Sydney Morning Herald

By Ross Gittins
28 February 2018

If you had a youngster leaving school, what would you encourage them to do? Get a job, go to university, or see if there was some trade that might interest them? For a growing number of parents, that's a no-brainer: off to uni with you. But maybe there should be more engaging of brains.

It's widely assumed that, these days, any reasonably secure, decently paid career must start with a university degree.

Don't be so sure. The latest projections by the federal Department of Employment (since renamed by Malcolm Turnbull's spin doctors as the Department of Jobs and Small Business) are for total employment to grow by 950,000 over the five years to 2022.

The department projects that fewer than 100,000 of those extra jobs – less than 10 per cent – will be for people with no post-school qualifications. More than 410,000 of the jobs – 43 per cent – will be for people with a bachelor degree or higher qualification.

But that leaves more than 440,000 of the jobs – 47 per cent – for people with the diplomas or certificates (particularly the "cert III" going to trades people) that come from TAFE.

Now, even the Department of Jobs possesses no crystal ball. But these educated guesses should be enough to disabuse you of the notion there'll be no decent jobs for people who haven't gone to uni.
But graduate jobs are better paid, right? Yes, but not by as much as you may think.

Figures issued by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on Monday show that, in August last year, the median (middle) pre-tax earnings of employees with a bachelor degree were $1280 a week, whereas for employees with a cert III or IV trade qualification it was $1035 a week.

And my guess is, if we keep stuffing things up the way we have been – taking in too many uni entrants and too few TAFE entrants – that gap will narrow, with certificate-holders' wages growing faster than graduates' wages.

While we were engrossed watching the Barnaby show, Labor's shadow education minister, Tanya Plibersek, was announcing its election policy to conduct a "once-in-a-generation" review of post-school education, with a view to establishing a single, integrated tertiary education system, putting universities and TAFE on an equal footing.

Her announcement was welcomed by the ACTU and the Business Council. Both sides know well how badly we've stuffed up young people's choice between uni and TAFE.

Plibersek was hardly going to admit it, but the problem goes back to missteps by the sainted Julia Gillard when education minister, made worse by state governments of both colours.

In 2010 she replaced the system where the feds set the number of new undergraduate places they were prepared to fund, and the numbers in the various degree categories, introducing a system where uni entry numbers were "demand-driven".

After decades in which their federal funding had been squeezed, the vice-chancellors couldn't believe their luck.

Particularly those at regional and outer suburban unis went crazy, lowering their admission standards and admitting hugely increased numbers. Did they employ a lot more academics to teach this influx of less-qualified students? Not so much.

It's likely many of these extra students will struggle to reach university standards – unless, of course, exams have been made easier to accommodate them.

Those who abandon their studies may find themselves lumbered with HECS-HELP debt without much to show for it. Many would have done better going to TAFE.

Meanwhile, TAFE was being hit by sharp cuts in federal funding (no doubt to help cover the extra money for unis) and subjected to the disastrous VET experiment.

The problem was that parts of the states' union-dominated TAFE systems had become outdated and inflexible, tending to teach what it suited the staff to teach rather than the newer skills employers required and students needed to be attractive to potential employers.

Rather than reform TAFE directly, however, someone who'd read no further than chapter one of an economics textbook got the bright idea of forcing TAFE to shape up by exposing it to cleansing competition from private providers of "vocational education and training".

To attract and accommodate the new, more entrepreneurial for-profit training providers, the feds extended to the VET sector a version of the uni system of deferred loans to cover tuition fees. State governments happily played their part in this cost-saving magic answer to their TAFE problem.

The result was to attract a host of fly-by-night rip-off merchants, tricking naive youngsters into signing up for courses of dubious relevance or even existence, so the supposed trainers could get paid upfront by a federal bureaucracy that took an age to realise it was being done over.

Eventually, however, having finally woken up, the present government overreacted. Now it's much harder to get federal help with TAFE fees than uni fees. Far too little is being done to get TAFE training properly back in business after most of the for-profit providers have faded into the night.

The Turnbull government surely knows more must be done to ensure all those who should be training for technical careers are able to do so. In last year's budget it established an (inadequate) Skilling Australians Fund, and more recently suspended the demand-driven uni funding system.

It would be better if it joined Labor in supporting a thorough-going review of our malfunctioning post-school education arrangements.

Ross Gittins is the Herald's economics editor.