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Standing Committee on Education and Employment - 25/06/2014 - Role of technical and further education system and its operation

BABOVIC, Mr Nik, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Industry and VET), CQUniversity

BOWMAN, Prof. Scott, Vice-Chancellor and President, CQUniversity

Committee met at 11:17.

CHAIR ( Mr Ewen Jones ): Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I remind witnesses that this hearing is a legal proceeding of parliament and warrants the same respect as proceedings of the House. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given to date will be recorded by Hansard and will attract parliamentary privilege. I invite you to make some brief introductory remarks before we proceed to questions.

Prof. Bowman : Thank you for inviting us to speak with you today. We are a university that is going through profound change and, as of next week, we will be merging with the Central Queensland Institute of TAFE to become the first dual-sector university in Queensland. That will mean that we will be a university of somewhere around 38,000 students. We will have a footprint, in terms of the dual-sector university, that will be in Mackay, Rockhampton, Gladstone, Emerald and then a number of small delivery sites as well.

We have been working on this project for around about four years. It is really a project that came about due to a renewal plan for the university, where we set out to become Australia's most engaged university. We went out to our communities and said, 'Where do you want us to work with you? We do not want engagement to be this fluffy thing. We want it to be genuine partnerships, where we help you meet your aspirations in partnership.' Being in Central Queensland, because of the region it is and because of the resource industry and the agricultural industry, a message that came back very loud and clear was, 'If you really want to engage, then you have got to really engage across the whole spectrum of tertiary education and not just in degrees, masters, research and PhDs.'

We considered long and hard whether we should set up our own RTO arm and develop a VET capacity through that. Then it became pretty evident that we had a pretty good TAFE in the region. We started to look at how we could work more closely with them. What emerged there was that the best way of working with them was to merge with them. That has been a project that has been ongoing for around 4.5 years. We gained around about $74 million in funding from the SAF and HEEF funds. The Queensland government is putting in around about $130 million worth of assets and then we are putting in the university assets to form this new university next week.

Ms MacTIERNAN: I am just fascinated by the structure. Obviously, you cannot describe the 38,000 as university students. How is the administration working? How do you bring the two together?

CHAIR: I would also like to know the role that Education Queensland, John Paul Langbroek or his people might have had on the structure and how you take a dynamic organisation like a university with a TAFE.

Mr Babovic : Just a little bit around the structure, the Queensland government have been going through a major reform with the TAFEs. There originally were 13 TAFE colleges. One will merge with Central Queensland University, which is us, and the other 12 will merge into one TAFE Queensland. Essentially, you have got two TAFE colleges that will be there. The 12 that they have will merge down to six smaller entities, which will have a general manager who will report to a CEO. We think ours is quite unique. This is another reform from John-Paul Langbroek and we have been working really closely in partnership with the Queensland government to develop this structure and what we put in there.

Our structure internally has been quite strong. We have a head of that division, but that division looks after TAFEs as one area of their division. We are looking at a fully integrated model where all of the service parts of the TAFE will be integrated into the university, but the two vocational schools will become part of what will be TAFE at CQUniversity.

CHAIR: One of the criticisms or comments that we have been receiving and one of the things I have noticed is with the role of the federal government when it comes to funding—I have not gone all the way down the road of checking exactly how it is, but there is a feeling I get—from the federal government perspective is that, as the federal government keeps on pouring money in, the state governments by percentages are putting in less and less. We seem to be backfilling. Do you think that this role in coupling up with the university and the way that we fund universities is a better model for funding?

Prof. Bowman : The funding model will not really change. We will still get the funding for the university studies from the federal government and a large proportion for the funding for VET education will be coming from the state government. We will have two paymasters after next week. One of the things that we have found is that the TAFEs have become, in our opinion, over reliant on state funding and really have not gone out and looked for all of the other opportunities. We can see lots of opportunities. If we are responsive and we can deliver to industry's needs, then there are a lot of other sources of funding out there.

