OPINION

Hey big spender, spend a little time on VET

Solid future: Young Aussies with a VET qualification have some of the best chances in the world of a secure and well-paid job.
Solid future: Young Aussies with a VET qualification have some of the best chances in the world of a secure and well-paid job.

Australia's education system is far from underfunded. But vocational education and training (VET) has been neglected at the expense of schools and universities.

This means young people are missing out on career paths into lucrative industries - and those industries, especially in regional Australia, are seeing rising skill shortages.

Many students are turned off VET as an education option while still at school, during the prime years to be starting it.

This has been blamed on "education snobbery" in Australia's funding priorities.

But VET has been left short-changed to the tune of around 46% less than the OECD average.

These funding priorities don't make educational or economic sense.

VET can provide skills that are in hot demand, particularly outside the major cities.

Unfilled jobs - many in traditional trades - have increased almost seven times faster in regional areas than in metro ones since 2015.

Compounding this problem, the numbers of students choosing VET at school have fallen over the past decade.

Across the country, only about one in four students in our schools participates in some form of VET.

And this slide is accelerating - with a 7% decrease since 2014, along with a 13% drop in school-based apprenticeships.

But research shows that trying out, and sticking with, VET during school leads students to make better decisions about their future work and study options.

This is more important than ever, with technology changing the future - and availability - of work in many of the professions that rely on a university degree.

We have to change course if we are to stem the increasing drain on skills.

Fitting more VET into school is not a matter of more class time or more money - our students already spend among the most time in class in the world and we spend more money than most.

It is a matter of our education system's priorities.

Despite (valid) criticism of some parts of Australia's VET system in recent years, it has generally served us well.

Young Aussies with a VET qualification have some of the best chances in the world of a secure and well-paid job.

Compared to other countries, they have nearly the same prospects - in terms of job availability and wage levels - as uni students.

In fact, many do considerably better with trades training than going to uni.

Too many school advisers have convinced parents and students that uni is the only viable post-school option.

For those who give VET a try during school, too many are persuaded to drop it for fear of ending up in an allegedly "dead end" job.

NSW Skills Minister Geoff Lee has lamented this "cultural bias" that favours university over VET.

In a recent interview, CEO of Australian Industry Trade College Mark Hands labelled what we have as an "educational caste system" with VET students "second-class citizens."

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, last month urged that VET "be thought of in the same sentence" as a university degree. Lee's suggestion - and, for that matter, the Prime Minister's - is to "talk up TAFE."

However, as they say, talk is cheap. Restoring confidence in VET was recommended in a major review of the system earlier this year.

A key part of this included bringing more vocational pathways into years 11 and 12 - requiring action to "boost industry confidence in VET delivery in schools".

Yet it's been months since the government announced a "VET upgrade", only to be put on hold again when a fix was relegated to a "next year's problem" by COAG.

We don't want to be a country of "educational snobs"' but we have allowed the VET system to be left behind, and we risk ending up with a generation missing out on viable careers.

We don't want to be a country of "educational snobs"' but we have allowed the VET system to be left behind, and we risk ending up with a generation missing out on viable careers. We all want educational bang for the buck.

We all want educational bang for the buck.

VET would pack a mightier punch than senselessly pumping more money into education areas that are already well funded.

It's time to look hard at priorities.

Glenn Fahey is an education research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and formerly with the OECD's Centre for Educational Research and Innovation