If you look at a graph of spending on education in Australia, there’s one remarkable feature. From 2012, spending on vocational education and training falls off a cliff. In a country that prides itself on prioritising teaching in schools, universities and technical colleges, this is an embarrassing slide. It’s also unique to the VET area; spending on other education sectors started to soar about the same time.
VET is not just where the country will get its next generation of plumbers and electricians. In fact, trade apprentices make up only 5 per cent of the sector, which is dominated by students doing certificate courses and diplomas in everything from computer programming to hospitality.
TAFEs (the old technical colleges) and private training companies are producing the workers who will fill the payroll of the fast-expanding National Disability Insurance Scheme, technicians to run the NBN, stylists to cut your hair, nurses for hospitals and carers to look after older people.
Employers know there’s a huge skills crisis looming. Only on Friday, NSW was warned it faced a “catastrophic” shortage of registered nurses. Figures obtained by the ABC under a freedom of information application showed that, come 2030, NSW will need 82,000 nurses and midwives – but only 74,000 qualified people will be available. The projections are even worse for the aged-care sector.
The Business Council of Australia knows there’s a problem. In October, it released a report calling for wholesale reform of education. On VET, one word repeatedly cropped up: stigma. The BCA said vocational education and training was stigmatised as a second-class citizen in higher education. When young people leave school, the question is not “what am I good at?” but “I want to go to university, what course will I do?”.
In effect school-leavers have narrowed their choices because of a cultural shift in tertiary education. A university degree is seen as the only ticket to a job, while learning a trade – either as an apprentice or through a TAFE diploma – is viewed with suspicion. Why risk getting into a low-income trade when universities are teaching sexy-sounding, highly paid careers such as artificial intelligence and quantum mechanics?
But it’s not just about sentiment. The shift away from VET has been driven by government.
The majority of the spending on VET comes from the states. State and territory governments account for about 64 per cent of total outlays that go into the sector. All this happens under the National Agreement for Skill and Workforce Development, an ongoing arrangement between states and Canberra. The only hiccup with the agreement is that states are not compelled to match federal contributions. As far as state governments are concerned, VET funding is discretionary.
By 2012, concerns were being aired about the relatively slow growth in apprenticeship and training enrolments. An additional deal was signed up to boost the VET sector, the National Partnership on Skills Reform. And the federal government introduced VET Fee Help, a generous, demand-driven scheme to assist students pay for diploma, or high-end courses at TAFEs and training schools.
The effect was the reverse of what everyone expected, and it stemmed from a kind of perfect storm in tertiary education.
State funding drops
State and territory governments interpreted events – especially VET Fee Help – as a signal Canberra was doing the heavy lifting and they could ease off their share of spending on vocational training.
The high-growth states had heavy budget demands for ramped-up infrastructure spending. And in most states, spending on secondary education took off as the Gonski reforms began to bite. With no obligation to match federal VET spending, the states surreptitiously eased off the pedal.
“The agreement that governs funding for VET enables the states to withdraw without consequence,” says Peter Noonan of the Mitchell Institute, an education think tank at Victoria University. It was Professor Noonan’s report in December which sounded the alarm on the collapse in funding for VET.
“The fall-off in VET is because there is no clear accountability – unlike schools, which also have joint funding. Earlier versions of the National Agreement for Skill and Workforce Development had stronger accountability obligations on the states.”
The other element of the perfect storm came from the universities. Reforms to uni funding in 2012 introduced a demand-driven system for growth. If you wanted to get into university, you could; the sector expanded sharply as enrolments spiked up.
TAFE directors looked on in shock. “All we’ve seen in the higher education sector is growth in universities,” says the chief executive of TAFE Directors of Australia, Craig Robertson. “Universities always have a stronger pull.”
Read more: http://www.afr.com/news/policy/education/vocational-training–the-poor-cousin-in-australian-education-20180109-h0fpdv#ixzz541Yr4XZQ
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