May 24th 2008

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Rudd Budget targets 'middle-class' welfare

EDITORIAL: 'Whom the gods wish to destroy...'

LABOUR MARKET: Post-school education and training: a national crisis

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Oil imports threaten to blow out foreign debt

ENERGY: Germany's rapid development of renewable energy

SCHOOLS: Dubious deal offered to pupils' parents / Faith schools' autonomy defended

CIVIL LIBERTIES: Political correctness suppresses free speech

ABORTION: Why abortion should remain a crime

PUBLIC AFFAIRS: The indispensable role of government

DEFENCE: Lest we forget our duty of care to servicemen

OLYMPIC GAMES: Clean-up or purges? Beijing prepares for the Games

INTERNATIONAL POLITICS: Is the United Nations beyond repair?

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Westerners acquiescing to creeping sharia / Oil fuelling world's conflicts

OPINION: Why we should encourage creation of new Australian states

Plight of young home-buyers (letter)

In defence of global warming (letter)

Wrong way to tackle inflation (letter)

US presidential elections (letter)

Life, not euthanasia (letter)

BOOKS: THE CHURCH AND THE WORLD: Essays Catholic and Contemporary, by John Haldane

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Post-school education and training: a national crisis

by Catherine Sheehan

News Weekly, May 24, 2008
The Howard Government's failure to fund more university places for Australian students has created a severe shortage of trained professionals. As a result, Australia has increasingly had to rely on importing skilled migrants to plug growing gaps in the labour market. Catherine Sheehan reports.

Australia is currently facing a severe shortage of domestically trained professionals. Degree-qualified workers are increasingly in demand due to rapidly advancing technologies within the workforce, rendering many low-skilled jobs redundant and creating more highly skilled, professional and managerial positions.

Since 1996, Howard Government policy placed a cap on the number of government-subsidised university places, resulting in minuscule increases in domestically trained professionals entering the workforce, hardly sufficient to satisfy the growing demand for such workers.


The assumption behind this policy was that there was a shortage of qualified tradespersons and a surplus of university graduates. Therefore, increased emphasis was placed on trade careers and less on university qualifications.

As the shortage of professionals grew, instead of expanding university places for Australian students, the Coalition Government increased its skilled migration program. Furthermore, the number of full fee-paying overseas students at Australian universities has swollen dramatically.

This situation is highly detrimental to young Australians. Yet it seems the Rudd Labor Government is set to continue the neglect of higher education, according to a recently released paper by Bob Birrell, Ernest Healy and T. Fred Smith, titled "Labor's education and training strategy: building on false assumptions?" (People and Place, vol.16, no.1, 2008, produced by Monash University's Centre for Population and Urban Research).

Using census data for the decade from 1996 to 2006, released late last year by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the paper demonstrates that most job growth in Australia for this time period occurred within those industries that usually require trained professionals with university qualifications.

For example, from 1996 to 2006 there was 34.6 per cent growth of jobs in health and community services, 32.1 per cent growth in government administration and defence, 30.1 per cent growth in property and business services, and 25.6 per cent growth in education jobs.

In those industries which usually employ tradespersons, there was less growth. In mining there was 23.5 per cent growth, in manufacturing only 3.5 per cent growth, and in agriculture an 11.9 per cent decline.

Dr Birrell and his colleagues remark: "Since these are the industries usually thought of as important employers of tradespersons, this raises the question — what is the source of the alleged shortage of tradespersons?"

The only aberration in this trend among the trade industries was construction, with a growth in jobs of 45 per cent. The study attributes this to the property and infrastructure boom in Australia, which has seen demand for construction workers increase in all states. However, to put this in perspective, "this increase of 92,338 tradespersons in the construction industry accounted for almost all (87.5 per cent) the total growth of 105,749 in the employment of tradespersons across all industries in Australia".

Of total job growth in Australia from 1996 to 2006 across all industries, jobs in construction accounted for only 15 per cent, while growth in so-called GEH industries (government administration and defence, education, health and community services combined), employing mostly degree-qualified professionals, made up 34.7 per cent. According to the study: "The 105,749 increase in the number of employed tradespersons over the decade 1996 to 2006 was dwarfed by the 439,000 growth in the number of employed professionals."

Of the total employment growth from 1996 to 2006, 71 per cent was in finance and insurance, property and business services, retail and wholesale and also in the government industries (GEH), such as education, health, community services and government administration. All these industries mainly employ degree-qualified professionals.

