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It's not always bigger and better Down Under

Australia's feelgood factor all but knocks you off your feet the moment you step off the plane in Sydney. The country's ability to be positive about itself, its people and their achievements makes for an impressive introduction to life down under.

These were the feelings generated when our party of Scottish principals and assistant principals visited a range of TAFE (Technical and Further Education) institutes in New South Wales in April to gain a first-hand understanding of Australia's approach to FE. Supported by a positive media, and helped by a seemingly inbuilt talent for global marketing of all things Australian, TAFE is an undeniably strong FE base from which to attack the country's goal of providing employers with "well-trained and job-hungry workers".

Traditional and enthusiastic Australian self-confidence in the face of such a challenge was displayed by our excellent hosts, Robin Shreeve, deputy director general of the New South Wales Department of Education and Training, who welcomed our party, and Barry Peddel, director of Illawarra Institute, who allowed me to explore the detailed day-to-day workings of his operation.

Despite being initially bowled over by what we saw, however, our eventual take-home message from TAFE NSW is that Scotland's colleges can be equally bullish. For all TAFE's excellence, the bottom line is that Australia is fighting to overcome a similar skills gap to that which exists in Scotland.

As a result, they are currently considering reducing the length of standard vocational training from four years to three. They also encounter the same social challenges as us, along with many of the same funding and administrative pressures.

Where they possibly have the lead is in their approach to encouraging individual innovation in harmony with a generally centralised system of FE provision. Their centralisation appears to operate effectively without stifling individual institute (or people) creativity. They even make space for institutes to brand individual products and services without detracting from the central process. We can learn from that.

Another advantage is that Australians, in general, don't appear to be living for retirement in quite the same way as many of their counterparts in the UK. That certainly creates a positive platform for lifelong learning developments.

However, we are definitely as well placed in terms of resources and potential, and arguably a little ahead of them on quality assurance and most certainly quality improvement techniques. In fact, we are every bit as capable of expanding our share of FE's global marketplace.

In short, TAFE NSW is impressive but, there again, so are we.

Brian Lister is principal of Cumbernauld College, vice-chair of the Colleges Open Learning Exchange Group (COLEG) and director of the continuing professional development programme.

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