Labor has foreshadowed a suite of policies to correct a decline in educational opportunities for young people in regional Australia by providing a “pipeline” to skills, higher education and jobs.
The opposition spokesman for regional services and communications, Stephen Jones, told The Australian announcements would be made to “open up education and skills development pathways”.
Mr Jones said TAFE closures and capping of university funding had “kneecapped” such institutions, but Labor would announce a series of measures during the election campaign to rebuild regional education.
Mr Jones spoke to The Australian this morning after addressing the “Regions Rising 2019” conference held by independent think tank the Regional Australia Institute in Canberra.
The conference on future employment opportunities in regional and rural Australia discussed a report released today by RAI entitled “The Future of Regional Jobs”, the product of an extensive study funded by the state and federal governments.
The report found young adults in regional Australia are twice as likely to be early school leavers, with 28 per cent dropping out overall, compared with 14 per cent in metropolitan areas.
In some rural areas the early dropout rate rises to 36 per cent, while barely half completed high school compared to 80 per cent among young people in metropolitan areas.
Nearly 20 per cent of 20 to 24 year olds in metropolitan areas have a university degree, compared to 9 per cent in regional areas.
The report also found a chronic and widespread shortage of skilled labour in the regions.
In his address to the conference, Mr Jones said “part of the answer to that is immigration”.
But he said “if that is all we do we have sold the current generation of kids short”.
“The biggest deficit we have is a deficit of hope,” Mr Jones said.
It was important for young people to know that “if they work hard at school there is something there in that town for them”.
“We have got to invest in human capital,” Mr Jones said.
“We need a pipeline of investment — great teachers in great schools.
“We need to be investing in vocational education and training.”
Mr Jones said if Labor wins the May election, it would implement policies but also develop a “narrative” to bring the voters with it over time.
“You need governments that can win an election, win the narrative, and then win the next election,” he said.
“It requires the roots of reform to go deep so they are not blown over by the next political storm.”
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack also addressed the conference, saying the government’s $520 million skills package would go a good way towards dealing with the problems of skill shortages and opportunity in the regions.
“The budget has done some wonderful things for regional Australia,” Mr McCormack said.
Mr McCormack also pointed to big infrastructure programs in the regions, both new ones announced in the budget and those underway including the inland rail project.
He said the inland rail program would not just create jobs during the construction phase, but beyond, including in “intermodal hubs.”
The NSW central west town of Parkes would be one key beneficiary of ongoing economic activity, Mr McCormack said, because it was at the juncture of east-west and north-south transportation lines.
“It will become a boom town, the opportunities there are quite incredible.”
Mr McCormack told the audience he had not had time to read the 45-page “The Future of Regional Jobs” report by RAI which his government had helped fund and he helped launch today, but said he had flicked through it, found it to be excellent and would read it tonight.
Mr Jones said he had not read it either, but said his staff had briefed him on its essential components.