AUSTRALIA: Too few graduates – too many tradespeople

Australia faces a desperate shortage of university-trained professionals whereas the new Labor government and its conservative predecessor have promoted vocational training. Ignoring the need for government to create more university places for its young people, Australia seems intent on using migration to meet its skill needs, says a report released last week. It offers a warning other western countries should heed.

In a bitter critique of the Labor government's plans emphasising vocational education and training over higher education, Monash University researchers say the government appears to have accepted the labour market myths perpetuated by its conservative foes – that the country needs tradespeople rather than professionals.

A report in the Monash journal People and place, published by the Centre for Population and Urban Research, accuses Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Education Minister Julia Gillard of following the conservatives' promise to create 450,000 vocational training places over the next four years when what the country really needs is more training at university level.

In an investigation based on census data collected between 1996 and 2006, Professors Bob Birrell and T Fred Smith, with researcher Ernest Healey, found that the number of Australians employed in the trades increased by less than 106,000 over the decade while the number employed in professional occupations grew by almost 440,000.

They point out that demand for university-trained professionals has increased much more strongly than that for tradespeople, yet enrolments of Australian students at university has hardly changed over the past 10 years while among commencing students enrolments actually fell in engineering, IT and science.

Universities are unable to respond to the demand from employers because they cannot offer government-subsidised places beyond a limit imposed by the Education Department, their report says. Under the conservatives, vice-chancellors could offer full-fee places to Australians, as they do to the increasing number of foreign students, but the Labor administration plans to prohibit universities from doing this.

Yet it is not as if the nation is lacking in potential applicants for university places: the researchers note that nearly half of all Australian men and women aged 18 to 20 were not engaged in higher education or training last year.

"In other words, there is a huge surplus of young Australians who are not in post-school training but who should be, both for their own and their nation's long term benefit," the researchers write. "Perhaps the labour market myths that lay behind the [conservatives'] prioritisation of trade training continue to prevail within the Labor government... Perhaps it is about costs. The funds needed to provide for additional university places are more than 10 times greater than the annual cost of [technical college] instruction in the trades."

They question the wisdom of the Rudd government relying on overseas migration as a source of cheap skills for managerial, administrative and professional jobs. Apart from the fact that immigration is an inadequate solution to skills demand, there is an ethical element involved: "Reliance on [migrants] ignores the primary obligation of government to provide opportunities for domestic aspirants for education, training and good jobs."

"The situation is curious," the report states. "There is a far greater need for additional training at the university level than there is at the vocational level. The Rudd government has so far not indicated any willingness to pay for additional university places. Yet it is prepared to subsidise up to 450,000 vocational training places."