This article was originally published in the Winter edition of The Australian TAFE Teacher magazine.

About 10 years ago, as a Flexible Learning Manager in TAFE, I attended a conference where a senior public servant from what is now the Higher Education and Skills Group within the Victorian Government outlined his vision for the internet driven future: ‘I’ve told the Minister: It costs you X dollars to run the VET system, what will you do when Rupert Murdoch approaches you and offers to run it online for half that?’

Although this speech was a more extreme example, back in Jeff Kennett-run Victoria, online learning was openly spoken of as a means of bypassing local TAFEs and minimising the need for teachers.  The first design of the TAFE Virtual Campus, for example, was an entity designed with the intention that students would enroll directly, move through a fully online course and exit with a TAFE Virtual Campus qualification.

As time moved on, reality bit.  Skilled and often visionary professionals identified that adults use the internet not to bypass human interaction, but to facilitate it.  ‘Blended learning’ became the norm, producers of online resources began to distinguish between those things that worked well online and the content that could only be delivered through physical demonstration, and which had to be assessed through sound, touch and smell and not abstracted into an online space.  The TAFE Virtual Campus morphed into a repository for teachers to share resources and find new tools.  Teachers in adult literacy and basic education identified ways that technology could enhance face to face learning and reinforce the content of face to face classes, as for high needs learners the funded SCHs were never enough.

Unlike Rupert Murdoch, as it turned out, the TAFE sector (particularly in Victoria) was quite quick to see the potential benefit to their field of new and emerging communication technologies and many TAFE teachers embraced the new ways of working that developed as a result.  For example, in e-learning, communication is often individual and asynchronous rather than to a whole group at one time.  Resource development is labour intensive but gives learners high levels of autonomy and flexibility.  Courses require teams bringing a range of skills to the table and working cooperatively but the capacity to share and collaborate is greatly enhanced.  This new ‘flexibility’ required higher levels of organisation, higher levels of cooperation, higher monitoring of standards and outcomes and greater collegiality.  In short, it flourished in environments where teachers and managers had high levels of professional integrity and commitment.

Fast forward to 2012 and the marketisation of VET.  In Victoria, TAFE and its small and very important cousin, the ACE sector, are rapidly losing market share to private RTOs whose growth has been extraordinary and whose delivery in many instances includes a significant dose of ‘online learning’.

An example is Origin HR, a company which The Australian newspaper reported on March 29 as having made ‘growth of 9000 per cent last year in financial services, and 5000 per cent in business and administration,’ roughly half of which was studied online. (Training Goes Corporate, John Ross, The Australian, 2012).

What once seemed a fanciful vision of an internet driven VET system, delivered by the private sector at a fraction of the price is becoming all too real.  Where our bureaucratic seer was so off course, however, is that rather than the state pocketing the savings, the ‘efficiencies’ in the new system have increased the costs to the state and, by extension, to tax payers and have delivered some very healthy profits indeed to a few lucky private providers.  The Australian, for example, reported that Origin HR has ‘attracted more government-funded enrolments than eight of the state’s 18 TAFEs’.

A look at the Student Information Booklet on Origin HR’s website gives an insight into the nature of this ‘online learning’.  According to the booklet, students ‘are provided with individual log-ins for the online LMS and receive written and verbal instructions to commence the program.  A student then progresses at his or her own pace to meet specified objectives.’  And as for the role of the teacher: ‘Trainers make monthly contact with students, either face to face or via the telephone, to check progress, assist with any difficulties the student is having and to set learning goals for the next month.’  If this is not enough, the booklet suggests, ‘Facilitated training sessions, either face-to-face or via electronic means such as Skype may be offered to students, as required.’ (my emphasis)

If you are wondering how a Certificate III or IV learner, could possibly make his or her way through a course with a mere monthly phone call from a teacher, a glance at the section of the booklet on Language, Literacy and Numeracy support provides a positively Orwellian example of how to cherry pick only the most skilled students while dancing around those pesky training package rules about underpinning language, literacy and numeracy requirements.  ‘In most cases, LLN support can be provided.  Where only a low level of support is needed, the Training Manager may arrange for the student to receive extra-curricula assistance from the trainer or other staff member.’  You see, with teacherless training, what most TAFE teachers would consider their core business (teaching context specific underpinning language and literacy), suddenly becomes ‘extra-curricula’.

There has been much comment in the mainstream media about how the Victorian marketisation experiment has led to private RTOs’ cherry picking the most skilled students and the easiest courses to deliver, leaving TAFE and ACE with a residual system made up of the hardest courses and the most needy students.  Add online training into this mix and the result is a recipe for a very lucrative business indeed at the expense of the public system.

This is perhaps most evident in the following quote from Origin HR’s Student Information Booklet: ‘If you require help with literacy and numeracy please contact the Reading, Writing Hotline 1300 655 506 for referral to appropriate assistance.’  For those of you who don’t know, the Reading, Writing Hotline is a Commonwealth-funded service that will refer callers to the TAFE and ACE sectors.

The Refocusing Vocational Training in Victoria policy announced in April this year saw a raft of market measures (read price reduction) and increased regulation introduced in an attempt to rein in areas of over-delivery and cost blow-outs.  For example RPL is now funded at half the SCH rate and completely defunded for entry level learners.  In a market driven system, professional integrity and commitment count for nought.  An outcome is an outcome.  Teacherless online learning and high quality technology enhanced-delivery are indistinguishable from each other.  One wonders how long it will be before years of innovation and development in high quality online learning becomes the next casualty of marketisation.

-Sally Thompson is the CEO of Adult Learning Australia, the national peak body for Adult and Community Education.  She had a Graduate Diploma in E-Business and Communication and until recently was a member of the Flexible Learning Advisory Group. (FLAG)