Will Australia support a shift to lifelong learning?

| November 11, 2019

The skills gap/ talent gap is the number one conversation I have with industry. Despite many university strategies focusing on life-long learning, the sector is still slow to build ‘life-long’ learning products.

Similarly, the VET sector has struggled to agilely respond to industry skill needs. More works is needed to be done.

After reading the Joyce Inquiry and other reports, my personal view has been that vested stakeholder interests – including VET, universities, private providers – recent policy failures such as VET Loans; gaps in government data and financial modelling and other factors makes bold policy change challenging.

Echoing one of our eminent speakers at the recent GAP Summit, the post-secondary system is complex and broken. There is a need for the GAP community to come together to take a system view and advocate for substantive policy recommendations.

The post-secondary sector is highly regulated. Despite trends in post-secondary enrolment numbers (revenue) and changing learner preferences to where and how they want to learn, there is not yet a burning platform for post-secondary institutes to operate differently.

Considered and targeted policy change could be the catalyst the post-secondary sector needs to do things a little differently. So how to deliver this?

The Federal government has set a reasonable mission for the new National Skills Commission (NSC) and National Careers Institute. For example, the NSC is focused on having better data and better models to model skill needs/ gaps.

After this, efforts can be made to better align education funding incentives to needed skills and offerings. The Federal Government has endorsed key findings of the Noonan AQF Review, to look at the quality assurance framework for micro-credentials and a shared credit point system to increase multi-directional pathways between secondary and post-secondary institutions.

Will government funding adapt to support the shift to life-long learning?

Australia needs to see the end of cost-shifting between Federal & State, end the bias in funding between universities and VET and incentivise industry spend on micro-credentials/ smaller modules of learning.

The Productivity Commission has identified the need for better modelling of the public, personal and private sector benefits of education spend. This of course requires the public sector to have the best data available on public and private education.

New partnerships will be critical for the NSC to access the data and attributes it needs. Understanding where the economic benefits lie, can help redesign the funding mechanisms to drive more rapid structural and operational change.

It can also be used to have a more nuanced discussion with stakeholders and state governments.

There is evidence that Australian industry spends less on supporting workplace learning than its global peers. Australian Industry is likely to be underinvesting relative to the benefit it derives.

However, learning is on the agenda of most companies, large and small. In 2018, PWC Australia CEO Survey reported 56% of Australian CEOs recognised their role supporting employees whose roles or jobs were to be affected by automation to reskill.

Once there is greater agreement around what a micro-credential is and how to assess quality, the time – although not the political climate – is ripe to revisit the tax incentives government can provide to accelerated learning investment by larger companies and direct grants for SMEs to upgrade workplace skills.

The National Careers Institute is seeking to get better information to the public on career pathways. Again, a needed initiative. However, in isolation, it is unlikely to shift how individuals’ make decisions about learning and career pathways.

There are many influencers, including parents, peers, schools, old and new media and industry, on these decision over long time horizons. Changing perceptions of a sector relative to another, requires more than marketing.

Any marketing campaign will need to be grounded in lived experience. The system is going to need significant investment to improve the learning experience in needed areas.

The GAP Summit questioned whether our system could better serve communities with social disadvantage which lack access to both technology and educational excellence) in this fast-paced world.

The Noonan review cited significant growth in higher education enabling courses. Such courses provide students with general study skills to set them up for educational and training success. Funding for such programs needs to continue but further innovation is needed.

There is a need for targeted education and employment initiatives that factor in social and other essential services needed for the participants to succeed. Government needs well developed, innovative pilots which help support people gain current skills to get real jobs, but also look at transport, health, welfare and policy.

The development in Western Sydney is likely to provide a good test bed for such initiatives.