Shortage of skills not a myth, PM is told

November 17, 2006

Report says Howard is wrong to claim that Australia needs no more home students. Geoff Maslen reports

The Australian Government has come under attack for asserting that too many school students are being urged to enter higher education.

A report released last week said it is a myth that Australia does not need more university-trained people. It says there is a shortage of skilled professionals, which the Government is seeking to fill via an expansion of Australia's immigration programme. But it notes that without a big increase in domestic higher education training, the shortages will become endemic.

Despite a critical shortage of university-trained workers in the health, engineering and business sectors, John Howard, the Prime Minister, has said on several occasions that more young people should take up apprenticeships rather than try to enter university.

"Too often, Australians have been persuaded that our prosperity is reliant on... shoehorning more and more young people into university courses," Mr Howard told a skills conference recently.

"It may be a quite sensible career decision for a young person to leave school (early) for an apprenticeship rather than stay reluctantly at school, believing that the only appropriate decision is to head to university," he said.

Instead of giving universities the money they needed to enrol more Australians, the Government has slashed spending on higher education, says the report, which was written by two Monash University academics: Bob Birrell, professor of sociology, and Virginia Rapson, a researcher.

The report, for the Dusseldorp Skills Forum, rejects claims made by Mr Howard and a succession of education ministers that since taking office in 1996, the Government has sharply boosted the number of Australians attending university.

It says that until this year the Government had maintained "an effective cap on the number of places for domestic students", reduced their access to financial assistance while increasing Higher Education Contribution Scheme charges, and allowed universities to impose full fees.

As a result, the number of new students at university in the past decade has risen only slightly and even fell in 2005 and 2006, while the expansion in overall numbers is due almost solely to a sharp rise in foreign student enrolments, from 55,000 in 1996 to 235,000.

"A further question for the Australian Government is why, if it believes there is too much emphasis on university training, has it expanded the skilled immigration intake?" the report asks.

Clearing the Myths Away: Higher Education's Place in Meeting Workforce Demands , by Bob Birrell and Virginia Rapson, is available at www.dsf.org.au .

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