Australia’s system of post-school education is a mess. There is no national consensus as to what our universities are for, or what their priorities in teaching or research should be, or how their research should be funded. There is a clear national 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 and technical education, especially that which takes place on-the-job, has been downgraded as a national priority. Universities, on the other hand, have been seen by governments, public institutions, a growing proportion of parents and students, and some sections of industry, as the preferred educational pathway following school completion. This trend has accompanied the de-industrialisation of the Australian economy, the rise in importance of the services sector, and high youth unemployment. Some of the vocational training that previously took place on-the-job (such as nursing, hotel management and journalism) have been transferred to university settings.
Switzerland has moved in the opposite direction. It’s VET system (vocational education and training) is regarded as the best in the world. Seventy per cent of Swiss 15-16 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 60-80% of a student’s learning takes place on-the-job and the remainder takes place in a classroom.
The learning and curriculum is driven by private sector employers, who in turn pay a wage to the VET student (a portion of the 600-700 Euro 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 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.
Australian universities have grown rapidly in the last five decades, and have lowered entry requirements to accommodate rapidly increasing demand. In the process, the non-completion rate in university courses has soared. As governments cannot fund uncapped growth in entry to universities, the universities have responded by recruiting large numbers of fee-paying students from overseas. This, in turn, has driven a further lowering of entry requirements. In particular, universities recruiting from Asia have encountered strong market pressure to lower or circumvent English-language proficiency requirements. The result in Australian universities has been a downwards spiral in intellectual standards and academic morale.
There is a now a 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. Financial dependence on foreign students in both sectors is distorting the capacity of institutions to address the challenges they face.
Without national leadership and comprehensive reform, both university and vocational education institutions in Australia will stagnate. Our major parties have shown no inclination in the last five decades to address these issues.
1. Australia’s post-school education system should be overhauled by introducing the Swiss model of VET. By 2030, we want 70% of Australian 16-19 year olds to choose to learn and work in a VET system in which 60-80% of learning takes place on-the-job, under private sector direction, with the remainder taking place in a classroom. We want the other 30% of Australian students to continue in secondary school and then universities.
2. In return for private sector direction of students in on-the-job placements, private sector employers would be required to pay a minimum wage to VET students of $740.60 per week before tax, with a supplementary amount paid by governments as they see fit.
3. We will reverse the trend of the last five decades, and return education and training in several occupational areas to on-the-job settings and out of universities. This will include nursing, allied health and dentistry; law; accounting and business management; teaching; hospitality, hotel management and tourism; agriculture and forestry; architecture; computer science and parts of engineering.
4. The cost savings to taxpayers and students of this shift will be significant. Outstanding HECS liabilities now stand at $66bn. Training that takes place in VET instead of universities will not incur HECS fees – it will 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 can expect a supply of trained employees better equipped with on-the-job skills and familiarity with industry culture.
5. With 70% of students in VET, universities will 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 should fund generalist degrees in Arts and Sciences for citizens of all ages. Full public funding for generalist degrees in Arts and Sciences signals to the whole of society that this endeavour and capacity is highly valued. Because these degrees do not necessarily increase a person’s employability, it is appropriate that there be no financial disincentives to participation in these courses, such as up-front or delayed payment (HECS-type) tuition fees.
6. To uphold this high valuation of generalist studies in the humanities and sciences, it would be necessary for the Commonwealth to establish a minimum entry requirement for these degrees. To raise the bar considerably over current enrolment patterns, an entry requirement which excludes the lower 50% of current enrolments should be set.
7. To be eligible for public funding, generalist degrees in Arts and Sciences would be required to offer a broad grounding in traditional disciplines in the humanities and sciences, free of ideology or cultural fashion. The Commonwealth would have to approve eligible courses for public funding. This provides an opportunity to defund a plethora of ideology-driven or fashion-driven courses in arts and social science faculties. Universities should be free to offer courses in these non-traditional areas, but they would not be eligible for public funding.
8. A cap on foreign students should be set at 30% of the student body in any university to increase intellectual standards. The mad scramble by Australian universities to open recruitment offices in Asia to sell degrees to as many fee-paying students as possible has degraded both the intellectual standards of our universities and their cultural integrity. Many universities have turned themselves into what is now commonly referred to as ‘visa factories’, whereby foreign students complete a degree in Australia, obtain a position in an Australian workplace, and then secure a residency visa.
9. The rationale for publicly funded research in Australian universities might once have been discussed and written down somewhere, but it is now unknown and unknowable. Assessments of the public benefit of research projects are notoriously difficult to make, but it is possible to at least democratise decision-making in these areas, reduce the detachment of researchers from the general public, and eliminate the potential for corruption in the notorious practice of ‘peer-review’ (any group of peer researchers in any field are able to back applications for research grants in their own field, and call it ‘peer-review’).
The Commonwealth should task the selection of publicly funded research projects to citizen juries, selected by sortition. Under this arrangement, the Australian Electoral Commission would select a jury (chosen randomly as are juries in the judicial system) who would hear evidence from research grant applicants, and make adjudications as to what is in the public interest and therefore eligible for public funding. As in judicial processes, jurors would be briefed and supported in their deliberations by independent officials.
This measure would be guaranteed to send shock waves through universities like we have never seen before. But the process of researchers having to make a case to a panel of ordinary citizens, and then await their adjudication, would force academics and researchers to confront important questions about the value of their work and whether it is in the public interest.