Backing Australia’s future through great vocational education

Wednesday 25 June 2014

The east side of the Advanced Manufacturing and Design Centre building captured during a sunset.

At our Chancellor’s lecture last week, the CEO of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, outlined a powerful case for the need for Australia to continue to support a strong and dynamic vocational education and training (VET) system.

It was an unequivocal message to the community about the critical importance of a strong VET sector to the long-term economic future of Australia. It is a message that I welcome, particularly one that is coming from one of Australia’s most respected peak bodies for the business community.

It was fitting that the Business Council of Australia chose to deliver the message about vocational education in Australia here at Swinburne. This in itself was a strong endorsement of our role both as an innovative vocational education institution and as a centre for public debate.

As Jennifer highlighted in her opening remarks, Swinburne is well known for its innovative and pioneering approaches to education. We have a history of responding to the changing needs of young people seeking work and the changing needs of employers and the changing nature of workplaces.

It was rightly said that there are plenty of people willing to make contributions to the national conversation about the importance of higher education and schools policy, but regrettably there is a shortage of powerful friends for the vocational education sector.

Jennifer pointed out that it has become more politically acceptable for State governments, the main source of income for public providers, to make cuts to vocational education over schools. At Swinburne, we know from experience the impact that this thinking can have.

As Jennifer articulated, Australia’s long term economic interests will be boosted by a stronger connection between our VET system and the skills needs of the economy. A 2012 OECD study placed one in eight Australian adults in the lowest band of literacy and one in five in the lowest band of numeracy. A better alignment between VET offerings, skills required and employment outcomes is necessary if we are to make progress as a society on these challenges.

The Business Council of Australia has outlined a five point plan for change to Australia’s vocational education system, which includes:

  • restoring VET’s role and status as a national economic priority;
  • a call for a more active coordination by the Federal government;
  • better integration between VET with schools, higher education and industry;
  • a clearer determination of how the system should support public providers and allow for more private providers in the market, underpinned by a risk-based regulatory 
framework; and
  • ensuring that funding incentives are right.

I support the call for a more collaborative and integrated approach by the federal government, both in terms of commitment to funding and to create greater consistency across the sector nationally.

Swinburne will actively contribute publically to the debate coming out of Minister Macfarlane’s VET reform taskforce, which will undoubtedly examine the role of the Commonwealth in the development of the sector. Swinburne also has lessons to share from the opening up of the Victorian VET market and it is important that we bring this experience to the table in the ongoing debate about higher education reform and deregulation.

Vocational education is important to Swinburne and despite the challenges of the funding environment over the past few years, we are in a position to take advantage of new opportunities that are ahead of us.

We are in a position to adapt our offerings to capitalise on new funding opportunities and to ensure that we meet the skills needs of economy, both now and into the future. Developing more seamless connections between our own vocational and higher education offerings will be an important element in ensuring that we are serving the needs of our students and future students.