Best CX Companies List profile: TAFE gets personal with education

Executive director Theresa Collignon talks about catering to different learning styles, getting the right student-teacher ratio, and working closely with industry to build the skills needed for today and the future

From left: Fifth Quadrant's Kristi Mansfield, TAFE's Theresa Collignon, and Flamingo's Julie Trajkovski
From left: Fifth Quadrant's Kristi Mansfield, TAFE's Theresa Collignon, and Flamingo's Julie Trajkovski

For Theresa Collignon, executive director of TAFE Directors Australia, going through tertiary education was in no way personalised: There were lecture rooms filled with almost 1000 students, and lecturers often used the same method to deliver lessons to a wide variety of students.

Knowing what it’s like being just another student among hundreds in front of a professor during her time at university, Collignon is convinced of the importance of a personalised experience, especially when it comes to learning. And that’s why the education institution is striving to improve customer experiences through a more tailored approach to its students.

TAFE won the People’s Choice award in the Government and Education industry category as part of the inaugural Best Customer Experience Companies List for 2014. The award was based on the votes of more than 2500 Australian consumers. Read more: Full list of Best Customer Experience Companies List winners

Not all people learn the same, so making them all read from a book or listen to lectures will not always result in improved learning outcomes for students, Collignon said. Being open to shaking things up in the classroom, such as being more visual or practical, is one way TAFE goes about personalising the experience for students.

“The how-tos, technical and practical vocational education, that really resonates with many, many people,” she said.

Keeping the classrooms small enough so teachers can factor in time to catch up with each student or have more one-on-one time is also key in a personalised education experience, Collignon said. In the Transport and Logistics course, for example, there are about 30 students to every teacher.

“At TAFE you do get a personal experience - you can have a conversation, you can get guidance, you can ask questions virtually through an online portal or ring somebody up or go into TAFE,” she said.

“The educators are tapping students on the shoulder and saying ‘I think you should go on and do this’, and they are personally giving recommendations about what next for this person’s life and their career.

“I didn’t have some of that experience in my education.”

Industry input into the design and curriculum for courses is another focus of TAFE. “The training packages are designed with and for industries. So what you have is the connection between the VET sector and industry through the design of the curriculum. It’s a voice for industry to say these are the sorts of skills we need our people to be able to learn in this particular industry,” Collignon said.

This also ensures TAFE stays relevant in a quite competitive industry. In the VET sector alone, there are about 5500 registered training organisations, with TAFE representing 1 per cent of that, Collignon said.

However, TAFE educates more than 1 million students a year, with 63 per cent of all vocational students studying at TAFE, she added.

Flexibility is also key to not only attracting students but ensuring they are able to cope through their course and reach completion. “Most of the people that go to TAFE are not going to TAFE full time. There are a lot of opportunities to study and work, and that’s hard,” Collignon explained.

“There’s a big group of 20-35 year olds at TAFE, and they have other things going on as well in their careers and families. So it’s understanding timing of scheduling [classes], and it’s not always in person as you can do virtual learning. I think it’s about accessibility and support as you go through your studies.”

Keeping fees affordable is also important but a challenge in the current political environment, Collignon said. The introduction of entitlement models, full fee higher education courses at some TAFE Institutes, and a general tightening of government contributions towards the cost of training are all contributing to the financial concern.

Scholarships and creating more fee options is one way to help ease the cost pressures for TAFE students. Collignon heads a scholarship foundation at TAFE Directors Australia for high performing students to receive fee support. The money is raised through donations, fundraising events and corporate philanthropy.

“There’s a plethora of choice now. We want merit scholarships that are industry orientated to attract the best future employees,” she said. “We want to support the students with the most potential and the greatest achievers.

“But there are also equity scholarships to support the financially disadvantaged because it’s tough. If you are paying fees, supporting a family and running a car, for example, just a small amount of scholarship can make the difference for someone continuing their study or even start it.”

Check out our other in-depth profiles of inaugural Best Customer Experience Companies List 2014 winners

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