28 May 2013

A Skilled Nation Needs More Than Gonski

By Christopher Stone

Without qualifications, most Australians will struggle to get a job. Why do political leaders leave higher ed and vocational training out of their speeches about employment, asks Christopher Stone

In Wayne Swan’s Budget speech, the Treasurer talked about a “skilled workforce”. Tony Abbott replied that “people who can work, should work”. In addressing jobs from their different ideological positions, both speeches contain the same false assumption about what matters when it comes to employment. Even a cursory look at the statistics shows that any national vision for a skilled workforce must include the higher education, vocational education and training sectors.

The 2011 census data shows that of the 10 million Australians in paid employment, 5.9 million had non-school qualifications (degrees, diplomas, or certificates) as their highest level of education. The majority of the workforce did not rely solely on their school education to obtain a job. This inference is borne out when examining the figures for those looking for work. Of the 600,000 people who were unemployed and looking for work, only 246,000 had non-school qualifications. This is a much lower proportion (41 per cent) than amongst the employed (59 per cent), indicating that those with only school education have a harder time finding work.

Swan talked about “a highly skilled, educated and productive workforce”, but mostly he linked this to the increased school funding that is part of implementing the Gonski reforms. Universities did get a mention, but not the cuts to their funding. TAFEs and the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector were not spoken of at all. (Of course you could argue that VET is primarily a state responsibility, but this ignores the fact that federal money makes up a quarter of VET funding and that the federal government has substantial influence on the sector.) So, for the majority of the future workforce, Swan’s budget only tells half the story and cuts or ignores the other half.

Abbott has spent even less time than Swan talking about employment, and understands even less about the workforce. His solution relies heavily on work-for-the-dole schemes and increased incentives to work. It’s an approach that he has advocated for years, and described most succinctly in his 2011 budget reply speech: “I’m all in favour of training but first things first: the best training is on-the-job”. This assumes that it's possible to get a job without training.

Data from the census and job vacancies reports indicates that over 350,000 low-skilled job seekers compete for around 70,000 jobs. This means that for every low-skilled worker who can find employment, four will not. Under these conditions, many will not be able to avoid long-term unemployment. This makes incentives meaningless, and turns work-for-the-dole simply into government subsidised free labour for the private sector.

Both of these approaches ignore the pressing need to encourage as many Australians as possible to undertake tertiary or vocational education. This is a significant issue; the census data shows that the number of job seekers with only school qualifications is around a fifth the size of the total number of higher education and VET students. So a substantial increase in capacity is required. However, this year Universities are facing a cut of $900 million at the federal level, working against Labor’s prior trend of increasing funding to higher education. And the VET sector is suffering large cuts at the state level (a total of over $600 million in Victoria, NSW, and Queensland).

The potential benefits of a more skilled, more employable, population are difficult to quantify in total, but are no doubt large. The benefit to the individual obviously means increased income, but perhaps more importantly, the increased self-confidence that comes with employment has a range of positive psychological and health influences. For the economy, skill shortages are alleviated, allowing greater productivity. And a higher skilled economy is generally more productive and delivers higher wages, reducing welfare costs and increasing the tax take, allowing more money to be invested in infrastructure or other nation-building projects. As a society we benefit from a more informed and engaged population, making for stronger communities and a healthier democracy.

Abbott's glib dismissal of education and training is woefully inadequate to deal with the realities we face and runs the risk of missing out on substantial benefits. Wayne Swan was right to make skills a major theme of his Budget speech, but he has only considered half the picture. High quality schooling and work experience are clearly critically important, but for the majority they are not sufficient. Swan argues that “we'll only win the economic race in the Asian Century if we win the education race”. You won’t win any races if you only run part of them. Higher education and VET cannot be left out of our plans for skilled workforce.

For further details see the CPD report Doing less with less.