The massive growth in the GEH industries, according to Dr Birrell and his colleagues, is partly due to population growth and partly to "an intensification of service delivery" creating demand for more doctors, nurses, teachers, administrators, welfare officers, and so on. For example, jobs in government administration and defence increased in the decade to 2006 by 119,996 to 493,484 (32.1 per cent).

Throughout the study, the obvious conclusions are continuously and clearly reiterated: "The restructuring of the Australian economy is favouring workers with post-school credentials, particularly those with university qualifications. Some 61.4 per cent of the 1.47 million growth in employment over the decade 1996 to 2006 occurred within the ranks of people who would normally possess post-school qualifications."

In light of this, it is of great concern to read in Birrell's study that, since 2006, 47.7 per cent of young Australians aged 18 to 20 were not undertaking any form of post-school education or training: "In other words, there is a huge surplus of young Australians who are not in post-school training, but who should be, both for their own and their nation's long-term economic benefit."

Thanks to the former Coalition Government's policies, domestic government-subsidised university places have hardly increased since 1996. From 2002 to 2006 there was an insignificant increase of 2.8 per cent of commencing domestic undergraduate students.

New training

So far, the new Labor Government has continued this concentration on the trades and has not as yet made any commitment to increasing the number of domestic government-subsidised university places. The Rudd Government has promised 450,000 new training places at certificate II, III and IV levels.

Birrell and his colleagues remark: "The situation is curious. There is a far greater need for additional training at the university level than there is at the vocational level. The Rudd Government has so far not indicated any willingness to pay for additional university places."

Chief executive of Engineers Australia, Peter Taylor, stated earlier this year: "With an estimated shortfall of more than 20,000 professional engineers to meet current demand in Australia, we continue to graduate fewer than 6,000 each year....

"The risk for Australia is that if we fail to build our vital domestic engineering skills, our resource industries will become even more dependent on fly in/fly out engineers, more design work will go off-shore, and our ability to translate good ideas emerging from Australian research into viable and competitive products will diminish further." (Media release, January 29, 2008).

Many skilled migrants with university degrees from other countries do not meet Australia's standards for professional employment anyway and subsequently are not employed in professional positions when they arrive. Their English language skills are also often sub-standard.

In an earlier study by Bob Birrell, Daniel Edwards and Ian R. Dobson, titled "The widening gap between demand for and supply of university graduates in Australia" (People and Place, Vol.15, No.2, 2007), the authors argued: "The recent escalation of the migration program is a direct consequence of the Australian Government's anxiety about skill shortages."

In the period 2005-2006, the total number of migrants arriving in Australia through the skilled migrants' program was 78,514. Of these, 45,259 were professionals (only 13,698 were tradespersons). "By comparison the total number of domestic undergraduate completions in Australia in 2005 was 110,973."

This demonstrates the enormous reliance Australia currently has on skilled migration to cater to the ever-growing demand from employers for university-qualified professionals.

It can only be hoped that the Rudd Government will abandon its current practice of talking about change, but doing little, in any meaningful sense, to separate it from the previous government's policies. At the recent 2020 Summit in Canberra it seemed that the plight of universities, and the great financial burdens borne by many university students, barely rated a mention.

In a speech at the 6th Annual Higher Education Summit in Sydney on April 3 this year, Labor's Minister for Education Julia Gillard made it clear that the Rudd Government was aware of the skills shortage, referring to the fact that having a university degree decreased a person's likelihood of being unemployed by 60 per cent, and also that due to "industry restructuring and advances in technology... the fastest growth is now occurring at the high-skill end of the job market — for managers, professionals and associate professionals".

She also referred to the heavy financial burdens placed on full-time students and the need for more government support.


Ms Gillard announced that the new government would abolish full fee-paying undergraduate places, decrease the HECS debt by 50 per cent for students studying maths and science, and increase undergraduate Commonwealth scholarships from 44,000 to 88,000.

However, no mention was made of increasing the number of government-subsidised undergraduate places.

Much more needs to be done to make university more accessible and more attractive to young Australians, not only for the sake of their own futures but for the future of our nation. Having a university degree in today's workforce all but guarantees a brighter future.

— Catherine Sheehan is a research officer with the Thomas More Centre, Melbourne.

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