What industry argues and a lot of private RTOs have told us is, 'You should get to a point where the university can be responsive and can act quickly.' I think they have been very supportive of this, because as a university we have been very quick on our feet and we have got things up to industry very quickly. They say, 'If you can do that with the TAFE, then because of your superior facilities in the VET education then we can put more business your way.' We would see that, over the next few years, we will become less reliant on state funding. State funding will still be important, but there are all sorts of opportunities out there.

Mr Babovic : The other issue around funding is that essentially, as a university, we do not work through a broker. We work directly with the federal government. The other portion is whether it is a good or bad system. We would suddenly work through a broker where the federal government funds the state government, so the state government needs to fund that brokering work that they do around establishing priorities and that dilutes some of the funding. That is why you see less coming out to the TAFE colleges, but that is a constitutional decision that you guys need to make and talk about.

CHAIR: If I could just go to what we have done with our higher education facilities with extending the HECS into the HELP scheme, sub-degree courses and those sort of things, which you can access. Do you see a benefit for the university already being involved in how this rolls out and being able to get the maximum benefit out of that for you? How do you see that working?

Prof. Bowman : Yes. I think a lot of my colleagues, other vice-chancellors, have been pretty critical of the budget. We see a lot of opportunities in the budget for us and we think the expansion of the HELP scheme to VET students is going to be very beneficial to us, and we think it is probably going to break down some of the barriers. One other thing that I see is that we almost have a post-school educational apartheid. You have student that gets to the end of year 12—and it is not that the bright ones go to university and the not-so-bright ones go to TAFE. People are making decisions and may be saying, 'I am going to be a diesel fitter.' They may have the same kind of tertiary education score as the one going on to university. But, as soon as that decision is made, they are treated completely differently. They go to two different kinds of institutions: one is a TAFE institute and one is a university, the funding arrangements are different, the work placements are different. This is a personal opinion, but I think in central Queensland we need to value the diesel fitter just as much as the physiotherapist. And we have to look at ways of treating them the same. I do think that extending HECS to those students is a first big step in that direction.

Mrs McNAMARA: With regard to this dual sector university-TAFE, something that I am interested in for my electorate of Dobell on the Central Coast of New South Wales: what barriers did you come across?

Mr Babovic : Initially, there were lots of barriers that we had to work through. There have been three phases to getting the dual sector up. The first one was around the concept, and for us that has been a huge process. That took about three years to get up because, initially, our engagement committees and industry were strongly coming back and saying, 'We want Cert I to PhD. We want to deal with one public provider with all resources pooled.' That was the easy part. Then there was working through our council to get approval to go through as a dual sector and our preferred option was the merger. The difficulty has been working with different governments of different sides. We would get signed off from one government and the government would change in a different jurisdiction. That was the difficulty: to line everybody up. Getting the industry and the community together has been the big push and the big driver to get us over the line. While they have been hugely supportive with money, the imperatives around the mechanism of governments has been a bit of an issue with lining everybody up at the same time and getting them all over the line.

Also, the other big issue is around having people working in different sectors and coming to the same agreement. I guess it has probably been the heads of departments in each area, to get them to come across to see that this is a great idea and that this is what our community needs. Once we could outline the pathways and all the benefits for our students, the guaranteed succession plan for our students, guaranteed entry places at all different levels for our students, and exit places, once we had won those hearts and minds that was probably the biggest issue.

Ms MacTIERNAN: I understand the argument about ending the apartheid, although I have a couple of questions. I wonder whether or not you can see that with the direction we are going there is going to be a new line—and it will probably go back to where we were in the 1980s—and the vision of the government is that you will have the equivalent of Ivy League universities. Other universities, presumably outside the sandstone universities, generally will become second-tier universities. How do you deal with what might be happening to the university part of what you are doing and the new line that has been drawn?

Prof. Bowman : I think that is really good point. I think there are lines, and there are different kinds universities. We have focused on what is best for our university, and that has to be linked with what is best for the community. We have always been a pretty blue-collared university so we are right in there with engineering . We have had a very practical approach to engineering and now agriculture.

