Advancing Australia’s VET sector – curated industry news #07 2021

There has been quite a lot rumbling going on under the surface during lockdown, with some good research happening and thoughts turning towards ‘what next’ for education after the pandemic. Systems and processes are definitely due for change.

Last month the Australian Financial Review held its Higher Education Summit with a keynote address on the impact of COVID-19 on higher education from The Hon Alan Tudge, Federal Minister for Education and Youth – described by some as ‘spinning down as up.’

Mr Tudge expressed sympathy with the many students and staff in large parts of the country in lockdown and the ‘tens of thousands of international students who would normally be here’ and recognised that COVID has ‘hit the finances of most of our universities and non-university higher education institutions, as it has most businesses in the country.’

Citing analysis on the latest audited figures by his department on those impacts, Mr Tudge made a number of observations including that the ‘majority of universities entered this calendar year in a relatively strong financial position’ with 25 universities reporting surpluses in 2020 despite the major challenges being faced. Another observation made by Mr Tudge was that:

“…the greatest initial impact of the COVID pandemic on the university sector was actually from reduced earnings on investments, due to weak global equity markets, rather than a reduction of international students.”

The suggestion that universities went into the pandemic in a strong financial position (with diminishing revenue streams in 2020 more a consequence of falling investment returns than from international students deferring or not enrolling) rankled more than a few university chancellors attending the virtual summit. Particularly in light of the implication that more government funding would not be required to support the survival of universities post-pandemic.

At the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit virtual attendees heard from other panellists that COVID-19 had in fact laid bare the “distorted” funding model whereby universities had become over-reliant on foreign student income.

Questioning the role and purpose of universities post-pandemic after the ‘distorted’ funding model of over-reliance on foreign students, businesswoman and UTS university chancellor Catherine Livingstone said Australia needs a “meeting of minds” to redefine the role and purpose of universities, after which the fractious issue of funding can be debated.

“The drop in international students stemming from the pandemic and closed borders was one of several influences shaping university budgets. Others included globalisation, technology and skills shortages. The decisions made in the next 18 months will be critical (and) I don’t see student numbers coming back to pre-COVID-19 levels any time soon.”

New modelling from the Mitchell Institute shows that continued border closures mean the value of Australia’s international education sector is to shrink from $40.3 billion in 2019 to $20.5 billion by the end of 2022, new modelling from Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute shows.

Predicting fewer international students, different ways of delivering education and a sharper research focus, Ms Thomson concluded that the higher education sector would look very different on the other side of the pandemic.

In vocational education, there has been a growing trend to shift towards shorter training courses with fewer VET students overall – as outlined in the latest NCVER Student and Courses report for 2020, detailed below.

Providing detailed analysis of the last five years in the VET sector, Claire Field of Claire Field & Associates has noted a serious decline in TAFE fee-for-service activity, a small decline in government-funded activity in private providers but a big increase in international students and a huge shift away from VET in key industries.

In an interesting speech to launch National Skills Week, Stuart Robert – the Federal Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business – outlined significant VET sector reform ahead in apprenticeships and qualification design and stated that

“VET is fundamental to the Nation…and is going to play a very large component in our recovery.”

This was followed up by a media release: ‘Morrison Government marks National Skills Week 2021 with highest funding for skills and training in Australian history’ noting the Federal government has backed Australians to take up new skills with a $6.4 billion investment into vocational education and training this financial year.

Meanwhile, the lack of government funded online training available to VET students during the pandemic has been commented on by ITECA.

“It is very disappointing that, in this environment, state and territory governments failed to allow funded skills training to be undertaken fully or partially online,” said Troy Williams, ITECA’s CEO.

Further to this, recent research conducted by NCVER has shown that young people have been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with many working in the industry sectors most affected by lockdowns such as hospitality and retail.

Our feature article for this month focuses on the OECD Report on the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for vocational education and training, outlining some key findings and lessons learned over the past 18 months.

We’d like to leave you on this end note, as the OECD maps out the way forward for vocational education globally during these challenging times by underlining the need ‘to be creative to ensure the continuity of teaching and learning’.

Innovation in remote teaching and learning is going to be the key to our success, and more than ever the OECD believes that vocational education and training prepares young people for jobs that are the backbone of our economies and provides essential up-skilling and re-skilling opportunities for the continual adaptation of the future labour market.