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Posted Thursday, May 30, 2013 - 09:29

The incompetent, neoliberal  Gillard Labor Government has not just left post-secondary training out of their agenda, they gave taken an axe to post-secondary training. Thus they have slashed university funding by about $4 billion, slashed university research funding by about $0.5 billion, slashed concessiions for Industrial research and its neo-Gonski offer to NSW has been accepted on the basis of slashing NSW TAFE funding.

Gillard Labor's application of the Gonski premise of improving pre-tertiary education by chucking billions of dollars at the system (including  an extra $2.4 bilion for private schools) is utterly flawed. Thus below is a comprehensive list of 37 things that can be done to improve pre-tertiary education at zero or very little cost (see Gideon Polya, "37 Ways Of Tackling Australian Educational Apartheid And Social Inequity",Countercurrents, 22 May 2013: http://www.countercurrents.org/polya220513.htm ). 

1. Zero tolerance for truancy (a massive problem for Indigenous students).

2. Zero tolerance for class disruption.

3. Compulsory sport.

4. Compulsory musical instrument, singing, poetry and art .

5. Compulsory intellectual games e.g. chess and bridge.

6. Urgent, compulsory,/voluntary mix of  on-the-job training for  English as a Second Language teaching, especially for teachers involved  in teaching Aborigines and recent migrant populations.

7. A language other than English from early primary school onwards (exploiting the huge resource represented Aboriginal  and migrant families)

8. Greatly increased involvement in family in teaching and learning (e.g. see #7).

9. A comprehensive, family-approved, multiple mentor system for all children involving tradespeople, professional, sports people, all kinds of focussed people etc .

10. Compulsory learn to swim programs.

11. Extra dedicated classes for 3Rs (reading , writing and arithmetic) catch-up.

12. Properly approved and appropriate teaching aide employment for people on benefits.

13. Rigorously secure and confidential mechanisms for child reportage of bullying, physical abuse and sexual abuse whether inside or inside of school, noting that 34% .of Australian women and 16% of Australian men have been sexually abused as children (see Gideon Polya, “Horrendous Australian child sexual abuse. Mainstream media ignore 4.4 million victims”, MWC News, 15 November 2012: http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/22859-gideonpolya-sexual-abuse.html ).

14. Cessation of any state funding for any  private schools committing child intellectual abuse by foisting egregious falsehood on children e.g.  gender discrimination, sexism, homophobia, misogyny, sexual guilt, racism, jingoism, creationism, intelligent design, other religious clap-trap (virgin birth etc) and the right to invade, devastate and ethnically cleanse other countries.

15. Use by state school children of taxpayer-funded private school resources.

16. Partnership between particular state and private schools.

17. Highly empowering Accredited Remote Learning (ARL) involving  off-campus, text-based learning (see: https://sites.google.com/site/educationalapartheid/ ).

18. University-secondary school links and mentoring.

19. Explicit text-based curricula (see item #17).

20. 3Rs testing while making sure that this does not pervert education (so-called NAPLAN - National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy -  3Rs testing is Australia is much criticized  for this as is such testing in the US ).

21. A book for every child (former Labor Opposition Leader Mark Latham's excellent bottom-up idea).

22. Modest incentives and financial "bribes" for student improvement.

23. Zero tolerance for bullying.

24. Family-linked cultural studies for all with this being a major item for Indigenous Australian children (of some 250 Indigenous  languages before the European invasion.in 1788, only about 50 remain).

25. Secular humanist Visitors to address the intellectual child abuse by religious schools (see item #14).

26. Compulsory and expert health, hygiene, sex, welfare, human rights and diet advice.

27. Free healthy lunches.

28. Basic level acquisition of a long list of skills to be recorded by stamping in a student "passport" (e.g. under "S", sewing, soldering, sailing, singing, speechifying, solidarity, scepticism, sexual hygiene).

29. Local university and vocational Tertiary and Further Educational (TAFE) institutional linkage to schools with inputs including talks, open days, advice, mentoring and tours for students and teachers.

30. For each school an expert advisory council made up of academics, educators, and other professionals to report immediately on all educational deficiencies (e.g. the lack of the above).

