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Smoother pathways from TAFE to higher education

Amanda Pearce
Helen Murphy

Centre for Educational Development and Support
Student Learning Unit, Victoria University of Technology
Paul Conroy
Language Studies Department, Victoria University of Technology
Articulation from TAFE to the Higher Education (HE) sector of Victoria University appears to be highly successful for most students. However there is considerable anecdotal evidence of the existence of a particular group of students articulating from mainstream TAFE to HE courses who have significant difficulty in their early HE semesters.

This paper reports on the Smoother Pathways Project at Victoria University of Technology (VU). The project investigated the reasons for the diversity in student experiences of articulation at VU, with a view to providing students with the best possible support for this transition. The project focused upon one particular pathway involving areas where certain students were known to have difficulty. This was the articulation of TAFE Business students into the VU Bachelor of Business degree, in the course of which many gained exemption from the usual HE first-year Law subject, Business Law, and in many cases proceeded to the second Law subject, Corporate Law (CL). Through interviews with students and staff and an examination of the curriculum in both TAFE and HE, the main factors affecting the ease of transition were investigated. The picture that emerged was more complex than anticipated. Areas of difficulty involved in this pathway appear to involve sudden changes in the depth and detail of subject knowledge, pedagogical approach and assessment, and the level, genre and independent nature of academic research and writing. Students with minimal levels of competence in TAFE and those with fewer personal resources may be unable to adjust to these changes sufficiently quickly, particularly in difficult subjects such as CL.


Victoria University (VU) is a dual sector university, with a long history of articulation of students from its TAFE division into its Higher Education (HE) programs. Much work has been done in the University to establish pathways from TAFE to HE. Credit is often given in HE for TAFE subjects which are deemed equivalent to certain HE first year subjects; this is the main approach to articulation from the TAFE Associate Diploma in Business into Bachelors degrees in the VU Faculty of Business and Law. On admission, articulating students are given credit for approximately eight initial subjects, including Business Law. Thus articulating students begin HE with subjects normally taken by non-articulating students in their second semester or year, including Corporate Law (CL).

The Smoother Pathways project was undertaken due to concerns that, while success rates of TAFE to Higher Education articulators are frequently asserted to be higher than those of non-articulators, some articulating students appear to face considerable academic difficulties in CL. Data comparing student success and retention of articulating and non-articulating students are being sought, but have unfortunately been unavailable so far. This paper is therefore a report on the qualitative aspect of the project, which consisted of examination of the relevant literature and curriculum documents and interviews with staff in both sectors and CL students during 1999 and Semester 1 2000. Pathways from TAFE to HE vary significantly between discipline areas; the outcomes of this project may not be relevant to other pathways, for example where TAFE and HE curriculum are planned jointly by staff from both sectors.

Key perspectives from the literature

One of the tasks of the first year student in HE is to reach some degree of mastery of academic writing. The tertiary literacy literature reveals a multiplicity of genres within academic writing; one recent Australian list includes essays, case studies, exercises, research reports, summaries and short answers (Moore and Morton, 1998). Each genre has both standard features shared across disciplines and significant discipline-specific features. Much has been written on the characteristics of discipline discourses (see for example Golebiowski and Borland, 1997). Baldauf (1997) notes that "the discourse to be learned is not only new, but often conflicting with others to be learned" (p. 9). This is certainly true for the discourse of HE Law subjects at VU, which require an understanding of particular rules for argumentation, epistemological issues and citation techniques (Crosling and Murphy, 2000). In addition, students are "multiply positioned as advocates (before a judge or magistrate), advisers (to a client), [and] as analysts of the 'correct' parts of the law to apply to the 'facts' of the case" (Maclean, 1997), as well as students; Murphy, Crosling and Webb (1995) argue that this positioning is "contradictory and conflicting" (p. 109).

Further, the learning of academic and discipline discourse in HE is typically unsupported by explicit instruction (Baldauf, 1997) and this appears likely to add to the transition difficulties of students belonging to various equity groups (Cope and Kalantzis, 1993). Students in Business Law, however, are at least exposed to the demands of academic and disciplinary discourse, and at VU have the opportunity of attending extra workshops on academic writing skills provided by language and learning staff.

