Along with Brian MacDonald, Mary Thomas and Roger Chamberlain, Norm Shearer was pivotal to the successful amalgamation of the Preston and Collingwood Colleges of TAFE during the late 1980s. Norm, as Director of Programs, also made a significant contribution to the expansion of the Northern Melbourne College of TAFE (NMCOT) during the 1990s to become the modern entity now known as NMIT.
Norm grew up in a family where practical skills were valued. Both his father and brother went to technical schools, and although he trained as a primary teacher, he found that technical and vocational education was the right environment for him.
He enjoyed the ‘tremendous range of skills, both in teaching and practical skills’, of staff at technical schools, and in an era of separate and distinct secondary high and technical schools, could never understand or accept the prevailing view of the time – that more able students were sent to high schools and the more practical, or less able, were sent to technical schools.
During a long career as a teacher, an inspector of schools and an administrator, Norm had great admiration for technical school students as he saw them become very successful in their chosen fields and very successful in business. Norm admired their ability to solve practical problems, to plan and complete projects and to achieve professional results, ‘to dodge the crocodiles’ that normally beset people when they attempt, for instance, practical things like home renovations.
Norm taught Business Studies at Preston College of TAFE in 1973 and then went on to become an Inspector of Schools in Business Studies. He was appointed to the TAFE Board as Director of Programs and then returned to Preston TAFE in 1987 to assist with the building of new campuses at Epping and Greensborough.
In 1988 he was invited by the CEO of NMCOT, Brian MacDonald, to become Deputy Director and to assist in the amalgamation of Preston and Collingwood Colleges, who were in financial difficulties and were living beyond their means with budget deficits. Norm says ‘the people factor’ was a tricky issue confronting them during the amalgamation process, as there were two people for each position. ‘They were all fine people, some took it hard and some left, but each of the Associate Directors could be accommodated’. New teams were built around Faculties of Study, to overcome any residual loyalties to particular sites or history.
The decision to establish new campuses at Epping and Greensborough was based on an analysis of existing TAFE provision around inner and outer metropolitan Melbourne. It became obvious that the west, east and south-east were well served but the northern suburbs were a sleepy hollow in terms of the provision of technical and vocational education, with only Preston and Collingwood Colleges in that area. The Epping campus was developed to serve the huge new housing developments in the Plenty Valley, as well as towns to the north and northeast of Melbourne, and was superbly situated to take advantage of the Hume Freeway, the Ring Road and other main traffic arteries.
During his time at NMIT Norm has witnessed a great change in the student demographic with students of Asian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, African and Anglo-Saxon backgrounds now comprising a culturally rich community at NMIT. Norm recalls the 1988 Presentation Night being held in the school gym. Later this was held in the Town Hall and
Norm described it as a ‘must-see’ night of the year, ‘beautifully multicultural, a night for pure pleasure as students from many backgrounds accept their awards’.
Norm sees the wide scope of NMIT today as the result of identifying needs in the local community and communities overseas, and rising to the challenge of meeting those needs by developing relevant courses. He sees the role of TAFE in the local community as vital, and he recalls the 1990s when NMIT received generous funding to retrain people retrenched from the textiles and passenger vehicle industries. These were mostly mature age people from different ethnic groups with poor English language skills. In the adult learning environment of TAFE, where discipline is not an issue, people felt comfortable, and there was help available for those who needed extra support. Having had little formal education they commonly identified themselves as being hopeless, or too old, but English language courses brought them to a level where they could articulate internally into other courses such as Aged Care or Business Studies. Many did so, and with renewed confidence in themselves, went on to find new jobs. Within their extended families, they became enthusiastic advocates of NMIT and sent another generation of students to the Institute.
Norm Shearer has contributed a great deal to make NMIT what it is today. He came to the Institute with a passion for technical education, a background as a teacher, an Inspector of Schools and experience in administering programs. Norm’s mix of skills and experience contributed greatly to the transformation of two debilitated Colleges into an impressive Institute with many campuses, a broad sweep of programs, and delivery of diverse courses in many countries overseas. Although he retired from the Institute, Norm continued to serve on the NMIT Board until August 2011.