Is it the role of our universities to train young people for jobs? Isn't that the role of our vocational education and training system?
The federal government seems to think it should monitor demand for skilled workers and professions, and adjust fees accordingly in universities. Last month, Education Minister Dan Tehan announced his fee revision. He clearly believes he is a kind of micro-manager in chief of what students choose to study. Why he should believe this is not at all clear.
There is no national consensus in Australia as to what our universities are for, or what their priorities in teaching or research should be.
There is a clear consensus, though, that our vocational education and training system is inadequate, and is failing to produce a wide range of skills that the country needs.
Since the 1970s, vocational education and training (VET), especially that which takes place on the job, has been downgraded as a national priority. Universities have been seen by governments and sections of industry as the preferred educational pathway following school completion.
This trend has accompanied the deindustrialisation of the Australian economy, the collapse in manufacturing and rise of the services sector, and the emergence of a persistently high level of youth unemployment. Some of the vocational training that previously took place on the job (such as nursing, hotel management and journalism) has been transferred to university settings.
What would happen in Australia if we reversed the trend of the last five decades, and returned education and training in a number of occupational areas to on-the-job settings?
Switzerland has moved in the opposite direction. Its VET system is regarded as the best in the world. Seventy per cent of Swiss 15- to 16-year-olds choose VET ahead of general education schooling or university. The distinctive feature of the Swiss system (replicated in Germany, Denmark, Austria and now South Korea) is that 60 to 80 per cent of a student's learning takes place on the job and the remainder takes place in a classroom.
Swiss learning and curriculum is driven by private sector employers, who in turn pay a wage to the VET student (employers pay a portion of the 600- to 700-Euros-per-month wage, with the government paying the remainder). This private sector lead in VET ensures its relevance, while the earn-as-you-learn aspect ensures its popularity with students.
Vocational training in areas like law, nursing and forestry in Switzerland takes place in the VET system, while in Australia these occur in universities. As a result of this system, Switzerland has fewer university graduates than comparable western countries, but is one of the most innovative economies in the world, with the lowest youth unemployment.
In Australia, we now have a glaring mismatch in the university and vocational education sectors. Technical and trades training requires an enhanced status, while universities enjoy an overblown and increasingly undeserved status.
Dan Tehan's recent announcement tinkers at the edges of this problem. It will have little effect. Without comprehensive reform, both university and vocational education institutions in Australia will continue to stagnate and our skills shortages will persist.
What would happen in Australia if we reversed the trend of the last five decades, and returned education and training in a number of occupational areas to on-the-job settings and out of universities, in conjunction with adoption of the Swiss system of VET?
If we did this in nursing, allied health and dentistry, law, accounting and business, teaching, journalism, hotel management and tourism, agriculture and forestry, and computing and parts of engineering, the savings to both taxpayers and students would be huge. Is it the role of our universities to train young people for jobs?.
Outstanding HECS liabilities reached $70.4 billion in 2017. Training that takes place in VET settings instead of universities would not incur HECS fees - it would be primarily paid for by private sector employers. Furthermore, the industry-based setting for VET can be expected to reduce significantly the drop-out rate in universities. In return, employers could expect a supply of trained employees better equipped with on-the-job skills and familiarity with industry culture.
With 70 per cent of students in VET, universities would be able to resume their traditional function, which is to nurture intellectual endeavour and the capacity for expansive conceptual thinking and analysis in the humanities and the sciences. It is not the purpose of universities to train workers for jobs. That is the role of VET.
The Commonwealth could fund generalist degrees in Arts and Sciences and leave VET to industry and students. Employers will always be more aware of emerging shortages than federal bureaucrats.
With a greater proportion of young people learning in VET settings, universities could return to being more selective in their recruitment to the humanities and sciences. The bar could be raised considerably.
- Vern Hughes is director of Civil Society Australia and convener of The Sensible Centre.