This article is more than 4 years old

Rebuilding education, training and transition

Sophie Johnston analyses an Australian election bid aimed at winning favour among millennials by promising investment in education and skills, questioning what it really takes to be a Prime Minister for young people.
This article is more than 4 years old

Sophie Johnston is a Commissioner for the National Youth Commission and a former president of the National Union of Students.

There’s a gloomy nostalgia to most of the utterings that come from a politician’s mouth, but none more so than on Federal Budget day. Except, of course, when that Budget is a quasi-launch for an election bid.

It wasn’t until two days later that we had our time in the spotlight. We heard the Opposition’s budget reply, with Labor leader Bill Shorten touting intergenerational inequality and promising investment in skills and education. Unfortunately, there’s little rhetoric that can quash the disillusionment felt by a generation who has grappled with the effects of being a political afterthought.

Shorten’s speech spoke to the cost of living, rental prices, stagnating wages, and education investment. But to reach an embittered generation, young people need more than promises of funding – we need a vision. A vision to address the structural and legislative constraints that fail to prepare an entire generation for the future of work.

Three decades of difference

Let’s go back a few decades, when HECS (income-contingent loans) were first introduced in 1989. At the time, less than 20% of 19-year-olds were enrolled in higher education compared to 2016 where participation has more than doubled to 41%. A student in 1989 could expect to stay in the same job for most of their life without the need to retrain or upskill.

Fast forward 30 years and the higher education model – aside from a slight name change – has largely remained the same, while the workforce is barely comparable to what it once was.

Take the gig economy, for example. Most people think of Uber and Airtasker, but with automation likely to wipe out routine jobs like drivers and delivery services, many gig economy jobs will require in-demand specialised skills as well as transferable skills such as problem solving and communication.

Shorten’s vocational commitments were not lost on this generation. His promise of $1 billion in a long-overdue funding increase will provide essential renovations on regional TAFE campuses, along with Labor’s commitment to pay the upfront fees for students studying in high-priority courses.

But the post-secondary education sector needs more than just funding. It needs incentive to not only provide young people with the skills for the jobs of today, but to enable young people to transition into the precarious and unpredictable workforce of tomorrow.

Tertiary education institutions need to deliver lifelong learning models that enable access to knowledge, skills, and on the job training at various points throughout their working life.

We have rigid curriculum structures which suppress creativity and critical thought – two skills that will be highly desirable in a largely automated workforce. But with funding uncertainty passed on from government to government – universities are aggressively tightening their wallets, rather than investing in innovative education delivery.

This will be a challenge for any government hoping to reinvigorate the sector. If Shorten does win over voters at the next election, Labor will have to confront the consequences of short-term funding guarantees while developing a model that provides long-term certainty for education in this country.

Some hurdles

Shorten will face the consequences of the reckless patching up of HECS over three decades. Not only is the repayment threshold rapidly approaching minimum wage, but the system itself was set up for a 1990s workforce.

Possibly the most substantive flaw is the presumption of a continuous, secure salary. In the gig economy, working hours are irregular and unpredictable. It’s likely that many workers will have sporadic bursts of income – this doesn’t align with how the repayments are modelled; not to mention the greater pressures on affording basic living expenses.

The sector cannot survive anymore tweaking – it needs an ambitious and relevant overhaul that involves young people in the decision making process and design.

If Shorten is to be the Prime Minister for young people – as he is desperately trying to be perceived – then Labor’s education legacy won’t be just about funding, but about rebuilding how we as a nation educate, train, and transition our communities.

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