This post first appeared in the Australian Sensible Centre newsletter.
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 and high levels of 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 per cent 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 (employers pay part of the 600-700 euros per month wage, with the government paying the remainder). The 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.
The result of this system is that 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 their 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 university entry, 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 glaring inequity 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 in a comprehensive way.