Serving the public interest

Judging by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s list of occupations for which employers may sponsor well-qualified migrants, Australia continues to suffer widespread skills shortages, especially in engineering and the trades. At a time of strong jobs growth, economic needs should be a major factor in determining how the tertiary sector spends taxpayer-funded budgets.

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham, the states and vocational education leaders face an important challenge in rebuilding that sector’s standing. Government-funded student enrolments in vocational education and training fell by almost 7 per cent last year, as John Ross wrote in The Australian’s Higher Education supplement yesterday. The fall continues a trend that has seen enrolments decline from more than 1.5 million in 2012 to fewer than 1.2 million last year. The malaise partly arose in the fallout from abuse of the now defunct VET FEE-HELP scheme by low-quality private providers.

As the Productivity Commission noted in its five-yearly review in August, declining VET student numbers when university enrolments were increasing highlighted serious problems with the attractiveness of vocational training. Training packages were too narrow to equip students with the skills to adapt to workplace changes, it noted. Being “work ready’’ did not need to be job specific. The commission also criticised falls in state and territory government funding while federal funding had increased. More broadly, it is important for parents, teachers and school counsellors to ensure that students considering their post-school options understand the benefits of apprenticeships and lucrative trades careers compared with the limitations of “soft option” university courses in cultural, media and general studies. For decades, much of Germany’s economic success has been built on a robust technical education sector, considered as prestigious as universities.

That is one reason The Australian disagreed with Labor’s demand-driven university entrance system from the outset. Writing in Higher Education yesterday, opposition education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek affirmed the party’s full commitment to it. She applauded Labor for “opening the doors of opportunity” to indigenous and poorer students and those from the regions and outer suburbs. They were never closed, apart from the fact entry requirements were more rigorous — for all applicants. Ms Plibersek also boasted about the opposition blocking the government from reducing the threshold for HECS repayments from incomes of $55,874 to $42,000. That reform, voted down by the Senate, would have seen graduates clear their debts sooner and boosted the budget. Before the demand-driven system, Ms Plibersek claimed, “entry scores were becoming unrealistically high”. Many scores are now abysmally low, including those for teaching degrees.

The Australian supports generous research funding, especially for medical and scientific research that is a major national strength. And we acknowledge the contribution of universities to budget repair. But tertiary education funding must be well-directed to serve economic needs. There is no bottomless pit of taxpayer largesse to inflate the number of degree holders to satisfy faux notions of social mobility.

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