We need advanced knowledge and skills, in novel and widespread combinations, both to maintain democratic and community participation and to fill the jobs currently being created across our entire economy – in energy, construction, environmental science, finance, computing, health, and community services.
Although universities can evolve to offer different specialisms in teaching and research, we also need to intensify our engagement with industry and community during the next phase of reform – moving beyond a “predict and provide” skills model and developing local infrastructure in cities and regions to support innovation for our future economy.
The “mid-tier” between the school-leaver certificate and the traditional undergraduate degree is the skill level where there is currently significant unmet demand in key national priority areas.
This cohort of the workforce is disproportionately affected by the failure of the current tertiary education system to offer durable and accessible pathways between work and education, and it is most affected by job insecurity, pay insecurity, and underemployment as industries transform around us. Based on available data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, RMIT estimates that there are approximately five million Australians in this group.
This presents an opportunity to design and deliver improvements to the currently offered associate degrees, higher apprenticeships, and advanced diplomas, including devising better funding models. If Australia is serious about its intent to design a system that encourages lifelong learning, we must recognize, for instance, that adult learners require education solutions that accommodate their need to work alongside study. “Earn and learn” courses, as well as more modular, stackable, and transferable units of study, including micro-credentials, should be better understood, supported, and integrated into a more aligned, inclusive skills-based tertiary system.
Current work-integrated learning models are better suited to those entering tertiary education directly from, or shortly after, leaving school or full-time study. An example of how we can do better by mature students and those in under-represented and equity cohorts is the Higher Apprenticeships Pilot (HAP) that RMIT has developed with the government and seven industry partners. Employers – many of them social services employers who are struggling to attract and retain workers – hand-pick existing front-line supervisors and team leaders whom they believe would benefit from a co-designed, scalable, and sustainable higher apprenticeships model, learning while undertaking on-the-job training. Many of those they nominate are mid-career, predominantly female workers, some in precarious or vulnerable work, and the pilot has seen a qualification completion success rate of 87.5 percent – far higher than the norm for diploma-level qualifications in Australia.
RMIT strongly supports the proposition in the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report that “the goal of reform must be growth for skills through greater equity”. We will not address pressing skills shortages by maintaining a narrow focus on post-school leavers and those in the 25-34 age bracket, and educational institutions should not seek to pursue academic purposes independently of our societal and economic context. Higher education and vocational education can work together to support the myriad journeys through learning and work, giving people flexible options to meet their life goals as those evolve.
The accord presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink fragmented commonwealth and state funding and policy models to overcome outdated distinctions between knowledge and skills and build co-investment confidence with students and employers.
In our shared pursuit of a fair and equitable Australia, let’s level what is arguably the most important playing field of all.
Alec Cameron is vice-chancellor and president of RMIT University, Melbourne.