialism', many TAFE directors regard student services as luxuries. Learning resource centres, compensatory education and counselling are often seen as 'icing on the cake', rather than as essential academic and non-academic services.
The ESSSC report argues that provision of student services and amenities are central to TAFE's mission and integral to the educational process. Resource priorities and management strategies which treat them simply as a short term cost are described as 'ill-conceived and myopic'. Not only do they run the risk of downgrading TAFE's community service obligations, but they also overlook the significant longer term social and economic benefits which flow from high quality service provision.
Unless higher priority and sufficient resources are allocated to support services and amenities in the VET system, 'skills formation will be less efficient and effective, increasing numbers of students with special needs will be placed at risk, and the system as a whole will produce higher rates of student attrition and resource wastage'.
In spite of recent efforts to make TAFE more client-focussed, the study found that TAFE managers are yet to acknowledge the contractual obligations which accompany commercial marketing of training. Consumer rights are the flipside of user pays. To the extent that students are now obliged to pay for TAFE services and amenities, the report argues that they are equally entitled to expect a minimum level and standard of provision. To this end, the report recommends the development of a code of practice for VET service providers, and a charter of consumer rights for VET service users.
In a user pays system, payment of fees in exchange for educational 'products' implies that a commercial contract has been entered. In the wake of recent allegations of misleading course information and outdated curricula, universities have become more sensitive to consumer rights and the need for responsible marketing. TAFE would be well advised to follow the same path. Otherwise, it faces the prospect of dissatisfied students exercising their contractual rights and resorting to litigious action in an effort hold their providers to account.
Sink or swim?
'Quality, not cost, should be the guiding light and a 'customer first' mentality should pervade all aspects of VET program and service provision'. Accordingly, the report suggests that it is time for TAFE (and non-TAFE) providers to put in place structures, training, and a service culture which enhance quality and performance standards.
Supporting more active student participation in the provision of student services and amenities is highlighted as another step for improving responsiveness. Given that, in many instances, up to 80% of TAFE college budgets for student services and amenities are derived from general service and amenities fees, the case for greater student involvement is compelling.
The ESSSC report makes several other recommendations for improving the quality and effectiveness of service provision. Foremost is a proposal to develop a broad and flexible national framework for VET student services and amenities, supported by national targets, adequate resourcing, flexible delivery, better information, and improvements in marketing, quality assurance, and staff development.
In the face of even more substantial budget
cuts, TAFE needs to review its priorities, and devise some innovative
ways of responding to the individual student's needs. Clearly
TAFE needs to listen more attentively to these students' concerns.
For how TAFE rises to this challenge will ultimately determine
whether it sinks or swims in the marketplace.
Damon Anderson, Research Fellow, Monash University, ACER Centre for the Economics of Education and Training.
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