I think there may be different lines but you might find that there are 40 different lines and each university has its own set of values that works in with the community. Are the Group of Eight universities going to be Ivy League universities? The answer is that they probably are already. To be honest, I do not have a massive objection to that, as long as it does not get too much in the way of our objectives as a university. But we are already seeing the lion's share of research funding going to the Group of Eight universities. The only thing I hope is that the little bit that we get, where we can be excellent, they do not take as well. I do not see that being a dual sector university by having VET education makes you a second-class citizen; it just makes you a different kind of citizen

Ms MacTIERNAN: This question is in relation to your engineering degrees. I was speaking to a young relative the other day, who has a doctorate in metallurgy and has worked for big companies. She is teaching at what she says is perhaps a second-ranking university in Victoria. She was expressing alarm that some of the kids who were doing this course really struggled and that they should not be passed but, because of the politics of the university, they will be passed; but they will never get jobs. No engineering company will take them on, yet they will come out of university with an engineering degree and basically be unemployable. I think we really have to look at the quality of those courses and at whether or not they are being dumbed down in order to meet this requirement of starting off as CERT I and ending up as an engineer. Have you any statistics about the employment level of, for example, your engineers?

CHAIR: Can I just add to that and redirect you around to the term of reference about a pathway from TAFE to university?

Ms MacTIERNAN: I would just like to get the focus on this and then we can go to the other issue.

Prof. Bowman : There are two points that I want to make. This new university—and I can only talk about my university—is not going to be all about pathways. In fact, we want to give seamless pathways for perhaps 10, 15 and maybe even 20 per cent of people who want to do a CERT I and who are then capable of working their way through and ending up in a degree and going wherever they want to. We want to give those pathways, but we are very clear that it would be disastrous for Central Queensland if everybody who came to our university did diesel fitting and then suddenly ended up doing an engineering degree. We need diesel fitters just as much as engineers. I want to be very clear with this, and we have been clear with the community: this is not all about pathways and getting everyone to get a degree. We want to train the best hairdressers, the best diesel fitters and the best carpenters. All of those professions now need access to the absolute best teaching facilities. If you can let them have access to some of the university facilities then I think you can teach the best.

In terms of 'are we dumbing down?' I will use engineering as an example. Again, it is horses for courses. We are very lucky that we are based in an engineering hot spot. If you have a look at Gladstone, it is just booming. It is coming off the boom now but we have lots of industry. We have lots of engineering out west in the mines. We can only really go by what our employers are doing with our engineers. We have the highest employability—and this is on the record and in the statistics—for any engineering degree in Australia. Our students find the jobs much more easily than people from the University of Queensland or Sydney university. Part of that is because we are in that hot spot and there are lots of jobs, but we also train—and employers tell us this—very practical people.

We were the first university to have a project based approach to engineering and we have a co-op program which attracts people to Brisbane, because the students spend a year in industry. Also, and again on the record in government statistics, we have the highest starting salaries of any university for engineering graduates. For engineering, I can put my hand on my heart and say that there is no dumbing down and we are getting a very good product with who we are graduating. Is that across all disciplines? Well, definitely there are people coming to university now who would not have come to university 10 or 20 years ago and would not have got into university 10 or 20 years ago. We have definitely had to put in a lot more support for those students, particularly in first year.

One of things that we are very pleased to see is that there has been a freeing up of sub-degree enabling programs. There have been cases where people have been put into the first year of a degree and then you have had to put in a lot of support when it would have been much better to put them into an enabling course before they went into that first year of the degree.

CHAIR: That is the perfect transition from TAFE to higher education. That would be a great example of a pathway from TAFE to higher education?

Prof. Bowman : Maybe. It could be. But let us say that someone comes and does hairdressing with us. At the moment there are a lot of people who would get into hairdressing who would never dream of going anywhere near a university, because universities are full of people who speak Latin and wear funny hats and no-one understands what they are saying. As of next week, hairdressers will be coming to the university. They will be doing what they really want to do—becoming hairdressers—but they will see that this university can be for them. They might then go off and work for five years as a hairdresser and then think that they want to set up their own chain of salons. They would have no problem with just coming back to the university and doing a business qualification. That is what we see. We are breaking down those barriers so that it is just a place of education. We are trying to change the terminology and trying never to say in our university again 'higher education'. If you say 'higher education' then there must be 'lower education', and we do not see vocational education as lower; we see it all as education. It is about empowering people to do what they want to do, and people can come in and come out.

