There’s a story in today’s Fin which sums up a lot of what is wrong about political debate on public policy in this country.
The Fin reports on a study of apprenticeship completion rates by NCVER which found big disparities between the states. In particular, NSW and Victoria were bottom of the class, with completion rates of 45% and 44% respectively. Qld and WA attained 85% and 87%.
Before we go any further, let’s remember that the skills “crisis” is often said to be about trades shortages.
How did pollies explain these figures?
John Howard has previously ascribed low completion rates either to the lure of uni, or to the resources boom. Apprentices, it’s said, are either being lured by a degree or by high wages in mining. (Never mind that the wages for non-skilled employees in mining aren’t that fab, particularly when the rapidly rising cost of living in mining towns is factored in). The Fin argues against this by pointing out that completion rates are very high in the resource rich states. True. But they’re also at 86% in Tasmania, and 78% in the ACT.
So to continue the tale, Federal VET Minister Gary Hardgrave weighs in. Maybe, muses the Minister, apprentices are dropping out in NSW and Vic and moving to complete in Qld and WA. Maybe, but highly unlikely. He appears to have made this “explanation” up out of whole cloth. Never mind the old fashioned “let’s ask the Department or commission some research” approach. Probably both the news cycle and the politicisation of education are to blame, because it’s bipartisan – Labor Victorian Minister for Skills, Jacinta Allan, disputes the findings. It doesn’t appear to have occurred to the Minister that the drop outs might be moving to Canberra or Hobart.
Hardgrave did say something sensible, and perhaps he was bitten by the Queensland parochialism bug at the time. He pointed out that apprenticeships in Queensland are much more flexible than in some other states, allowing for competency-based progression. It must be the fault of the Labor states, Hardgrave appears to suggest, and we’d like to standardise this model across Australia. Except Queensland is a Labor state as well. Oh well.
The other bit of the stats no one seems to comment on is that Queensland and WA were doing just as well comparatively speaking and NSW and Victoria just as badly (though a bit better than they are now) from 1998-02. The figures given are for that period and for 2002-05.
What of course that suggests is that it’s highly unlikely that these differences have short term causes such as labour market factors or the resources boom, which pretty much puts paid to Howard’s excuses. But it also suggests the blindingly obvious – that Qld and WA probably have put more effort over a longer period of time in public policy and managerial terms to building up efficient and flexible VET systems.
Which of course is something that happens under federalism. And Hardgrave now wants to snaffle Qld’s good ideas (which go beyond just assessment and progression) for the Commonwealth.
Which might be a good thing, except that you’ve only then got one system where there can be any policy and managerial innovation.
And the ideas that the Feds – from both parties – haven’t been too innovative. Federal Labor wants to “increase completions” by giving everyone $1000 if they finish. And the Coalition promised to chuck in $800 towards a toolkit in the last election.
This is part of the problem, as well as the blame game. The Commonwealth has had minimum responsibility for delivery. So Federal pollies focus on headlines, and quick fixes which turn out to be very expensive when you add up the cost of giving a small amount of money to tens of thousands of people. And they’re probably the wrong fixes, because they’re not based on any evidence but on a desire to be seen to be doing something. Symbolic politics. Meanwhile some of the states are doing the hard yards in tackling a very complex policy area for which they’re actually responsible. But they don’t get the headlines.
If Rudd wants to tackle federalism, there’s material aplenty in skills and VET for him to work with. But someone had better come up with some smarter ideas than “completion bonuses”…