Letter from Australia: Waiting for Augar

In Waiting for Godot, two men named Vladimir and Estragon wait by the side of the road for someone who never shows up. They pass the time of day by talking about this and that and debate the rationality of suicide.

At the play’s conclusion Estragon tests the strength of his belt in order to make a noose. It breaks. His pants fall down. The pair resolve to find a stronger and more suitable makeshift noose and, if Godot doesn’t arrive the next day, put it to full use.

The true meaning of Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece has been widely debated since it’s premiere in 1953. It’s also a worthy parable for the vocational education and training sector in Australia. A beleaguered sector waits for redemption. Some meaningless chatter takes place. There’s an ad hoc reform and the sector’s pants fall down. But nothing ever happens. Nothing. Ever. Happens.

Amazingly, in November, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a federal review of VET to be run by Steven Joyce, a former politician from New Zealand, to lead the first national review of VET in 40 years. It’s terms of reference included to ascertain whether the $12bn sector was “fit for purpose”. Strange question to be asking of a $12bn annual spend.

Anything but lucky

The Joyce review is most likely a case of too little too late. The Opposition had announced eight months earlier it would conduct a full-scale review of the post-secondary education sector should it win government in 2019. And it would take a particular focus on the public provision of vocational education (TAFE, in Australian parlance).

Anyway, the whole thing is being run with little fanfare or public attention, although the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet say around 200 submissions have been submitted.

The Joyce review? Who’s Joyce? (Not the Joyce named Barnaby who’s affair with his media advisor led to a little bundle of Joyce called Sebastian (with thanks to the Daily Telegraph)).

For reasons known only to itself, the government has decided to run the review – which is due to hand down it’s report in March just weeks before the federal election – in an oddly clumsy manner asking contributors to submit answers to pre-set questions on a website and then submit any additional materials separately.

Submissions closed on January 25.

One, from the Australian Industry Group (AiGroup) a peak industry association has managed to sum up the ennui that bedevils the VET sector in its comprehensive submission.

Falling enrolments, plummeting funding, low completion rates, inconsistent regulation, unfair student fees and loans, non-existent national skills forecasting or workforce strategy, the looming impact of automation, and policy incoherence are among the big ticket items.

Here are just some of the statistics that could stop a concerned citizen in her tracks.

  • Expenditure on HE grew by 53% between 2005-16; school funding increased by 30%, VET funding decreased by 5%.
  • Employers reporting skill shortages increased from 49% in 2016 to 75% in 2018.
  • Apprenticeship commencements have been in decline since 2012 (although there has been a recent uptick in trade apprenticeships matched by a similar decline in non-trade apprenticeships).
  • The national completion rate for apprenticeships stands at 52.7% and just 47.1% for trades.
  • 38% of Australians only have basic IT skills that allow them to browse and email.

I could go on.

Vladimir, Estragon, Technology (VET)

Another recent report from consultancy AlphaBeta found that in order to navigate the future world of work, the average Aussie would need to undertake a third more education and training and what, when and how we learn is about to undergo a metamorphosis. Much of the education activity will be in reskilling and upskilling in on-the-job training or in short and flexible courses. And a far greater share of education and training will occur after the age of 21.

An EdTech tsunami is about to hit.

“Australians need to learn skills that complement, not compete, with automation,” the report Future Skills says.

Is the Australian VET (or even HE) sector ready for this? The answer is obviously not.

AiGroup makes 21 recommendations starting with the creation of a national independent coordinating agency (our five states and territories have their own VET system and very much run their own show and funding experiments).

Repeating a call that has been doing the round for decades, AiGroup calls for a nationally funded and operated VET system. Repeat. This is a Godot moment. Or maybe Groundhog Day. Or maybe Russian Doll.

As consultant Claire Field, in her submission to the review, points out, there have been 421 policy reforms to VET enacted by the federal, state and territory governments in the past 20 and that excludes reforms specifically focused on international students.

“Even in the Northern Territory, where the appetite for reform has been weakest, providers have still been required to change their business model every 18 months for the last 20 years, as a result of government enacted reforms.

Unsurprisingly, Field too calls for an independent VET commission which has oversight of funding and “a reliable and simplified system”.

She makes the point that the VET sector is “both reform-weary and in desperate need of reform”.

What Australia needs urgently is a Augur-like review. Sadly, I don’t think the Joyce review (Steven not Barnaby) will come close to taking a full measure of what is required.

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