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Licence for change: Danish seaman at helm for TAFE’s next journey

“There’s always a risk when you move into more senior leadership positions that you can become disconnected from the day-to-day operations of your business.

“Whether it’s getting a bus licence, spending time with ferry crew and deck hands, or understanding what it’s like to be a teacher or a student, I personally think it leads to better and more informed decision-making when I spend time directly in the operational heart of the business.”

As managing director of TAFE NSW, Faurby needs every advantage at a time when he’s under huge pressure to come up with results.

Not only is the NSW government paying him $575,000 a year for outcomes, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has indirectly given him an ultimatum to lift TAFE’s game.

Morrison has been blunt in his criticism of the way states and territories have run what he recently described as a “bewildering” vocational training system that was “clunky and unresponsive” to industry demand for skills. It was too complex and did not give students clear information about the skills they needed to get jobs. It was also riddled with inconsistencies in course prices and was unaccountable for the way it spent $1.5 billion in Commonwealth funding every year. There were variations of more than $6000 for example for students studying the same course in different states.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called the vocational training system "clunky and unresponsive" to industry demand for skills.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called the vocational training system “clunky and unresponsive” to industry demand for skills.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Flagging a new approach to funding, similar to the health system which ties a fixed amount of dollars to specific outcomes, but with no new money on offer, Morrison wants more consistency in course subsidies. He has also pointed the finger at states and territories for dropping their funding commitment to vocational training by an average of 25 per cent in the past 10 years.

At the same time, the NSW government has commissioned Sydney businessman David Gonski and former public service chief David Shergold to work out how the state can address its skills shortages and improve the delivery of vocational training.

The loss of more than 25,000 apprentices and hundreds of thousands of jobs around the country since the onset of the pandemic after Faurby started the job in January has made the challenges he faces more urgent. While business groups have welcomed Commonwealth subsidies for existing apprentices, they want a bigger funding commitment from governments for new apprenticeships and the VET sector overall.

Faurby wants industry to be more committed to hiring apprentices.

The role vocational education and training (VET) has to play in addressing looming skills shortages and retraining legions of jobless Australians to support an economic recovery after the summer bushfires and pandemic, is more important than ever.

So what does this former shipping company manager turned NSW bureaucrat bring to the table?

After studying to be a mechanical engineer at a university in Denmark, where he met his lawyer wife, he moved into leadership roles and completed a business degree.

“I got excited when I was asked on the back of engineering to go out and lead engineering organisations. I was never on the tools,” he says.

He eventually went to work for multinational shipping and ports giant Maersk, a job that took him all over the world and finally to Australia in 2010.

When it came time for Maersk to move Faurby on to his next location in 2011, his wife and two children made it clear that they wanted to stay put in Mosman. They are now Australian citizens.

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“I came home to my wife and family one day and said ‘folks we are moving again’ and they just looked at me and said, ‘no we are not because we’ve fallen in love with this country’,” he says. “So had I, so we decided to stay.”

His experience leading Maersk’s Australian subsidiary, Svitzer, helped him get a job running the privately operated Sydney Ferries in 2011. He did that for five years before getting the top job at the State Transit Authority which is getting private operators to run its buses. When the opportunity came up to lead TAFE, he didn’t think twice.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, his main focus has been putting hundreds of TAFE courses online, while training 5000 teachers and VET instructors in how to make that quick transition. He is also trying to automate some assessment and administration tasks to lighten teacher workloads.

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The pressure to get the online learning job done quickly at the onset of the COVID-19 lockdown forced TAFE to demonstrate some agility. Hundreds of free short courses were offered to help people who have lost jobs to start finding their feet.

Faurby doesn’t own policy mistakes of the past, and there are many including severe funding cuts and a competitive funding system that allowed dodgy private operators to flourish.

TAFE NSW has just teamed up with four universities including Western Sydney, Wollongong, Newcastle and the University of NSW to provide skills training needed for the Aerotropolis in Sydney’s west. Western Sydney University vice-chancellor Barney Glover says TAFE NSW was “essential” in helping deliver the training needed.

Faurby is also talking to universities and schools about how they can work together to combine vocational training and subjects taught at university and school towards a single qualification. The aim being, to “make the pathway for students from high school in and out of vocational education and university as easy as possible”.

For instance, TAFE could provide training in robotics, hygiene and health care to compliment academic subjects such as maths and biology.

“There is a great opportunity for leveraging and creating a bridge between what happens in vocational training with what happens at university.”

Professor Adrian Piccoli, who heads up the Gonski Institute for Education at the University of NSW, believes there should no longer be a division between vocational and university qualifications.

Professor Adrian Piccoli, who heads up the Gonski Institute for Education at the University of NSW, believes there should no longer be a division between vocational and university qualifications.Credit:Janie Barrett

Faurby’s not alone in that thinking. It’s an idea that has the support of industry and former education minister Adrian Piccoli.

Piccoli, who now heads up the Gonski Institute for Education at the University of NSW, believes there should no longer be a division between vocational and university qualifications. He says VET certificate qualifications should be looked at as ”micro-credentials” that could count towards a degree.

“Let’s call it all higher education,” he says. “What is the difference between an apprenticeship and an undergraduate degree? Other than the academic snobbery around it.

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“A Certificate I is a micro-credential that you could add to with other micro-credentials to ultimately get you to a degree.”

Similarly, Piccoli believes vocational courses taught at HSC level should be on par with other subjects that count towards an ATAR. But greater consistency in the quality of VET courses in schools needed serious attention because “some schools do it better than others”.

Megan Lilly, head of workforce development at the Australian Industry Group says she is in favour of ending the “binary choice” between vocational and university qualifications and having a “blended tertiary system”.

“But we need to still value the vocational or applied elements of it,” she says. “We can’t let it all drift to academic because we then will be creating a new set of problems including skill shortages.

“I absolutely agree that you should be able to get a blend of vocational and academic within a qualification and count other qualifications.”

When it comes to vocational learning in schools, Lilly says “if it’s not done well, they shouldn’t do it”.

“They should go to an external partner whether that is a TAFE college or other training arrangement … in alignment with the needs of the local economy and employers”.

Faurby says TAFE NSW would offer online courses to all schools by 2022.

TAFE needed to be “clever” about the way it spent government funds, while looking for commercial opportunities to sell its wares to industry. “In that sense I certainly see TAFE as a business,” Faurby says.

He also hopes to welcome thousands of international students when international borders reopen.

But the NSW government along with Faurby strongly reject speculation by unions and NSW Labor that they are out to “privatise TAFE”.

That’s not to say Faurby won’t be trying to exploit commercial opportunities while retaining what he says will be a strong commitment to TAFE a public provider of services.

He likes the idea of competitive funding in the VET sector, which Labor and Coalition have supported to varying degrees, to keep it on its toes.

Skills Minister Michaelia Cash says her government is “still cleaning up the mess Labor left behind in our vocational education sector through their failed VET FEE-HELP scheme which saw thousands of Australians receiving dodgy qualifications from shonky providers and being saddled with large loans”.

It’s also likely that the federal government will take up the Australian Productivity Commission recommendation to expand the availability of student loans, currently offered for diploma courses, to VET students doing certificate courses. The caveat being that the system will need to be tightly regulated to prevent unscrupulous operators luring students into unaffordable debt on the promise of a free iPad.

Labor and Coalition governments alike have supported the continuation of the controversial “contestable funding” arrangements the Commission has recommended.

But researchers including Peter Hurley from the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University warn the education system can not be managed like an airline or a shipping company.

“There is no problem with trying to make education more efficient or market based, it’s just a different type of product and I think we just need to remember that,” Hurley says.

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