First year HE students are thus faced with a complex task as they attempt to master the discourse of their chosen disciplines (Currie, 1993). While little research exists on the discourse(s) required in the TAFE sector, examination of TAFE curriculum documents suggests that students' task is conceptualised in quite a different way, with their work linked primarily to the demonstration of work related skills (ACTRAC, 1994). As Doughney (2000) puts it, "...higher education courses are grounded in the disciplines which underpin them, while VET courses are grounded in the industries they serve".

Given the above, it appears likely that students articulating into HE without being required to engage with legal discourse in a HE first year subject will face considerable difficulty in mastering this discourse sufficiently quickly to cope with the assessment requirements of CL. In an interesting exploration of the ways in which students may most usefully be assisted to learn better in HE, Devlin (1995) discusses the Cognitive Apprenticeship model in relation to improving academic reading and writing skills. The objective is to "initiate the novice into a community of expert practice" (Berryman, 1991, p.3, cited in Devlin 1995, p. 10) by "modelling", "coaching", "scaffolding", and "fading" (Devlin, 1995, p.11). The "community of expert practice" into which TAFE students are to be initiated is by no means identical to that conceptualised by HE staff, which may in itself explain some difficulties of articulators. Berryman's concepts of "scaffolding" and "fading" suggest the disruption of a gradual progression from "other-regulation to self-regulation" on articulation.

This transition to managing one's learning is a central theme in the literature on transition from school to university. Students' concerns described in an Australian study of the HE first year experience (McInnis, James and McNaught, 1995) may be relevant to articulating students, who are also moving from small classes to large ones and encountering academic discourse for the first time. These include the length of essays, the lack of structure and of explicit expectations, the difficulty of the subjects, the lack of ongoing assessment and feedback, timetable difficulties and so on.

Competency Based Training (CBT) informs the development of TAFE curriculum at all levels even though it is often modified to suit local situations and to better cater to particular student needs (Foster, 1998). Concerns are raised in Foster's study regarding consistency, the place of knowledge and skill, the perceived minimal nature of competency standards, and the alleged downvaluing of generic skills in CBT. Another concern is the appropriateness of non-graded assessment (seen by most TAFE staff as a sinae qua non of CBT, to be ignored at their peril), in particular where students articulate to HE. In response, an ANTA-funded project has suggested:

Some TAFE documents appear to sanction graded assessment to augment ungraded assessment (see for example ACTRAC, 1994).

TAFE and HE curriculum issues

CBT provides the framework for the TAFE Law modules within the Associate Diploma. Modules of TAFE National Curriculum (TNC) are written within this framework by a committee formed at the TAFE institute designated for that function. The committee includes no HE representatives. TNC was seen as a major obstacle to the development of structural methods of aligning TAFE and HE curriculum. Staff interviewed suggested that the introduction of National Training Packages (NTPs) could allow more freedom in developing curriculum which would prepare students for HE but could also compound the difficulty of assessing courses for the purposes of credit transfer (Foster, 1998, Doughney, 2000).

Graded assessment is provided in those Law modules taught at VU. CBT permits students to repeat assessment tasks until they are successful; at VU this occurs only once or twice in most cases. There was significant disagreement among TAFE staff interviewed as to whether a student who gains a graded assessment of close to 50% in a Law module can be said to have a sufficient grasp of the content or other aspects of the module to gain credit for Business Law. One staff member suggested that because in accordance with CBT the student must pass all sections of the curriculum, a TAFE student who barely passed may outclass a HE student who had gained an overall 52% in Business Law but may have virtually no knowledge in some areas. However it was also suggested that "competency" as currently defined for the purposes of TAFE assessment may not indicate competency to proceed to the difficult subject CL, which is estimated to have a 40% failure rate.

Student and staff perceptions

General perceptions

Students interviewed identified a disjunction in requirements and skills development between their Business Law subject in TAFE (which some had finished several years before) and CL in HE. Staff agreed that aspects of the TAFE setting were different from HE, and some were concerned that such differences potentially created difficulties for articulating students. These differences are explored below.

Several staff felt that articulators' performance may have improved over the last five years. It was suggested that TAFE material may be preparing students better for HE study, and/or that the problems of TAFE students may be less visible because the quality of students coming into CL via school and Business Law has declined. However HE lecturers commented that because pathways from TAFE were standardised, they were usually unaware of which students were articulating students unless the student self-identified, which rarely occurred due to large HE classes. Further, staff confirmed suggestions in the literature regarding variability of practice between staff in all TAFE institutions. This led to some difficulty in making generalisations regarding TAFE practices.

