It would be hard to find a single soul in this wide brown land who believes the vocational education sector is in good shape. Over a decade or more it has been subjected to wildly experimental policies, poor implementation, billion dollar rorting by rogue colleges (and then some), declining funding in real terms, falling enrolments.
TAFE, the public provision of vocational education and training, not so long ago one of the most fiercely respected training systems in the world, is in freefall.
At the same time, universities gained enormous ground, having benefitted enormously from the uncapping of student places in 2012 and from contingent generous subsidies. That has further demolished TAFE’s competitiveness and status among school leavers, mature age students and the rest.
The numbers aren’t pretty. Earlier this year, it was revealed that in 2012 TAFE had 1.2 million students enrolled nationally. By 2015 that figure had dropped to 870,000. Over the past five years, apprenticeships, the backbone of any functioning skilled economy, have almost halved.
The parlous state of the vocational education sector was today the subject of a spirited address to the National Press Club by Jennifer Westacott, chief executive, of the Business Council of Australia.
In an impassioned speech – Westacott has often spoken publicly of the transformational impact of education on her own life – the BCA chief called for a complete overhaul of the vocational and higher education sectors, arguing the current $20 billion cost was skewed towards university degrees with little regard to the needs of the economy or individual students themselves.
The BCA’s main pitch was for a single tertiary funding system that would eliminate the systemic distortions in the current system and which, she argued, too often pushes students into courses they are not suited to.
The BCA’s boldest proposal was for a “lifelong skills account” that every Australian adult would carry across their working life allowing them to gain entry level credentials and then top up with single units, subjects or micro-credentials to create their own bespoke qualifications portfolio that would be relevant and useful in rapidly changing, digitally disrupted workplaces.
“Our current education and training system creates confused and distorted incentives and is unfair in its treatment of students,” Westacott said in her address.
“The biased funding model reinforces the myth that a university degree is inherently more valuable or more prestigious than a vocational qualification. That is simply not true.”
Journalists at the Press Club honed in on the lack of appetite for reform on both sides of government, with one noting the last major successful reform that required large scale persuasion of a skeptical public was the GST back in 2000.
It’s an apt point, and one that Westacott acknowledged, but her key point was that a robust and public discussion on tertiary education was overdue. Not only don’t we know if we are getting the best value for money out of the taxpayer’s annual $20 billion spend on vocational and higher education, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that many students and graduates, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are not benefitting enough from the current system either.
Business, too, is asking why it isn’t getting a workplace-ready workforce.
“Business employs 10 million of the 12 million working Australians. Ensuring they can realise their full potential isn’t just an economic imperative or social obligation – it is a moral imperative,” Westacott said.
She’s right. The BCA’s plan is not prescriptive, it’s about getting on the front foot in calling for rational debate about the skills, training and education that is essential driving economic growth. The discussion is overdue.