Executive Director, Major Projects, Pathways and Vocational Education

Sharon Rice’s first students at a Broken Hill primary school weren’t considered smart enough to attend regular classes. Aged between eight and 15, they were assessed as having IQs of 50–70, the level of intellectual disability. Sharon shakes her head at the memory.

‘They probably did not have low IQs,’ Sharon says. ‘They were migrant kids, a deaf child, kids from low socio-economic backgrounds, Aboriginal kids … that was my initiation with disadvantaged groups.’ Ideally, young people learn and grow at school, but Sharon had seen how dangerous a classroom could be — a place where an initial setback can become a life sentence.

Sharon Rice

Education and social justice

Sharon’s passion for education and social justice, sparked in Broken Hill long ago, still drives her work at Swinburne, where a student can start out as an apprentice and go on to earn a PhD. ‘TAFE is part of Swinburne’s DNA,’ Sharon says. During her years in the TAFE sector she has helped open doors for students who might otherwise have been left behind.

She has, for instance, overseen the development of vocational courses in Broome and East Arnhem Land that provide Indigenous people with practical skills and the opportunity to find work in their communities. In 2014 she developed Swinburne’s Reconciliation Action Plan with Indigenous colleague Andrew Peters. And she helped hatch the Swinburne Young Mums program, which allows teenage mothers to go back to school. Ever modest, she insists all of this was done with the help of her ‘very talented colleagues’.

Early days in TAFE

Sharon joined the TAFE sector in the mid-1980s, as one of the first employees at Eastern TAFE in Wantirna under Maurie Curwood’s leadership. She taught in the community services area, headed by Sue Polgar. Both Mr Curwood and Ms Polgar became her mentors.

‘They really laid the foundations of my management skills,’ she says. ‘They were consultative, non-judgemental, clear, encouraging, inclusive. Maurie knew everyone by name. He was quiet. He didn’t have a big ego. He was passionate about vocational education.’

Mr Curwood was also an innovator, starting one of Australia’s first online courses for information technologies in 1987–1988. During Sharon’s 13 years at Eastern TAFE, the college expanded to the Croydon and Lilydale campuses. While Ms Polgar was on long-service leave, Sharon became acting head of department and wrote a submission for a $3 million federal grant for aged-care training — the first in a long line of successful grant applications that she went on to make over the course of her career.

The transition to Swinburne

Eastern TAFE amalgamated with Swinburne University of Technology in 1999. ‘The transition had its challenges and those of us who came from the TAFE environment were exposed to a new culture in the dual-sector environment. The university was still in its development phase,’ she says. Happily, as the years rolled, Sharon went on to earn her Master of Education, Management and Leadership at RMIT University and found that she was stimulated by the free flow of ideas that is intrinsic to university life.

"I was delivering programs over three campuses and three departments … I was making education accessible to the community, particularly the most disadvantaged."

Sharon became manager of the new Regional Learning Networks, beginning her long association with the Indigenous community in Healesville. ‘I was delivering programs over three campuses and three departments. It was very community focused and involved community programs, online, flexible delivery, Indigenous programs and traineeships. I was making education accessible to the community, particularly the most disadvantaged.’

Sharon held this position for seven years. Work was busy but so was life at home — her marriage had ended and Sharon was a single mother with five children. As the sole breadwinner, Sharon remembers making the conscious decision that her family would always be ‘number one’. Her job, though vital, was secondary.

This inner choice has helped give balance to her life. At the same time, Sharon admits that her children consider her to be a workaholic. But she draws a distinction, saying although she loves her work, she also knows its place.

Integrating higher education and vocational education

Meanwhile, at Swinburne, the university’s leadership was grappling with the ambitious task of integrating the TAFE colleges with its higher education arm, a process that Sharon says is ‘still going on’. During her years at Swinburne, Sharon says she has seen ‘constant change in policy, leadership direction and in educational, pedagogical fashions'. The questions ‘Who are we? What is TAFE? What do we want to be?’ have been asked repeatedly, she says.

The nadir for TAFE was in 2012 when the Victorian government made cuts of $300 million to the sector. Private companies stepped in to fill some of the gaps in vocational training. As part of these cuts, 300 of her TAFE colleagues at Swinburne were offered redundancies. ‘It was a dark time for TAFE,’ Sharon recalls. ‘The people who stayed here did a marvellous job of keeping the TAFE relevant.’

"Vocational skills are very important for the development of the country — the training and retraining of the workforce."

Five years later, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction in Victoria. Sharon says the state government now acknowledges that ‘vocational skills are very important for the development of the country — the training and retraining of the workforce. There is a real role for it and it has been a real positive for us.’

Swinburne is now reaping the benefits of maintaining its integrity, Sharon believes. Many private training companies that were motivated solely by a profit motive did not survive and the state government is reinvesting in the TAFE sector. ‘There has been a reward for the people who hung on here during the dark times.’

Future-ready education

She is full of praise for former Vice-Chancellor Linda Kristjanson and the former Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Pathways and Vocational Education, David Coltman, for their consultative leadership style and for the vision they have for Swinburne.

"4.0 is the new industrial revolution ... the digitisation of industry."

The UniLink diploma program, for instance, which has been running for two years for domestic students and longer for international students, gives vocational students the opportunity to prepare for university. These students earn their diploma in a supported learning environment, before transferring as second-year degree students in a range of disciplines, including business, engineering, science, IT and design.

At the beginning of 2017 Sharon was overseeing the first Australian Industry 4.0 training program for ‘higher apprentices’, which has been developed with manufacturing and electronics company Siemens and the Australian Industry Group. She successfully applied for the federal government funding that helped set it up. ‘4.0 is the new industrial revolution,’ she explains. ‘The last one was the dotcom revolution ... this is the digitisation of industry. It involves a lot of the new advanced technology, the internet of things, cloud computing, robotics, AI …’

"I have never had a boring day in TAFE. I have never wished to be anywhere else."

The course will help ensure ‘our local manufacturing is viable,’ and that our cities benefit from the latest advances, Sharon says. It also follows the pioneering example set at Eastern TAFE years ago, when her old boss Maurie Curwood set up one of Australia’s first online courses.

Sharon is pleased to still be involved in the work of ‘making education accessible and relevant and student-based’. ‘I have never had a boring day in TAFE,’ she says. ‘I have never wished to be anywhere else.’

Words by Katherine Kizilos.

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