And it does not always work in that linear progression. One of the things that industry really wants is for us to include skill sets in our degrees. There are a couple of examples. In engineering, the industry is saying: 'Could you do a certificate in project management as part of the engineering degree? Could you put a skills package in welding in the engineering degree?' One of the strange ones has been performing arts. Performing arts wants us to put in a certificate I in construction; they are making sets, so they look really glamorous up on stage, but when they come offstage and get a nail gun in their hand they look really scary, so we are teaching them how to use the nail gun, and it might just give them the edge. If everything else is equal, then that might get them the job.

CHAIR: I am sorry about this, but the division bells are ringing. I want to put on the record, before we go, that I would like you to discuss the role that you have in getting the maximum use out of the equipment at TAFE. Too often we are hearing that TAFE operates nine to five but we have millions of dollars worth of equipment there and we should be driving it a lot harder. What would you be doing in that space? Thank you very much.

Proceedings suspended from 11 : 38 to 11 : 58

CHAIR: Following that division, we will now recommence the proceedings. I understand we were at the position of asking questions. Mr Williams, would you like to ask a question?

Mr WILLIAMS: I applaud you on your message of the respect and the focus you are giving to the trades. So how can that message be broadened to others that need to hear it and also need to be promoting that message, because we have heard quite a bit during the inquiry about the trades—whether it be the electricians, the carpenters or the chefs—not getting the priority and the profile that they require out there in the broader community? Apart from what you are doing, how do others get that message across that these are important skills and important jobs that have job opportunities?

Prof. Bowman : You can only talk from your experience, and Central Queensland is different. I think we probably have a head start on most places because I think skills and trades are seen as important in Central Queensland. In some of our communities—such as Emerald—it is probably the opposite of that argument of how people see that some university studies are important because the vast majority of kids in school in Emerald would have aspirations to go into a trade, and, to be honest, that is not such a bad thing. That is a sensible economic decision, because there are so many jobs. We said diesel fitters before. In central Queensland, diesel fitters are the aristocracy. So we have probably got a bit of a head start. But definitely talking to the schools and bringing the opportunities, but I do not know—

Mr Babovic : There are a couple things. In our communication model we have done a range of things around promoting key leaders in our organisation that come from a trade background. Someone that was from a trade background was the acting vice-chancellor for three weeks just recently. Those sorts of key messages to the community have gone out—as well as all of our workings with the schools. We have all the school principals working together in a board which we are on, putting a program together around trade-based training. We have our Start Uni Now program. But we also have our Start TAFE Now program that works in conjunction with that. The Start TAFE Now one is much bigger than the Start Uni Now one, as well. So it is very much focused on the trade area. Once you have that community base of all the principals together and all the schools working together, that is filtering out to the community very quickly.

ACTING CHAIR: Can I just ask—

Mrs McNAMARA: I think I said what I needed to say before. I do not know whether it was recorded or not, but the sentiment was there.

ACTING CHAIR: We were not recording at that point, which is why I needed to start it again. Sorry.

Mrs McNAMARA: In that case, I will put on record that I think the program that you are running is quite outstanding. The fact that you have been able to bring TAFE education in conjunction with university education is well worthwhile and something that should be being pursued at many different levels and in many different places.

Prof. Bowman : Thank you.

Ms MacTIERNAN: I think it is a very interesting exercise that you have engaged in. But I want to just ask about this matter of the pathways and students coming from school and then, prior to going into university or going through a trade, having to do the upskilling which you talked about and which was necessary, and which you thought was better than students going directly into a degree—and I have to agree with that. But I am wondering if you are aware of any research that has been done on the degree to which the availability of that alternative is actually disincentivising student performance? I have certainly known cases where there has been a whole heap of kids at school in their final two years who have not bothered putting in a great deal of effort. And their argument was, 'I will just do a bridging course.' There is a degree to which there is an unintended consequence of providing these alternative pathways.

