Training sector early winner in Australia skills talks

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Perceptions that universities are bit players in Australia’s highly anticipated Jobs and Skills Summit may have been bolstered by the prime minister, who made vocational education the subject of the forum’s first announcement.

Opening the summit in Canberra, Anthony Albanese said the nation’s leaders had agreed to bankroll an extra 180,000 free vocational college places in a “billion-dollar training blitz”.

The places will be made available at the nation’s publicly owned training colleges, or TAFEs. Costs will be shared by the federal, state and territory governments after their leaders struck a deal during a 31 August meeting of the prime minister, state premiers and territory chief ministers.

This did not stop the TAFE representative body from hailing the announcement as the “first major outcome” of the summit. TAFE Directors Australia CEO Jenny Dodd said it was “a tremendous vote of confidence in the power of the country’s TAFE system to drive the skills revolution”.

“TAFE institutes across Australia will continue to deliver the majority of the high value and often more complex qualifications that will be central to enhancing productivity and social outcomes,” she said.

The Australian Education Union (AEU), which represents TAFE teachers, said the new commitment came on top of the Labor Party’s pre-election commitment to underwrite 465,000 fee-free TAFE places.

“TAFE is the best place to ensure the workers we need gain the skills and knowledge required to fill workforce gaps,” AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe said.

While universities have highlighted workforce gaps in professions that require degrees, such as engineering and teaching, the summit appears more focused on jobs requiring vocational certificates and diplomas. An issues paper released ahead of the summit referred to “training” more than a dozen times but harboured just one mention of “higher education”.

The body representing universities said it welcomed the extra TAFE places “to ensure the workforce has the skilled people it needs”. 

“Australia needs strong, well-functioning sectors in both higher education and vocational education,” said Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson, who is participating at the forum. 

“As we embark on day one of the Jobs and Skills Summit, we look forward to working with colleagues in the TAFE sector – as well as government, businesses and unions – to help set the workforce up for the future.”

Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia chief executive Troy Williams also welcomed the commitment to fund additional training places. “But directing funding exclusively towards TAFE doesn’t always produce the best results for students, employers or taxpayers,” he said.

Big federal-state training commitments do not always have happy endings in Australia. The previous Labor government’s Productivity Places Programme, launched in 2008 with a commitment of up to A$2.1 billion (£1.2 billion), was supposed to underwrite some 700,000 vocational training places. But the scheme was mismanaged and eventually scrapped halfway through its five-year tenure.

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