31. Selective schools for academically gifted students.

32. Technical high schools that would not preclude university entrance.

33. Streaming within schools to give better tuition for students with different abilities and attainments.

34. Confidential and secure systems for assisting the needs of disabled or sick students.

35. Schemes for increasing participation of disabled children e.g. disabled sports.

36. An attempt at a confidential safety net to try to maximize available help for disadvantaged children.

37. School-based mentoring and interviews so that no child falls through the cracks.


Posted Thursday, June 13, 2013 - 16:23

There are a few presumptions made in this article which I feel are a little wrong, if not potentially misleading. The first thing is the ABS census statistics being presented, if actually looked at in detail, would tell a bit different story to that which you are trying to tell. It may be that 5.9 million of the 10 million employed have higher education, but lets look at whether or not these people are employed on the basis of their education. I know many graduates who work, but instead of working in a job that requires them to use their degree in humanities or 16th century art and culture, they are selling dresses at a chain store, or flipping burgers for McDonalds. Their qualifications aren't the reason they have that job. On the flip side, there are a lot of people with what I consider useless qualifications, such as those that apparently entitle someone to be a cleaner, or work in a kitchen. The types of things that are taught in these courses should be taught on the job and not be a nonsense qualification. Yes, if you want to be a Chef, you need further education, if you are washing dishes you don't. We have shifted employer responsibility to train on the job to TAFE's and other educational facilities, which are being clogged up with this nonsense. A lot of money is being ill spent in tertiary education. And yes, you can get a job easily without qualifications. I have worked in a series of jobs from being a humble kitchen hand, where I was trained on the job about food safety and safe handling of chemicals, to book keeping ( which I was self taught), to managing a tourism venture( with no previous tourism experience),  to managing an art gallery selling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of art. All without any qualifications in the fields of work. Getting a job is about experience and self belief, not about where you studied or what your qualification is. ( well, maybe if you want to be a doctor or nurse, but after having successfully represented myself and my former wife in a case against a former employer for under payment of wages against a top NSW barrister, I don't think you need to to be a lawyer!!)

There is also an assumption that by having more people with qualifications means we are somehow more educated and that by focusing so much on early education, and not later education we are doing a great injustice to society. I beg to differ on this. If a 20 year old needs to get out a calculator to work out what the change from a $10 note is for a $9.80 sale ( this is an actual real example of several experiences I have had personally) then we have stuffed up on the early education. If a school teacher can be qualified, yet not be able to spell ( yes, another real world experience of mine, a former girlfriend who was teaching yet had worse spelling than a lot of 6 year olds I know) we have a crisis in early education. There is no point in having further education if people can't do simple math or spell, which I would think are critical elements of most tertiary courses, and pretty much for everyday life. Focusing on the early education is critical. I also can't see how compulsory sport, the arts, or intellectual games are actually relevant. Not everyone is a natural sportsman, artist or intellectual, and to force these ideas on people is just plain wrong. (I feel lucky that I have artistic abilities which I use, and also have an intellectual mind, but not everyone is cut out the same.) Universities and TAFE's need to start utilising their funds more effectively,  so universities should focus on courses that are directly related to professions we would expect that level of education, like doctors, engineers, etc, TAFE's should be teaching mechanics, child care workers and the such, and employers should be training staff as to safe work practices relevant to their field of work. ( In relation to the last, I know all the arguments that could be used against this idea, but what used to happen as short a time  as 10 years ago? Employers were actually a lot more interested in their businesses then, now it seems it's all about how much they can make and the apparent prestige of being able to call yourself a business owner.)  Instead we have universities teaching things that should be in the domain of TAFE's, and we have TAFE's teaching things that are hobbies, and passing them off as some sort of qualification. And we have employers taking no responsibility for training staff at all. I also find it hard to believe the notion of Dr Gideon Polya's that his suggestions above won't cost more, in fact I don't believe it at all looking at it with reality as a backdrop.