Prof. Bowman : I do not know of any research that has looked into that. I guess you are right that that could be a danger in these programs. I would have thought, though, that the advantages outweigh that danger. I failed year 12 quite miserably. I did not go to university to start with. I went off to the equivalent of a TAFE course and then went on to do master's degrees and PhDs later. But it was much harder at that time because there were not these pathways and you had to work a lot harder. I think that with giving people alternative pathways, yes, they might have that danger of, maybe, doing as you said. But, I think, the benefits probably outweigh that danger.

Mr Babovic : I have not seen any research. But, anecdotally, within our region, which is directly related to a mining community in which the schools are located, we will see students that traditionally know that mum and dad work in the mines and think, 'I know that I am going to get a job in the mines.' We are seeing that from schools now. But it is more employment related rather than training related. I think, from what we are seeing, that—

Ms MacTIERNAN: I do know many kids, though, including one of my own who, basically, had that view.

Prof. Bowman : In thinking about that, we work very closely with BMA. They are a really great partner with the university. We have been talking to them, because in some of their mining communities they guarantee the kids that graduated from school a job in the mines. And the kids do exactly as you say—they do not work in the schools. And then, actually, BMA find it really difficult to employ them in those guaranteed jobs because they do not have numeracy and literacy skills that they need. So, yes, there are some issues around that—definitely.

ACTING CHAIR: In terms of the placement of your students in work experience, it has been previously said—particularly to me—that some workplace, health and safety regulations are acting as a disincentive to employers taking on students in work experience roles. Have you experienced that or do you envisage that will be an issue?

Mr Babovic : It has been an issue, and I think it has created a lot of bureaucracy around creating the processes that we need to go through with allowing our students to go out there. There are also quite heavy insurance costs—from internships from an undergrad perspective but also from a pre-employment training perspective. When we merge on 1 July, we are intending to have all of our diploma students doing internships with industry which provides two aspects: firstly, it gives them a great opportunity to engage with industry and to get the job, and secondly, it gives return on investment for government around allowing the best opportunities for people to go straight into employment from their skill set. But some of the requirements around those are heavy. There are related insurance costs for students to go out but also there are the workplace health and safety processes about ensuring the workplace is safe and making sure that we get out there and engage with the employer on a regular basis. That has been quite onerous.

ACTING CHAIR: If there is any more information that you have about the issues and where, in your view, there is unnecessary regulation, please send that through to the committee. My other question is in relation to any lessons learnt from the process that you have just gone through, or are still going through, in terms of a merger. Are there any headline issues that you would specifically like to alert the committee to?

Prof. Bowman : I think probably perseverance. During the whole process, which has been 4½ years, I think we had four or five different federal education ministers, six state education ministers, three prime ministers and two premiers. It was getting everyone over the line. We would think that we had got the state over the line—and we did get the state of the line—and then the federal government would pull back. Then we got the feds over the line. It was just perseverance until everybody was actually over the line. That took 4½ years. We could probably have been up and running two or three years ago, but it is just perseverance. It is a really big, major project so we can fully understand why people wanted to be really sure about it.

The other thing that we would probably advise is to talk to the staff in the TAFE. There have been very limited chances for us to get into the TAFE to talk to staff. At one point, the only way we could get into the TAFE was for the unions to call a meeting and then invite us to the union meeting. There were all sorts of blocks on us getting in there. If we did it again, we would try and get something on paper to say that we could have a lot more access to the staff. Once we got access to the TAFE staff, then we could allay fears about this terrible takeover by these strange academic monsters.

