AUSTRALIA: Resources boom outruns graduate supply

Booming economies around the world are experiencing a desperate shortage of skilled workers. Australia is in a worse position than most because of government failure to provide sufficient university places, according to a report available today exclusively for University World News.

The report reveals that almost half of Australia’s 18 to 20-year-olds are not involved in any form of post-school education and that fewer than one in three are enrolled in universities. With Australians preparing to elect a new government in two weeks, the report says an ‘educational revolution’ is required – along with the political will to generate it.

The report was prepared by Monash University sociologist Professor Bob Birrell and postdoctoral research fellow Daniel Edwards. Birrell, a high-profile academic whose reports regularly hit the headlines, is director of the Centre for Population and Urban Research at the university in Melbourne.

Australia’s economy “is a voracious consumer of formally trained persons”, the researchers say. They point out that in the six years to 2006, a massive 80% of net job growth was in the managerial, professional, associate professional or trade occupations – all of which normally require a formal post-school qualification.

“Yet barely 50% of young Australians aged 18 to 20 were enrolled in any form of education in 2006,” their report states. “The strength of the Australian labour market helps explain why some young people prefer to take up service or semi-skilled employment rather than post-school training – the former at least puts money in their pocket.”

Even so, data from the 1996 census show that a significant proportion of 18 to 20-year-olds not enrolled in education are only marginally engaged in employment, are unemployed, or are not in the workforce at all.

“This is a double tragedy, for the young persons affected who will lack the qualifications needed to compete in the new economy and for the nation, in that this idle time could have been put to productive training,” the researchers say.

They point to a “disjunction” between the lack of students graduating from Australia’s universities and the employment of managers, professionals and associate professionals. The shortfall was met from immigration. In 2005-06 alone there was a net gain of some 45,000 professionals from international movement, drawn in almost equal parts from settler arrivals and from the net inflow of temporary workers.

“If these skilled workers had been drawn from domestic sources it would have required a 30% to 40% increase in the level of domestic university places...

“There was a marginal improvement in university attendance but no overall improvement in educational participation of young people in the crucial early years after leaving school over the five years 2001 to 2006 – yet this was a time when the economy was booming and employers were crying out for more skilled workers.”

The report says a major gap in addressing the skills issue lies with higher education policy. Government claims that it has increased the number of university places and that there is no “unmet demand” misreads the extent of the training shortfall, Birrell and Edwards say.

The two main political parties have not indicated how they intend to increase incentives for young people to take up university or training places – even if the number of places is increased. Since it came to office, the government has reduced access to student support allowances and increased the fees students must pay.

“These decisions constitute a serious disincentive for many young people contemplating post-school education. This is likely to be especially the case for outer suburban families struggling with mortgages who would have to provide the living expenses for university-aged children,” the report notes.

“In addition, neither party has addressed the issue of physical access to places in the university and technical college sector. As we have indicated, outer suburban students are at a grave disadvantage in this respect.”

Half of Australian youth aged 18-20 are not in training, by Bob Birrell and Daniel Edwards, is published by the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University and is available for download.

Click here to download the report
Click here to download the supplementary tables