The Road Ahead: How Will Australia Rebuild Following COVID-19 – the Prime Minister outlines a vision

The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has given an early indication of how his Government will respond to rebuild Australia’s economy and employment in a post COVID-19 world.

The Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald today ran a story (“Education central to post-virus recovery”) that refers to the Productivity Commission’s 2017 Shifting the Dial report (see cover image).

The connection is direct: Morrison was Treasurer at the time of the Productivity Commission’s report, and then Chief Commissioner Peter Harris AO is now CEO of the Government’s National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC). The NCCC has two key roles: “to help minimise and mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 on jobs and businesses, and to facilitate the fastest possible recovery of lives and livelihoods once the virus has passed.”

What does this mean for Australian post-secondary education?

Although the Shifting the Dial report is less than a full roadmap for the future of Australian education, it does include a full chapter on “Future Skills and Work”. The chapter includes three important subsections: extracts below, with CCA’s comments at the end.

Strong foundational skills

Section 3.2: “There is additional value in improving skills formation — from foundational to advanced — because it gives people better job security, income and job satisfaction. These effects are not well measured in the official statistics, but have major implications for prosperity and quality of life more broadly.

“The VET system is in a mess, and is struggling to deliver relevant competency-based qualifications sought by industry. Leading segments of the university sector are more focused on producing research than improving student outcomes through higher-quality teaching.”

Confidence and stability needed in the VET system

Section 3.3: “Despite its important but complex role, the VET sector has been beset with a raft of problems leading to a sector characterised by rapidly rising student debt, high student non-completion rates, poor labour market outcomes for some students, unscrupulous and fraudulent behaviour on the part of some training providers. These outcomes reflect a range of problems in the VET sector.”

Revisiting lifelong learning: an expanding role for education and training throughout life

Section 3.6: “The demand for education and training, particularly among some cohorts, such as older workers, cannot be assumed. In the face of technological change, ensuring the skills relevance of the existing workforce will become increasingly important. Additional measures may be needed (or barriers removed) to help workers (and/or their employers) realise the pay-off from up-skilling and retraining.

“As the potential breadth of training requirements are wide and varied, reforms will cut across the whole education system. Some workers, for example, may need to develop foundational literacy and numeracy skills, while others may need information and guidance about pathways to up-skill their already high levels of education.”

Grounds for greater investment in skills development

While education and training in the first 20-25 years of life remain critical, there are grounds for more systematic and greater investments in the skills of people throughout their working life. In particular, the returns from further training and education may rise over the coming decades.”

The Report quotes The Economist (14 January 2017):

“The lifelong learning that exists today mainly benefits high achievers — and is therefore more likely to exacerbate inequality than diminish it. If 21st-century economies are not to create a massive underclass, policymakers urgently need to work out how to help all their citizens learn while they earn.”

The Report continues:

“Barriers to employment and training among the working, especially older workers, are well-known…. The ageing of the workforce means that a greater number of workers will be facing barriers that may result in poor job matching, underemployment, unemployment or early retirement. Increased and unexpected vulnerabilities from technological advancement adds a new element to structural change, creating a broader group of people who are not necessarily aware of potential risks or the pay-off from re-skilling.

“The case for better-designed and more accessible mature age education seems well-made.”


Upskilling and Retraining

The Productivity Commission also published a series of supporting papers, including Supporting Paper 8: Upskilling and Retraining (PDF, 684 Kb), which reads in part:

“It is crucial for governments to create the right supply‑side settings for the skills system. That means an efficient, high‑quality and flexible education and training system that is driven by the needs of users (the people acquiring the skills and the businesses that need them) rather than the interests of suppliers or legacy models of provision and government funding. That system also needs to be able to respond to the inevitable transitions from job to job and occupation to occupation and the associated skills required that will occur over people’s lifetimes.” (p. 25)

Let’s start with strong foundational skills

“First and foremost, to have a workforce that is capable of ongoing learning, they need to have strong foundational skills.

“The skills and knowledge of older workers appears to largely reflect investment decisions made early in their lives in an economy quite different from the current one (or in the case of immigrants, a country).

“Low levels of foundational skills among these cohorts [immigrants] leave such people vulnerable to future labour market changes.’ (p. 26)

(Image below: from Upskilling and Retraining Supporting paper 8)


CCA’s CEO, Dr Don Perlgut, comments:

“Alongside CCA’s activities of representation, advocacy and member support, CCA has begun to lay the theoretical, conceptual, political and programmatic groundwork for major changes that will benefit our members and the Australian adult and community education sector as Australia moves through the emergency phase of the Coronavirus crisis to the recovery phase.

“The Prime Minister has provided us with a good idea of where he will look for a roadmap to what will be a long and bumpy economic and social recovery. It’s important to read his words carefully, and analyse the Productivity Commission’s recommendations.

“The Commission emphasises the importance of two areas where Australian not-for-profit adult and community education (ACE) providers excel: foundational skills and the training needs of older workers.

“Australia’s ACE providers are perfectly positioned to contribute to Australia’s education, training and employment recovery efforts. The challenge is to formulate programs that utilise our sector’s strengths so our sector can play the important role it is capable of.”

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