Business Council of Australia’s Chief Executive wants governments to put VET and higher education on an equal footing.
Around May and June each year we sift through the give and take for VET in the Commonwealth and state/territory government Budgets. There are always surprises, like the Commonwealth’s announcement of two new programs, the Skilling Australians Fund and Industry Specialist Mentoring for Australian Apprentices. These budget allocations recognise VET’s power to boost individual futures, regional confidence and national prosperity.
The big picture
Now and then it’s worth taking a step back from the annual tally of Budget wins and losses to look at the big picture: why VET matters, why government investment in VET makes a difference. In April, the Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, took that step back in an article in The Weekend Australian. ‘Education is still society’s great leveller’ .
Westacott surveys all sectors of education and recognises that education in all forms shines a light on individual futures and collective wellbeing:
‘Every time an Australian’s true abilities aren’t developed and utilised, it is a tragedy for those people and their families. But the impact is wider than that. When workers don’t have the right skills or are in the wrong role, businesses struggle to expand, export and pay workers more. And ultimately, that affects all of us.’
Westacott makes no distinction between the value of VET and universities. She decries a national habit of mind that promotes one above the other:
‘At the heart of the problem is our education culture. A culture that remains wedded to placing academic learning above vocational learning. One where theoretical learning is deemed superior to practical learning and universities are where the “best and brightest” go. And most critically, a culture that was designed for a generation when most young people did not complete secondary school and less than 20 per cent obtained a tertiary qualification.’
Valuing VET and higher education equally
What’s important, says Westacott, is coming up with an integrated tertiary education system that emphasises the future rather than reflects an outmoded past. We need a big reform, one that would make an almighty Budget splash, that tackles the structure, esteem and funding models of tertiary education as a whole:
‘…our young people should pick the area that is right for them, regardless of whether it’s a university or a VET provider, and all tertiary students should strive for excellence. Australia would be best served if it moved from a system that has two silos – VET and higher education, each with their own quirks and distortions – to a single, seamless tertiary system. We need a system where VET is no longer treated like the “poor cousin”, and where the two sectors are valued equally. Students should strive for tertiary education – not a degree or a trade.’