For 20 years, university spruikers pitched their product as the path to a successful career – implicitly positioning training as being for losers. It worked, a 2015 survey analysis found 56 per cent of mothers with school age sons and 71 per cent of those with daughters expected them to go to university.
But all of a sudden people are talking up training as a better pathway to prosperity, none more so than Industry and Skills Minister Brendan O’Connor
“I have met too many workers who are loving what they do, but tell me the pressure to go to university almost meant they didn’t follow their passion. We need to change the antiquated idea that well-paid, in demand and highly skilled jobs are only accessed through university,” he posted on LinkedIn.
There are two big reasons for pitching the promise of voced.
One is that years of talking universities up and training down has distorted skill supply. According to Jobs and Skills Australia, there is a shortage of workers in 50 per cent of technician and trades categories. Almost half of occupations requiring a Certificate III or IV are short of workers. And shortages now will have future impact; JSA warns of a 27 per cent undersupply of electricians by mid-century.
Another is a return of the old-Australian ambivalence about education that is not for a trade or profession, which the Albanese Government appeals to with the fee-free TAFE programme. Publicly funded VET delivers for people who want training to pay dividends rather encourage students to learn to think critically. This week’s Productivity Commission report on public VET states that in 2018-19, 80 per cent of VET completers were either working in the field of their highest qualification or it was otherwise relevant to their job.
As a way of connecting with the old Labor base that values skilled trades, this is hard to beat. And it is unsettling university lobbies that are not used to having cross sector competition for students. Last week, Universities Australia called on the Commonwealth to match fee-free TAFE, by providing 180,000 fully funded undergraduate places. “Higher education enrolments are declining at a time Australia needs more university-educated workers,” Acting CEO Renee Hindmarsh said.
And finally, finally, the VET sector is starting to sell on its strengths. TAFE veteran Robin Shreve nailed what needs to be done last year, in his evidence to a House of Reps inquiry on the status of VET. “Promotion of VET or TAFE should not be messaging about comparing VET to HE but rather about the experiences people will enjoy, what valuable skills they will acquire and the careers their education and training will lead to.”
After decades of VET recruitment campaigns with all the pizazz of a Taylor Swift concert produced by the North Korean ministry of culture, Construction Skills Queensland is preferencing an adversarial pitch. Its’ student recruitment campaign contrasts directionless and HECs debt driven undergraduate life with on-the-job training, “opportunities to get paid to work, instead of paying to study.”
While drops in university starts are driven by the strength of the economy and pandemic after effects, they are enough to unsettle university managements used to always-increasing demand. And for whom the possibility of competition from training is new and uncomfortable.