Mr Babovic : I think the other critical one is having the key experts in both areas working together. We have been fortunate to gather a team during the transition process that has a great knowledge of higher education, but also vocational education and a passion for putting those through together. A lot of the initial work we did was combining pathways and getting those things to work before the merger has even happened—so bringing those organisations closer together from that perspective. I think the two organisations signed an MOU to pathway all their programs before the merger took place, so all of that has been put up. The other big issue for us, that I think we did really well—and we did many things wrong that we would change—was engage with industry and the community really closely every step of the way. We informed them in great detail about what we were doing at every opportunity to speak in a community environment and with our big employers. So they had a full understanding all the time of what the dual sector was about. And it was not about a takeover of one organisation or another but was a coming together for a better product for both the community and the industry.

Prof. Bowman : And utilising them as well. The idea, really, did come from industry and the community. It is easy enough to have an idea, but then we did utilise them. If we had have been banging on the door of government, both state and federal, when it was just us, we would not have got this up, because it is quite contentious. But, really, it was the likes of BMA—

Mr Babovic : AngloAmerican Coal.

Prof. Bowman : AngloAmerican Coal—and the local economic development agencies that were really going in to bat for us and saying, 'This is what we want for the community.' And that was fairly easy for us, because we do work in partnership with those. But it was a matter of getting them to actually come down here and talk to people and say, 'This is not just a university that is trying to empire build; it is actually something that we really want for the community.'

Mr Babovic : And I think the other key through the transition is the federal government funding around being able to put that together. That has been a huge help. I do not think we could have done that without that commitment from the federal government around the $74 million to put the two together; $50 million of that is for infrastructure, but the other $20-odd million is around operational unification.

ACTING CHAIR ( Ms MacTiernan ): So that was an allocation that was specifically made to your university, not pursuant to a—

Mr Babovic : No, it is the Structural Adjustment Fund and Education Infrastructure Fund. So $50 million, or $48 million, was around new infrastructure for the entities to come together, but $24 million or $25 million was around the operational unification, and that has been of huge benefit, to be able to put the teams together. It has allowed us to do a whole range of new product as well as put the teams together and go through that change process.

ACTING CHAIR: I just have one further thing. On the partnerships that you were talking about, we had evidence in Perth a couple of weeks ago from a school—a school that actually acted as an RTO and did certificate I and certificate II—which said that their performance in keeping kids in or getting kids to successful apprenticeships was better because the school environment, being more structured for these young 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds, was better. What relationship do you have with schools? And do you see the benefit of, perhaps, the schools doing the certificate I and certificate II courses?

Prof. Bowman : We have very close links with the school and VET in Schools, and we have made land available in some of our campuses for them to build trades training centres. Instead of them just having a fairly small operation, they have actually pulled their funding and then built something on the university site. But then their teachers have manned those sites. Nik, you have been doing a lot of work in VET in Schools, haven't you?

Mr Babovic : I have the opposite view. I do not think that schools should be doing certificate I and certificate II. They do it very poorly. They do not have the vocational knowledge around the training packages. They do not have qualified staff who have the industry experience. I think that is very lacking in schools. A classic example of that is our key partner, BMA. The students do a certificate II in engineering in the school. They then go and get a job. BMA takes them on that but then does not recognise that certificate II. They then send them back to do their whole training again back at the TAFE college, because it is great entry-level stuff. It gives them the employability skills that they are looking for. They should be diversifying into that kind of range of employability skills and working in partnership with their TAFE colleges. That is my personal view, seeing some of the outcomes of some of the training.

ACTING CHAIR: It was interesting, their evidence. Obviously it is a school that, having been an RTO and having a trade training centre, was probably more focused on that trades area and their teachers appeared to have that trade background.

Mr Babovic : If you have a look at an Australian Technical College from the Howard government—I think there is one operating on the Gold Coast that I was previously on the board at—that is a really successful model. It has engaged really closely with its VET provider. I am sure you have seen it, Karen, many times—it worked so well. It does all the employability skills around the school curriculum. But it works really closely with its local TAFE to deliver the vocational side of it. So it has a great outcome both ways. I think that is a really good model.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you very much for your very interesting evidence. Congratulations on your pioneering work. We hope it goes very well. If we have any further questions, the secretary will write to you.

Prof. Bowman : Thank you very much for the hearing. And if you are ever in our neck of the woods, please come and have a look at what we are doing.

Committee adjourned at 12:15 .