Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s push for skills reforms has faltered, after states and territories apparently baulked at ceding some of their powers over vocational training.
Mr Morrison tried to garner support for the changes, which were announced in the April federal budget, during a meeting with state premiers and territory chief ministers in Cairns.
The reforms were the government’s response to a review of vocational education and training (VET) by former New Zealand skills minister Steven Joyce. His key recommendation was for a national skills commission to help predict workforce needs and coordinate funding for training from different levels of government.
Mr Morrison had told The Australian newspaper that improving technical education would be at the “forefront” of the Cairns meeting. The government said it would inject an extra A$525 million (£295 million) into vocational training to support the reforms.
Influential lobby group Australian Industry Group had backed the reform drive, saying the training system was “bedevilled by inconsistencies” and skills shortages were threatening huge infrastructure projects.
However the meeting fell well short of approving the reforms, instead relegating them for consideration by a newly established council of training ministers.
A communiqué issued after the meeting declared that a strong vocational training sector was “critical for our economy” and that federal, state and territory leaders had agreed to “a shared vision” for tertiary education.
“VET and higher education are equal and integral parts of Australia’s post-secondary education system,” the statement adds, while avoiding any mention of specific changes.
Consultant Claire Field said that the Joyce reforms were not necessarily dead but they had slipped down the priority list, having been “pushed back and pushed down to ministers”.
She said that the federal government could unilaterally establish a national skills commission. But without the backing of the states, the body would be limited to workforce planning and would not be able to assume a funding role.
Vocational training has long been plagued by federal-state disputes, with states shifting training costs to the commonwealth and hampering moves to introduce national consistency.
Many state governments have slashed their training budgets in recent years while the federal government has disguised funding programme changes as new money.
The bulk of the A$525 million promised in April was redirected from another scheme, the Skilling Australians Fund (SAF), after Victoria and Queensland freed up SAF funds by refusing to sign up to it. Commentators say that the April package offered the VET sector just A$55 million of genuinely new money over five years.
The A$1.5 billion SAF, announced with fanfare in the 2017 federal budget, was partial compensation for the expiry of a A$1.75 billion skills funding stream. But it quickly became apparent that the financing mechanism for the SAF, a levy on visas for skilled migrants, would fall far short of raising the promised money.
Modelling by Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute has concluded that VET’s share of education spending had fallen 30 per cent in a decade. Many vice-chancellors say the parlous state of VET funding is the biggest issue confronting Australian tertiary education.
But the representative group for private training colleges, Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia, welcomed the post-meeting statement. “The recognition that vocational and higher education are equal and integral parts of Australia’s post-secondary education system is a great starting point for reform,” said chief executive Troy Williams.
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