By Ron Maxwell - CEO
With a federal election almost upon us, there has been a lot of talk in the media around the key issues that will drive voter decision-making, and one of these, as always, is education. Vocational Education and Training (VET) is widely recognised as key to the future of work in Australia, and as such, is playing a part in Election 2019.
Both of the major parties have made announcements relating to VET funding; the Liberal Government via the Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow package, and the Australian Labor Party (ALP) through a pledge to increase sector funding and subsidise more apprenticeships.
With its competency-based nature and close ties to industry, in my opinion, VET is uniquely placed to build the skills Australia needs to stay competitive in a global jobs market, and address skill shortages across a wide range of industries. But if Australia is going to realise the full benefits of this, we need a strong, healthy VET sector.
Education and business sectors need realignment
I've talked before about how our school system tends to put more weight on university options than VET, and this is something that needs to be addressed.
I was recently in Europe to explore the way the VET sector operates and was pleased to see the strong ties some countries have between their school curriculum and VET. In Germany, VET pathways are actively encouraged and can be entered while a student is finishing their school studies. Even more importantly, there’s a real level of engagement from business in that they see it as a true partnership between industry and VET. It means that businesses actively engage as they see a real benefit to their operations. That engagement leads to businesses and the government actively investing in the VET system and certification is highly sought-after. The system is working; the completion rate for apprentices in Germany is over 80%, compared to around 53% in Australia.
While the culture is most certainly different, and it's not as cut and dried as simply copying the system, there is a lot that can be learnt from the German VET sector.
Ahead of the NSW State Election in March 2019, the Liberal Government announced two technical high schools to be built in the state, and these schools could make inroads into this in NSW. The technical high school model offers a more integrated VET pathway, whereby students complete their higher school certificate, while at the same time developing vocational skills.
Funding review will help
I was also pleased to read that, should they be successful at the federal election this month, the ALP will conduct a review into the tertiary education sector. We currently have disparate funding models across courses and tertiary providers. Funding for the university sector has increased considerably across the last decade, while VET sector funding has remained stagnant.
This seems incongruous, when even the federal government's own VET sector review recently found that "complex and confusing funding models" needed to be addressed, calling for the development of a nationally-consistent funding model.
Employer incentives will be key
Many of the proposed changes address funding on the student side, and while resolving disparate state funding models and ensuring VET is financially accessible for students is critical, it is also critical to support employers in taking on trainees and apprentices.
When we talk about funding and incentives for employers, many people think it is about funding big business who don’t need it, but the reality is that many trainees and apprentices are taken on by microbusinesses. This could be the family-owned restaurant or the solo tradie who has built a business through years of hard work and is now in a position to take on an apprentice. The system can be daunting for these types of businesses and the financial burden can be heavy.
Additionally, many of these businesses are located outside of our major cities and can offer employment opportunities to young people in areas where jobs are harder to come by and unemployment rates are typically higher.
Providing financial incentives to these businesses makes sense, particularly when you consider the financial impacts of unemployment that can be avoided by increasing job opportunities.
Students need choices
Often when our state and federal governments discuss funding, there is a strong focus on TAFE. But while TAFE does a brilliant job and it is important that we have a strong public provider, it's also important that students have choice.
Having a competitive sector fosters innovation, increases quality outcomes and enhances student experience. It also enables more students across the country to access VET. Funding models need to support students in choosing the right provider for them.
At the end of the day, whether we see a continuation of the Liberal Coalition Government, or, as is widely-tipped to occur, we welcome a new Labor one, it's clear the VET sector will play a role in Australia's future.
So, for me, I hope whoever is successful on 18 May 2019, will have the fortitude to do what it takes to strengthen the VET sector, and ensure Australia will have the skills to remain competitive on a global stage.