Purposes and rationales of the VET and HE sectors

TAFE and HE staff were very aware that the major purpose of TAFE is to prepare students to enter, or to gain promotion within, the workforce. TAFE staff were committed to this approach for students in need of vocational skills.

Some TAFE staff appeared to see HE as a kind of "airy-fairy", impractical and badly taught alternative to TAFE; one TAFE manager suggested that HE was "out-of-date", because industry wanted people trained in the "hands-on stuff". However insofar as HE also prepares students for the workforce, it may be more useful to see the differences between the sectors as linked to the differences between administrative and professional/para-professional levels of employment.

Subject content

Perceptions varied among staff as to the real equivalence between the TAFE modules and Business Law. One TAFE staff member asserted that they were identical; evidence for this view included that these modules at some TAFE institutions involved the same topics, textbook and sessional teaching staff. This staff member saw the differences between the two as "only [differences of] approach". However a TAFE Law teacher indicated that there were far too many topics in the TAFE modules to cover "properly", and the TAFE teacher would "pick and choose" among them, with the result that students gaining credit may have "skimmed" contract law covering only the main concepts and terms.

Students agreed that their TAFE Law modules involved significantly less depth and detail than CL. This was echoed by one CL lecturer who saw CL curriculum as simply too massive for all students. One student commented that to succeed in CL it was necessary to have a global knowledge of the law rather than simply remembering small sections, as in TAFE.


The differences between TAFE modules and HE subjects most readily volunteered by students concerned issues of pedagogy. TAFE modules were seen as involving less "theory" than CL and as more "practical" and "commonsense". This is entirely appropriate for a course aimed at vocational outcomes in the context of "an office environment" (ACTRAC, 1994).

Learning in the context of a small group of peers in one classroom was seen as very positive and as central to the TAFE experience. One student stressed the value of class discussion in which other students could "disagree" and thereby "give you ideas". This student found Law "more interesting" when she could work together with other students in class at TAFE.

There was general agreement among staff that TAFE students typically study in a far more supported environment than do HE students, that the knowledge taught in TAFE was "more contained", and that the learning environment was "much more controlled" (Pathways Officer). Staff suggested that, in contrast to HE, the smaller groups enabled the system to cater to different learning styles. Students were described as being "nurtured along", gaining organisational skills and becoming "tenacious", disciplined and consistent through their TAFE Law studies. TAFE students may be "spoon-fed" at the beginning, although staff stressed that TAFE is not all spoon-feeding and students are expected to develop their abilities as they go on. Staff agreed that expectations of students in HE, however, included being "self motivated", able to think through topics for themselves, and able to carry out independent research.

TAFE textbooks are selected for their simplicity, and normally contain exercises. They are used intensively and along with the notes given out form the most central source of information for students, requiring little supplementation through classroom notetaking or individual research. Two students referred to difficulties with notetaking in HE lectures, criticising the inadequate handouts they received. Notetaking is an extremely complex skill for all students, particularly for students with English language difficulties (Borland and Pearce, 1999).

TAFE staff were concerned that they were able to foster only limited independent learning skills in their articulating students. HE lectures may involve more than a hundred students, and those interviewed found the one-hour tutorial quite unsatisfactory because it was either a mini-lecture or simply too short to deal with student queries. It was reported that with relatively few exceptions, there was no possibility of contact with lecturers or tutors outside class time. HE staff confirmed that articulators in HE may have difficulty accessing staff, especially sessionals, and may feel too intimidated to ask for assistance, particularly in a very large faculty such as Business and Law at VU, where first year lectures are large and tutorials many. Students clearly found the impersonal relationship with lecturers and tutors characteristic of HE quite distressing.


An examination of data enables assessment in TAFE Law modules to be summarised as follows: Assessment in CL may be summarised as follows: Students were dismayed by the combination of length, technical nature and conceptual complexity of the assessment tasks in CL in comparison with those in TAFE, and the amount of completely independent research. A number of the features of CL assessment are similar in form, although not in sophistication, to those of Business Law. While non-articulating students may also experience a disjunction between Business Law and CL, assessment in TAFE Law modules does not appear to give students the same opportunity and incentive to develop higher-level conceptual, academic and generic skills as that offered by Business Law.

