Westacott seeks lifetime learning

James Riley
Editorial Director

The Business Council of Australia wants the local workforce to be skilled up and kept that way through more vocational education and an ambitious lifelong training plan, less we’ll all be ‘rooned, but not at the expense of promised corporate tax cuts.

In a speech to the National Press Club, BCA chief executive Jennifer Westacott called for increased emphasis on vocational educational training (VET), which she says is being overshadowed by the tertiary education system.

Ms Westacott said VET qualifications were perceived as second-class compared to university degrees and questioned different levels of monetary support for VET certifications and university degrees.

Jennifer Westacott: Time for a reboot for lifelong education support

“Take nursing as an example. Enrolled nurses study in VET. Registered nurses study in higher education. Can someone explain to me why a university nursing student is guaranteed a federal subsidy of forty thousand dollars? And then explain to me why the VET student’s subsidy depends entirely on where they live and the provider they choose?

“And can someone explain to me why the VET student can access an income-contingent loan of up to fifteen thousand dollars, while the university student can borrow more than six-times that?

“Which course would you choose? It stands to reason that students weighing up those two options would pick the heavily subsidised higher education qualification – even if they were better suited to the VET course,” Ms Westacott said.

“How is that in their interest, or the public interest?”

The BCA education plan, she said, was all about reviving VET.

“My focus is on building the tertiary sector as a whole, and in particular, restoring the status of our neglected VET system.”

“This tertiary system must be joined at the hip to industry so that workers of any age can access the new skills they need to stay in work.”

To keep us all up to speed as we move from one disruption to another, the BCA proposes that every Australian receive a new Lifelong Skills Account. This account would consist of a taxpayer subsidy and an income contingent loan that could be used to pay for courses at any approved VET or higher education provider.

The BCA wants subsidies on courses to depend on independent analysis of the cost of delivering the course, the benefit to the person who scores the qualification, and the public benefit to society.

“This initiative would pool all of the subsidies and loans that currently exist across VET and higher education,” Ms Westacott said.

“The great feature of this scheme is Australians would be able to dip in and out of their Account as required throughout their working life.”

“And once you’ve acquired your first qualification, you’ll be able to pick subjects and modules to effectively assemble your own credentials by purchasing in both the university and the VET system. The value of the Account would be capped over your lifetime, so the funding can be managed.”

While the BCA wants a VET revival and a taxpayer subsidized lifelong skills account it also wants the big, swinging corporate tax cuts promised by the Turnbull government in its 2016 Budget.

Australia was falling off the edge of the corporate tax cut world and about to be sucked dry by the likes of a US turned into a corporate tax heaven by President Donald Trump.

“We are falling behind on tax competitiveness, Ms Westacott told the NPC.

“We are woefully uncompetitive and that will see investment and the jobs that come with it flow overseas. Business investment remains at its lowest level as a share of the economy since 1994 – the wake of the last recession.

“If the Americans do half of what is being proposed on company tax reform, it will suck billions in investment out of this country, along with future job creation and wages growth.

“So the Senate should pass the government’s Enterprise Tax Plan in its entirety – or run the risk of allowing Australia to flounder.”

Ms Westacott did not mention that thus far, President Trump has been singularly ineffective in getting his promised legislative agenda through a Senate and Congress controlled by his own Republican party. Tax reform is the next big lump on Trump’s overflowing plate of stalled reforms.

The Federal Opposition gave BCA interest in education reform a half-hearted cheer but warned of further rorting by private sector training schemes turbocharged by the BCA’s idea of a lifelong skills account.

In a joint presser, deputy opposition leader and shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek and shadow minister for skills and apprenticeships Senator Doug Cameron foresaw more problems with private sector training.

“Despite the government’s reforms to the VET Student Loans Scheme, there is still a great deal of work needed in order to fix the problems associated with competitive markets in training and the rorts that plague the private training sector. ,” said Ms Plibersek and Mr Cameron in their joint statement.

For too long, we have seen students take on significant debt for low quality, not fit-for-purpose qualifications.’

“Unless these issues are fixed, proposals for lifelong skills accounts when combined with a market mechanism for VET will simply lead to further cost shifting from industry and employers to individuals, without any guarantee that will lead to quality educational outcomes,” they said.

Labor wants employers to also put hand to pocket when it comes to training.

“Unless a proper assessment is made of the employer contributions to training then proposing significant changes without a proper information base is destined to fail.

“When the Coalition axed the Australian Workplace Productivity Agency it meant there is no appropriate body analysing the contribution of employers to skills and training in Australia.

“Government and business must jointly accept responsibility for increasing and improving investment in VET. It is not good enough to simply increase the burden on households via student debt – particularly when calling for cuts to corporate tax rates,” the Labor pair said.

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