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Youth Education, employability skills, Talk or reality

THE Abbott government will urge more students to undertake school-based apprenticeships and move away from encouraging all high school students to aim for university, in a dramatic change in approach from Labor.

Assistant Education Minister Sussan Ley said the number of people achieving formal trade qualifications was far too low and there was an overwhelming belief across schools, industry, trainers and governments that the national framework for vocational education and training in schools should be modernised.

Delivering a keynote speech to TAFE Directors Australia on Wednesday, Ms Ley said new careers advice would be at the centre of the shift in approach. Careers advisers would be tasked with encouraging more students to take on school-based apprenticeships. Currently, only 9 per cent of VET students in schools are carrying out a school-based apprenticeship. The other 91 per cent are in other programs.

“I also want to be sure we have a system which makes it clear to our kids that they no longer have to choose between school and a trade – that they can graduate Year 12 with the necessary skills to successfully continue their training with an employer,” Ms Ley said.

The comments mark the first time Ms Ley has spoken publicly about the findings of a roundtable she convened with more than 40 representatives in Melbourne late last month.

The Coalition’s increased emphasis on school-based apprenticeships comes after Education Minister Christopher Pyne last year revealed a shift in focus on higher education, arguing Labor’s drive for 40 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds to have a university degree represented an obsession with targets, when the focus should be on quality.

Mr Pyne said he would revisit the demand-driven higher education system established by former prime minister Julia Gillard and signalled he would ignore the higher education targets that underpinned Labor’s reforms.

As well as the 40 per cent goal, the targets required 20 per cent of university students to be from the most disadvantaged quarter of the population by 2020.

A report by former Liberal education minister David Kemp and economist Andrew Norton to the government on the demand-driven system of university entrance, which caused a spike in demand for university entrance, is due by the middle of this month.

University student numbers rose more than 350,000 between 2008 and last year.

Ms Ley’s emphasis on the need for trade training to be given more weight echoes calls by John Howard for young people to consider quitting school in Year 10 to pursue careers in traditional trades in response to the nation’s growing shortage of skilled workers. The former prime minister’s backing for trades training in 2005 came 16 years after the Hawke government promised Australia would become the “Clever Country”. Mr Howard said the nation had developed a “deep-seated” cultural stigma against technical vocations.

Labor in 2007 committed to building trade training centres as a way of dealing with trade shortages but also put a much stronger focus on students finishing Year 12 and going to university.

In her keynote speech on Wednesday, Ms Ley said VETiS courses “must be promoted to all students and seen as a different, though equally valid, pathway as the pathway for young people heading for university”.

“Career advisers have an important role to play here – in fact they need to play a stronger role in identifying suitability and potential in students, not just look at their grades,” the minister said. “Only then can they set students on the path that is right for them.”

Speaking to The Australian after her speech, Ms Ley said a number of concerns and ideas were raised, particularly around better career advice for students and cutting cross-border red tape between states and territories.

Ms Ley said the roundtable was “extremely constructive” and overwhelmingly agreed the first major step to addressing the key issues was to update the VETiS national framework.

She said she would take the proposals to her state and territory ministerial colleagues at the next Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood meeting next month.

According to the latest figures from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, the national population of 15-19-year-olds in 2012 was 1.45 million and the number of students in VETiS was 242,000. This was made up of: 22,500 students in school-based apprenticeships and traineeships (just 9 per cent of all VETiS) and 219,800 in other VETiS programs.

TAFE Directors Australia chief executive Martin Riordan welcomed closer linkages for industry with students and providers for VETiS programs. “The increased school student demand for VETiS brings a need for redoubling efforts for quality, so industry capacity to support the process is essential,” he said.

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