TAFE assessment practices based on CBT and ongoing assessment were seen by several TAFE teachers as appropriate given the role of TAFE and the needs of the students. Several HE staff confirmed that some students found it difficult to cope with the lack of ongoing assessment in HE, unable to gauge their progress until the examination when it was too late. There was also evidence that levels of achievement fell upon articulation at least for some students; students in HE had commented to lecturers that they "used to do well in TAFE".

Transition issues

Students compared the TAFE system, where each student was given a complete timetable, with the difficulties of having to choose lecture and tutorial times in HE and the problems of clashes and extra long days. One student had missed her introductory lecture in Corporate Law due to her ignorance of the HE timetabling system. Students commented on the faster pace of the HE subject, the amount of time they had to spend on tasks and reading and the problems of competing deadlines. One student described her shock at the size of the institution and the classes. Social difficulties typical of first year students were exacerbated by entering university at a later stage than the rest of the cohort, although students mentioned having made friends with other articulators.

Generic skills

A majority of staff including some from both sectors agreed that the ability to write extended analytical prose, to research legal assignments independently, to summarise and synthesise information and to read and understand judges' and barristers' reports were more important in HE than in TAFE. The comments of some staff also suggest that while broadly described generic skills may be considered equally important in both sectors, different degrees of development are required in the two sectors. For example it seems likely that anything from the ability to see that a contract is not valid for one clear reason to the ability to refute an imagined opponent's case in detail over several pages may be termed "critical thinking". CL lecturers commonly assumed students to have a number of high-level academic and generic skills which were clearly not developed in TAFE programs.

Learner Variation

Staff mentioned a number of factors which may differentiate students from each other no matter what their educational pathway has been. Such factors included mature age and workforce experience, both of which were believed to confer advantages. Socio-economic status (SES) was also suggested to be of significance, with some of the stronger students in CL having articulated from Eastern Suburbs TAFE institutes. Even within the range of students interviewed, it was clear that younger students, NESB students and those without tertiary educated parents or workforce experience were experiencing far greater difficulties than other students.


A number of valuable suggestions for tackling the difficulties of articulating students were made by staff interviewed for this project. These included:
  1. inclusion of HE representatives on committees responsible for writing TAFE modules

  2. closer monitoring of VU statistical data on performance and retention rates of articulating students

  3. more careful attention to graded assessments during the selection process

  4. an elective system within the second year of the Associate Diploma for those students who plan to articulate

  5. a bridging program run by HE and TAFE Law staff and HE language and learning staff

  6. staff mentoring during the semester in which articulators study CL

  7. extension and embedding of explicit supplementary teaching of the generic and academic skills requirements of CL by language and learning staff

  8. review of the CL subject to benefit all students
A combination of these initiatives would be the most desirable.


In summary, even where students felt that their TAFE study had helped prepare them for transition to HE, this preparation was agreed to be partial, and all agreed that CL was one of the subjects for which they were least prepared. Articulating students may experience a number of difficulties, some of which are similar to those of school-leavers. This is not to say that TAFE is identical with school; on the contrary, both its administrative or pre-professional vocational rationale and its client group distinguish the TAFE sector from both school and HE. It is important that this distinction should not be blurred, and should in fact be explicitly recognised in the development of effective pathways.

Important areas of difficulty for articulators in fact arise from precisely this distinction, including the acquisition of academic, independent learning and legal and discourse skills appropriate to HE; these skills are too easily overlooked when pathways are being planned. One explanation for the difficulties of articulating students is a kind of rupture in the cognitive apprenticeship (Devlin, 1995). While students with strong personal resources may adjust to this rupture, albeit grudgingly, weaker students may be unable to succeed in these circumstances. While a similar rupture may occur for non-articulators on transition from school to university, first year subjects provide a degree of supported acculturation which does not exist for articulating students. In the interests of the success and retention of all students, the experiences and needs of TAFE articulators should be given careful consideration.


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Contact details: Amanda Pearce, CEDS Student Learning Unit, Footscray Park Campus, Victoria University of Technology, PO Box 14428, Melbourne CMC, Vic 8001
Telephone 03 9688 4757 Fax 03 9688 4766 Email

Please cite as: Pearce, A., Murphy, H. and Conroy, P. (2001). Smoother pathways from TAFE to higher education. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 536-544. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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