Post-Election Rundown: What Does The Coalition Have in Store for Tertiary Education and the VET Sector?
Australia’s federal election results are in, and the dust is starting to settle.
While education is a top-priority issue for many, for those of us in the tertiary space, any post-election changes can have significant ripple effects and change the way we do business. That’s true whether you are in the vocational education and training, or the higher education sectors.
Election Campaigns: Who Promised What?
If you were keeping an eye on the election campaigns, there was not a lot of noise from the Liberal side of politics in regards to education policy. While Labor promised generous funding boosts for both the university and the VET sectors, and the Greens promoted even more funding and free university and TAFE education, the Coalition simply pointed to what their government has already done in the industry, claiming record university funding levels of $17.7 billion in 2019. Judging from the lack of focus on higher education issues from the Coalition, it seemed that there would not be any radical policy changes, and rather, continuation of current policy with some small reforms.
Where to From Here?
Now that the Coalition has won the election, what can we expect them to do in the post-secondary education policy space? The April Federal budget, released before the election, outlines the Coalition’s policy approach. Here, we’ll give you a quick overview of the critical pieces of the policy puzzle.
Higher Education Policy
Research must be ‘in public interest’.
Publicly funded university research will be subject to new evaluations, Coalition materials say. Research grants will only be awarded to projects if they are found to be ‘in the public interest’.
The two-year funding freeze for universities continues.
The Coalition claims that they have increased funding by 19% since they were last elected, even though universities are now receiving flat funding regardless of how many new students they take in. In the past, universities have operated on a demand-driven funding model, where Commonwealth funding matches student enrolments. According to the NTEU, this new model, where Commonwealth-supported places are limited, is effectively a funding cut. Even if enrolments stay at the current level, due to inflation continuing to rise, universities will receive less funding per student. In response, education specialists have called for a return to demand-driven funding for universities to allow for the upcoming growth in school-leavers.
By 2029 there will be 50,000 more 18-year-olds than this year. On current participation rates, that would mean about 20,000 more school-leavers seeking higher education.Andrew Norton, higher education program director for the Grattan Institute.
Vocational Education and TAFE Policy
The Joyce Review
Before the election campaign, the Coalition government commissioned a review of the entire VET (Vocational Education and Training) system. Conducted by Stephen Joyce, the former New Zealand Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, the review made 71 recommendations.
The review proposed reforms that correct the funding imbalance between higher education and VET, and in doing so would raise the status of VET to be equal with higher education. It also aimed to deliver skills matched to tomorrow’s economy, and enable all Australians to be ready for opportunities presented future of work. The review proposed to do this with 6 overarching aims:
Experts have praised the review as a much-needed update, but some have expressed doubts about how much of the plan the Coalition will carry out, saying it is not clear whether the government has accepted all the proposals or will limit changes to what is already in the budget.
Which Early Recommendations Got Funding?
The Joyce Review laid out a roadmap for short, medium and long-term changes that the government can take. Let’s take a look at which first steps the April budget funded, how helpful they are, and what the experts had to say.
1. Strengthen ASQA (Australian Skills Quality Authority)
This proposal aims to improve quality assurance measures, tackling compliance and improving the reputation of VET qualifications.
This item did not appear in the budget.
We would always welcome a robust framework that has student outcomes at the heart of any policy changes.
2. Skills Organisations
This recommends the creation of Skills Organisations to speed up and streamline qualification development. The organisations would work closely with state government & extend work-based VET further into less traditional areas.
The government has committed to launching a pilot program in the human services and digital technologies industries.
Any initiative that ensures that qualifications align with demand for work-based skills and the changing workforce means good things for the sector, not to mention the Australian industry and economy. There is potential here for significant benefit in assessing industry needs and speeding up processes. For example, if consideration is given to further encouraging the use of short-form credentials such as skillsets or micro-credentials, this will provide more flexible training options to industry, following the report of the Australian Qualifications Framework review.
3. National Skills Commission
A National Skills Commission, along with a Commissioner, that develops a nationally consistent funding model to meet skills demand.
Allocated $48.3 million, the new National Skills Commissioner will work closely with VET, industry and state/territory government to determine priorities for the sector.
Consistent and long term funding arrangements are essential to a healthy tertiary system, which in turn ensures economic development and growth.
4. Apprenticeship incentives simplified
This recommendation is for apprenticeship incentives, usually in the form of employer subsidies, to be simplified and streamlined to make them more attractive.
A skills shortage payment for apprenticeships undertaken which are in eligible skill areas + $200 million for 80,000 new apprenticeships over the next four years, taking the form of $8000 employer subsidies.
Apprenticeships are a minority, forming only 20% of all vocational enrolments. Clare Fields, a consultant to private vocational education providers, said that employer incentives have tended to drive traineeships – not apprenticeships. Additionally, this does not respond to where the real job growth is located, which is in the services sector, such as aged and disability care.
A good start, but care should be taken to make sure apprenticeships align with areas of job growth and skill demand.
5. National Careers Institute
Establishing an institute which aims to get better information and careers advice to both young people and career-changers.
$42 .4 million allocated for this project.
Gavin Moodie, adjunct professor of education at RMIT, is cynical about the unreliable workforce planning and career pathway predictions from the National Skills Commission, which he says was “invented to give astrology a good name.”
At this point, the finer details of this plan have not come into focus, so it’s difficult to say. Better information for potential students could be quite useful and have further value as a marketing and engagement strategy to raise the profile and status of VET. The utility of this initiative will depend on how accurate the information is.
6. New vocational pathways
This recommendation is for new pathways into VET for for secondary school students.
The budget has allocated $10 million to a grant partnership program, in order to support the creation of new pathways.
Victoria University vice-chancellor Peter Dawkins advocates for making education more accessible and relevant through offering more degrees through cheaper VET pathway courses.
More accessible learning for all will help answer skills shortages and better position the Australian economy.
7. Foundational skills programs
These programs would support second-chance learners looking to increase basic skills like literacy, numeracy and digital literacy.
$52.2 million Foundation Skills for Your Future program + $9.9 million for a similar program in remote communities, with pilot programs starting in early 2020.
More support for foundational programs will further bolster the sector. We support any policy which would increase accessibility and provide opportunities to students who may have missed out otherwise.
The future of tertiary education in Australia
Australia’s economy depends on skills that fit with industry, and the traditional divide between VET and university learning is dissolving as the nature of work changes, as the recent Mitchell Report demonstrates. Some of the initiatives underway look promising and may lead to a more relevant and adaptable VET sector, which will only benefit Australians, vocational providers, and the economy in general.
With the demand for tertiary qualifications only rising, embracing more of the Joyce Report recommendations in our education system would lead to a more robust and future-facing tertiary sector.