Monday, October 30, 2006

Demography, Universities and the Trades in Australia - a postscript

On October 12 I looked at Demography, Universities and the Trades in Australia. I said in part:

"If we look at the demographic data, the absolute numbers in the traditional University age entry while bouncing around are not much different. However, what does appear to be changing is the proportion interested in going to university. I have not analysed this, but I get the strong impression that the combination of the costs of a degree with the increasing attractiveness of non-degree options such as trades is having an impact."

These arguments have now appeared in national debate as a consequence of the release of a report - Clearing the Myths Away: Higher Education's Place in Meeting Workforce Demands - by Monash University social scientists Bob Birrell and Virginia Rapson. The comments that follow are based on newspaper reports. I have not seen the full report.

The authors note that almost all the growth in training in Australian universities since 1996 has been among full-fee overseas students. From my perspective this is hardly surprising given that absolute numbers in the entry level age cohorts have not increased.

The authors then suggest that Australia's higher education policies are at odds with the demands of the workforce and based on three myths:
  • that there is too much emphasis on university education
  • that young people must choose between trade and a university education
  • that there will be fewer young people entering the workforce in coming years.

Dealing with numbers first, the report suggests that the numbers in the 15-19 age cohort will increase from 1.4 to 1.6 million by 2051. This increase, while small, could well be right and may even be an under estimate given the recent increase in the Australian birthrate.

Assuming that the proportion going to university does not change, the demographic data I looked at suggests a small aggregate decline in student numbers followed by an increase. However, this raises an interesting work force planning issue that I have not seen discussed.

My impression is that the average age of the university workforce has been increasing, with a significant proportion now in their fifties and sixties. This means that there is likely to be a substantial staff replacement demand at just the time that student numbers start to rise again.

The report then apparently goes on to argue that the Federal Government must take action to get more young Australians into university to ensure there are enough workers to fill projected gaps among managers, professionals and associate professionals.

According to The Australian, the report suggests that "Nearly two-thirds of all the growth in the employed workforce over the decade 1996 to 2006 went to persons employed in these three sets of occupations." People filling these positions are increasingly required to possess degree-level qualifications, yet" since 1996 there has been little increase in the number of domestic Australian students commencing undergraduate training at Australian universities."
I find this argument difficult to assess in the absence of the report itself, but would be very cautious in the absence of the data. For example, the numbers employed in trades have been depressed by the shortage of skilled trades people, while we have been churning out lots of people with business qualifications who seek management positions. So there is a risk of circularity.

However, the report then goes on to make an interesting point.

In 2005, almost half of school-leavers were not enrolled in any post-school education. Further, one in five 20-year-old men and one in three 20-year-old women were not working or studying.

The report calls on the Government to improve access to higher education in order to meet the demands of the workforce. "There should be an increase in the availability of higher education places in locations and disciplines suited to prospective student preferences and employer needs, as well as a more supportive stance on the provision of student financial assistance."

Now here I have sympathy for the report's arguments. In essence, when you look at the proportion of the work force in any form of post school training there is substantial scope for increasing both trade and university participation, thus easing future skills shortages.


Anonymous said...

I was shocked to read that education in Australia is the fifth largest export industry. Worth about $10billion. This seems to explain quite a lot about what we have been seeing in regard to the influx of overseas,full fee paying students that are flooding our universities.

Jim Belshaw said...

Lexcen, our success in selling education services has indeed been spectacular. But its made our universities and indeed the country very dependent on our continued success in attracting those students, and that's uncertain. ANU has just had to drop its minimum UAI quite sharply to try to attract more local students.