The Australian | 30 March 2013
In his regular Weekend Australian column newly appointed tertiary education and skills minister Craig Emerson sets down some markers.
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Julia Gillard’s decision to add higher education, training, science and research to my ministerial responsibilities of trade, competitiveness and assisting on Asian Century policy enables the forging of a single key that opens two doors: one to a stronger economy, the other to a fairer society.
As explained in the white paper on Australia in the Asian Century, our country’s future economic success will be determined by our ability to move up the value chain, producing goods and services embodying large doses of skill and creativity. Australia will not be able to compete on labour costs or on scale of production. The big factory floors with lots of low-wage workers are Asia’s strength, not ours.
In advanced economies the pre-eminent source of 21st-century productivity growth is education. That is why the Gillard government is investing heavily in and reforming the preschool and school system. As a nation we have no real choice other than to continue the reform process and offer every child a quality education through the National Plan for School Improvement. The Coalition and other critics ask whether the country can afford the needs-based funding system arising from the Gonski review. The better question is whether we can afford not to do it.
Already, four of the five top school systems are in Asia. That is our competition. If our school system continues to fall behind, we will have failed to heed the warning of former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew that Australia could become the “white trash” of Asia.
But if we make the investments and continue reforms such as greater autonomy for principals, a national school curriculum and the prioritisation of Mandarin, Hindi, Japanese and Indonesian language teaching through the enabler of the National Broadband Network, we can prepare our children for university or a vocational education.
University and vocational training, too, are being reformed and properly funded. The university system operated by the previous Coalition government was famously described by Max Corden as “Moscow on the Molonglo”. The minister commissar in Canberra set the number of places each university could offer in each discipline and, where places weren’t filled, allocated the excess to other universities.
As education minister, Gillard uncapped university places and so began shifting from a supply-driven system to a demand-driven one. And she developed incentives for universities to draw more of their enrolments from students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
With these incentives in place, 190,000 more young Australians are studying at university than under the previous Coalition government. This has put us on track to achieve the Asian Century white paper target of 40 per cent of young people holding a university degree by 2025.
Just as encouraging, for the first time in 40 years, when Gough Whitlam dreamed of all young people having the opportunity to go to university, the socioeconomic composition of the student population is changing in favour of disadvantaged students.
Our vocational education and training system is becoming more responsive to industry needs. A new training entitlement enables all young people to obtain qualifications at their institution of choice. Extra investment in vocational education and training by the Labor government has helped achieve an increase of almost 40 per cent in the number of students gaininghigher-level vocational qualifications. And apprentices and trainees are up by 25 per cent to more than 500,000 a year.
Equipping our young people with the skills and university qualifications to enjoy rewarding careers in the Asian Century is at the heart of the white paper’s plan for Australia. As we do so, we are also creating valuable export opportunities, with education already ranking as Australia’s fourth largest export earner.
Australian universities have been educating young people from the Asian region for more than two decades. And they continue to establish campuses within the region. Vocational education providers are moving in the same direction.
Educating and training each other’s young people can only bring us closer as friends and partners. Those two doors, to a stronger economy and a fairer society, are now wide open. Let’s walk through them for the sake of a brilliant future for the young people of the entire region.