Can integrating higher education solve skills shortages?

Better integration between vocational and higher tertiary education can help tackle skills shortages Australian employers are facing.


Education researchers say a new Employment White Paper legislated by the Federal Government this week will significantly impact the tertiary education sector.

The paper is the Federal Government’s ‘roadmap’ for tackling the current and future challenges regarding employment – one major change will be in its plan to integrate vocational and higher education.

Professor Michele Simons is Dean of Education at Western Sydney University and Treasurer of the Australian Association of Research in Education; she says the changes will allow for a more integrated, agile, and responsive education workforce that will be vital to addressing skills shortages and future-proofing the nation’s workforce.

“What does a workforce capable of sustaining an integrated tertiary education sector look like? Historically, the workforce of the vocational and higher education sectors has developed along relatively independent trajectories,” she told EducationDaily.

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Professor Simons described those unique trajectories as each having “its own particular sets of cultures and structures and processes which have shaped the attraction, retention, and development of its educators and other professionals who work in them”.

“Education policies have [so far] supported these sectoral differences while encouraging pathways and connections or partnerships between the two sectors,” she says.

Professor Simons says there is considerable debate about how the workforce will operate with an integrated sector.

“Currently, their [Vocational and Higher Education] respective workforces – like the institutions they are associated with – have grown up in their various silos with little, if any, overlap in terms of how they’ve been developed,” she says.

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“They do have similar characteristics though; they are similar in terms of their age profiles, the casualised nature of their respective workforces, and the capability development needed to enable staff to integrate technologies into teaching and learning and improving engagement of students within their learning environments.”

However, Professor Simons says now is a vital time for the tertiary education sector, and getting reform right is necessary for the Federal Government.

“Both [Vocational and Higher Education] are now implicated in a project to develop a more highly educated and skilled workforce for Australia and to enable accessible participation to post-school education to a far wider range of people than ever before,” she told EducationDaily.

“Both sectors will need to be able to respond to greater diversity in the student populations they serve which will turn focus attention on the provision of highly personalised innovative approaches to personal and skill development that meet industry and wider societal needs.”

“For entry-level and continuing educational purposes, these sectors will also need to respond to the trends in the spreads of technology, including AI.”

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Associate Professor Steven Hodge is Deputy Head of School (Research) in the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University; his research into recurrent combined qualifications suggests that a functional tertiary sector would overcome barriers between the dimensions of the tertiary education sector.

“The old ways of preparing people for their careers are breaking down, and we need to be able to offer workers and entrants into the workforce ways to traverse the entire spectrum of tertiary education without being held up artificially,” he told EducationDaily.

“Industries need that; workers need that. So, it’s incredibly important for us to be thinking about how to create a functional tertiary sector.”

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