Training and skills are the new focus as the education debate does an about turn

by Robert BoltonThe government is at risk of losing control of the tertiary education debate, as the focus switches to vocational education and training – where the data points to a sharp fall in students and new apprentices – just as the infrastructure boom and changes in technology create demand for skilled workers.

The wrangle between universities and Canberra over funding for new students has obscured long-running weaknesses in VET, which are now being wedged by Labor and on which the business community has serious misgivings.

Since the coalition came to power skills training has fallen off a cliff. Official data shows a 31 per cent decline in the number of hours of TAFE education delivered between 2013 and 2016 and a 14.6 per cent fall in the number of government-funded TAFE students. There’s been a sharp decline in the number of apprenticeships since 2013. That’s just as skill consuming projects such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the NBN started sucking up skilled workers.

In October the Business Council called for whole scale reform of the VET sector. It wanted a single tertiary funding system that would eliminate incentives that pushed people towards university. Chief executive Jennifer Westacott said without reform the country faced a crippling skills shortage. She singled out nursing and community care, mechanical engineering and technology industries.

KPMG's Stephen Parker : What's disappeared is the bridge between intellectual and practical studies, which used to be ...
KPMG’s Stephen Parker : What’s disappeared is the bridge between intellectual and practical studies, which used to be filled by the old CAEs. Michele Mossop

Friday’s announcement by Labor’s shadow minister for education, Tanya Plibersek, that a Labor government would hold a “national inquiry into post-secondary education” focused on the issue of most concern to the BCA – people leaving school are not encouraged to see a choice.

Since the (Labor party initiated) Bradley review of tertiary education in 2008 the demand-driven system has boosted numbers of people going to university. Vocational training and education never got a growth driver and the VET Fee debacle of 2015-16 had the effect of pushing people away from the sector. The Bradley review argued for a balance between universities and VET, but this was overlooked in the push for higher ed reforms.

It wasn’t just the disincentive to take up technical training. Earlier reforms by the Labor party merged specialists colleges of advanced education with universities. This weakened the whole business of high-end skills training and and removed a focus on excellence in vocational training and education.

National sector leader, education, at KPMG, Stephen Parker, says the tertiary sector is now a stark binary – with universities on one side and TAFEs on the other. What’s disappeared is the bridge between intellectual and practical studies, which used to be filled by the old CAEs.

He says the higher education (ie, university) sector is not equipped to fill the gap and TAFEs are now too starved of funding and ambition to step into the role.

The Mitchell Institute, which analyses vocational training, says it's not a case of playing universities off against ...
The Mitchell Institute, which analyses vocational training, says it’s not a case of playing universities off against TAFEs. Both sectors need to grow to feed labour demand in new industries. Michele Mossop

“We need to reinstate a polytechnic layer. Think of it as a mastery level injected into vocational training. It’s a bit like a conservatorium of music where what is taught is mastery of a technique.”

Parker says the coming workplace skills will be in artificial intelligence, machine learning and the soft skills of creativity. These will be as much the responsibility of VET as of universities.

The Labor party has seen an opening. It’s been noticeably quiet on the massive $2.2 billion funding freeze announced by the government in December. Privately opposition figures say Labor is unlikely to restore the shortfall to universities. It will focus on a core constituency: people who go into VET.

The Mitchell Institute, which analyses tertiary education, says it’s not a case of playing universities off against TAFEs. Both sectors need to grow to feed labour demand in new industries.

“Tertiary education is not a zero-sum game,” says professor of tertiary education at the Institute, Peter Noonan.

“You don’t just turn off the tap for universities and expect it to start flowing for VET. We need more skills at university level and at VET. Tertiary education needs serious attention as a whole, both higher ed and TAFE.

“There are lots of students who are never going to be higher ed students. But whether its university or vocational training, the outcome has to be driven by need, not by pitting one sector against another.”

On Wednesday the minister for education is going into a head-to-head with the top end of higher education. Senator Simon Birmingham will address a Universities Australia conference. In an interview with The Australian Financial Review he said there ought to be a stronger connection between universities and the VET sector.

Universities should be thinking about collaboration, physically with buildings, but also an another level through the benefit of partnerships between the two sectors in other areas.

Asked if this meant getting university academic staff to teach in vocational programs, the minister said it was up to the universities to think how best to boost productivity but some universities were well placed for dual-sector relationships.

KPMG’s Parker says what’s needed is a national system with parallel functions, in which both sides get equal attention.

“If we don’t the scale of change coming to us is going to leave us flat footed.

Read more: http://www.afr.com/news/policy/education/training-and-skills-are-the-new-focus-as-the-education-debate-does-an-about-turn-20180225-h0wmbp#ixzz58BTCPsgj
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