Vocational education in an election climate: it’s time to be bold

May 13, 2019

The Labor Party is being bold, putting reformist policies before the voter. It has proposed a comprehensive inquiry into post-secondary education. If it gets to undertake that inquiry, I hope it will keep being bold and be prepared to restructure rather than just fiddle with a system that was shaped in the 1970s in very different labour market conditions.

A decade of falling investment in vocational education, a scandal of rorting (the consequence of poor implementation of a policy designed to deliver equity, poor regulation and crooked providers), and policies of privileging degrees, which have lost value in the labour market, means VET reform has made it onto the agenda during this election campaign.

The Coalition is playing catch up on most issues, having to respond to the Labor Party’s bold move to present its policies and position itself as a reformist alternative government. Even before the campaign the Coalition found itself having to follow Labor on VET policy.

In June 2018, the Labor Party asked a group of experts to recommend terms of reference for a comprehensive inquiry into post-secondary education. In February 2019, the Shadow Minister for Education, Tanya Plibersek, announced a National Inquiry into Post-Secondary Education that will look at every aspect of the vocational and higher education systems, to ensure they can best respond to the needs of Australia’s economy and society. ‘Labor wants prospective students to see TAFE and uni as equally attractive study options’, she said. The emphasis on the public provider, TAFE, has become even more prominent during the campaign and has upset the private sector, which has the majority of students (60.2%) in the system.

In late November 2018, the Prime Minister announced an independent review by Steven Joyce, a former New Zealand Minister for Tertiary Education, to examine how VET could deliver skilled workers for a stronger economy. The review had a determined focus on industry. Mr Joyce delivered his report in March 2019 and in April some of his recommendations were incorporated into the budget. Linda Simon explained in Pearls and Irritations that the $525.3 million Skills Package the government announced was mainly unspent money from an apprenticeship initiative. The package includes yet another attempt to improve careers advice by setting up a National Careers Institute.

Perhaps anticipating a Labor win, the Monash Commission (an initiative of Monash University, led by Margaret Gardiner who is the current chair of Universities Australia, a powerful lobby group for universities) released this week three recommendations for renewal of post-compulsory education in Australia:

  • to establish a statutory agency for post-compulsory education and training
  • to introduce a universal learning entitlement and a lifetime learning account
  • to design a coherent, sustainable model of financing public providers.

Some of the same ideas were put forward by the dual-sector universities (which deliver both VET and higher education (HE) but have over the last decade cannibalised much of their VET offering because HE students were a better financial proposition). They too want to see universal access; students making informed decisions; better-connected systems, saying an integrated system is too difficult to achieve and could threaten diversity; demand-driven funding across the system (which has big implications for the states and territories) and work-integrated learning (which universities are all now trying to offer).

Pardon my cynicism but none of this sounds visionary or altruistic. Nor do I see any resolution to the wicked problems the system has faced and ducked for decades. The idea of individual learning accounts is not new (in 2017 the Business Council of Australia suggested it) and it is laudable. The question is whether we have the capacity to administer it.

Millions of dollars have been spent on career advisory websites and other initiatives. Is this the answer? Or do we need to think more radically by acknowledging that nearly all young people will need to keep studying beyond year 12 and their choice of a post-school pathway should be more about further education than a pre-determined career path. Many will find their first job serendipitously; all will need critical thinking and entrepreneurial nous to navigate the modern labour market, which no longer offers jobs for life. And until post-school education offerings are truly diverse, rather than hierarchical, I can’t see parents or career advisers re-thinking their preference for university.

The Labor Party wants to address this lack of parity of esteem. I hope it will also see fit, should it get to have its inquiry, to keep being bold: to be prepared to restructure rather than just fiddle with a system that was shaped in the 1970s, when the Kangan inquiry was tasked to look at technical and further education in the overall context of ‘manpower policy’.

Francesca Beddie is a policy analyst and historian, who writes about tertiary education policy. A version of this article was prepared for the PASCAL International Observatory, a global alliance of researchers, policy analysts, decision makers and locally engaged practitioners from government, higher education, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the private sector.

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