By Professor Duncan Bentley
Australia currently faces a dire shortage of skills for the jobs needed to drive our economy and productivity forward. As the number of school leavers entering post-secondary education continues to dwindle, we must start to take full advantage of our human capital if we wish to remain “the lucky country.”
Over the past few years, governments have invested in vocational education to try to address both Australia’s skills deficit and to keep more school leavers learning to ensure their future careers.
Yet there are still significant numbers of school leavers who do no post-secondary study or enrol in vocational qualifications that do not lead to a career outcome. Even worse, as the 2019 Napthine Review found, regional, rural and remote students had post-secondary attainment rates at least 10 per cent and sometimes more than 25 per cent lower than in major cities.
As a country, Australia cannot afford to have such a large group opting out of education, when most careers will require a higher qualification and those careers will tend to lead to a longer, healthier, happier, and more prosperous life.
In persevering with a binary post-secondary education system, Australia has also failed to keep up. TAFE is state and higher education is federal. The system tries to stop you doing both. Yet most school leavers do not care what level the qualification is – they want what is needed to get their dream job.
As a recent review, chaired by Professor Peter Noonan made clear, we should have a seamless set of qualifications with the ability to go backwards and forwards from higher education to vocational education. Megan Lilly from the Australian Industry Group, also on that review panel, has pioneered employers and providers working together to create mixed qualifications that suit employers’ needs.
The states, since 2019, invested heavily in creating incentives for school leavers to choose much-needed qualifications through Free TAFE.
The Federal Government trialled a national Free TAFE scheme over the past couple of years as an election commitment. Combined with the state initiatives, it has been effective in bringing significantly greater numbers of critical workers into sectors such as aged care, early childhood and nursing.
All credit to Skills and Training Minister Brendan O’Connor for bringing the state and territory governments to the table to begin the most significant overhaul of vocational education since Terry Moran AC – coincidentally Federation University’s current Chancellor – became the first CEO of the Australian National Training Authority in 1993.
The most important development has been the National Skills Agreement (NSA) that builds on the work of Jobs and Skills Australia to recognise the unique characteristics of the economic and job requirements present across the various regions of Australia. It will succeed because it brings together all the players from unions and employers to providers and governments.
It also focuses on the needs of each region and, through vehicles such as Free TAFE, adapts to the particular needs of each economic region. This means that at Federation University Australia we are offering the first wind turbine apprenticeship in the southern hemisphere. NSW TAFE offers specialist maritime and marine engineering programs. We are different providers catering to different employer needs in our respective regions.
The NSA will begin the melding of TAFE and higher education programs, which Australia’s dual sector universities are pioneering. European advanced manufacturing and high technology industries have done this successfully for decades.
The joint efforts by employers and education providers, with strong union support and government funding, are a vital step to incentivise a joined-up approach to skills and training. It sends a powerful, positive and aspirational message to those at school and those thinking of upskilling to a new career.
At last, we are seeing the development of an Australian framework to help turbocharge our skills and training capability.
Professor Duncan Bentley is Vice-Chancellor and President of Federation University Australia