Competing with the best

Australia
and New Zealand are putting more resources into tertiary education as they bid
to take their rightful places in the knowledge economy, says Richard Rudman

The
occasion was historic. So nobody missed the significance when prime minister
John Howard chose the centenary of Australia’s establishment as a federation to
launch his government’s new five-year A$2.9bn "Backing Australia’s
Ability" campaign.

Taking
advantage of technological change, software revolutions, scientific innovation
and the expanding frontiers of the knowledge economy would enable Australia to
entrench its economic strength, proclaimed Howard. And the new campaign, on top
of massive increases in government expenditure on education and research in
recent years, would help equip Australia and its people to be world competitive.

Ten
thousand extra university places for information technology (IT), mathematics
and science students; more loans for postgraduate students; new scholarships
for researchers; changed immigration rules to allow qualified overseas students
to stay in Australia; relaxed immigration requirements for IT specialists;
additional funding to raise school standards in science, mathematics and
technology; development of on-line school curriculum content – all these
elements of the "Backing Australia’s Ability" programme are designed
to ensure that the lucky country can comfortably take its place in the
knowledge economy.

By
some measures, Australia had already entered the 21st century as a knowledge
economy. For the first time, more than half its workers have post-school
qualifications and more than 80% of them undergo some form of education or
training every year. In the search for better skills and knowledge, the number
of higher education students has jumped by 100,000 (or about 17%) over the past
five years.

On
the other hand, the knowledge economy is no more even-handed than its
predecessors: 18% of Australia’s working-age population now lives off welfare
benefits, and the unemployed (about 6.5% of the labour force) are less likely to
receive training than those who have jobs.

And
there are still yawning gaps. For example, the Australian Information Industry
Association (AIIA) predicts that by the end of 2004, the IT sector will need an
additional 170,000 skilled employees, which would more than double employment
in that sector. The AIIA says not enough is being done to close this skills
gap, and that too few students are graduating in computer science and software
engineering.

Of
course, there is no simple answer. In recent years, young people have been more
attracted to studies in business or law than the sciences, and changing
attitudes takes time. And the Australian shortages are mirrored elsewhere:
currently, 30% of IT positions in the US are vacant and Australians are being
wooed there by the salaries on offer.

Interestingly,
some IT graduates are finding it difficult to secure jobs. Their computer
science qualifications prove not to be a passport to future employment and they
end up waiting tables or seeking longer-term employment outside their
specialisation. Some educational institutions are responding and their courses
now include the basic skills which industry says graduates need if they are to
function effectively – oral and written communications, teamwork, business knowledge
and project management.

A
survey by the Graduate Careers Council of Australia found that 15% of computer
science graduates had not found jobs within four months of graduation: that’s
more than twice Australia’s total unemployment rate, but less than the 20%
unemployment rate for all university graduates. But Australia doesn’t have a
monopoly on IT graduate unemployment – in New Zealand, the rate is currently
about 18%.

David
Moffat, group general manager – technical at Manpower, says one problem lies in
the links between industry and academia. He suspects that course content does
not keep pace with commercial realities, that they do not focus on what
employers need today and are likely to need tomorrow. "In Europe," says
Moffat, "they’ll build a university and, not far away, they’ll build an
industrial park. The university courses are built around the industries in the
area. It’s something we need to get better at doing in Australia and New
Zealand."

Tertiary
education generally is something New Zealand needs to get better at, according
to a government-appointed advisory committee. It is proposing the establishment
of an autonomous Tertiary Education Commission to take charge of all aspects of
post-school education, including industry training.

While
few would disagree that New Zealand’s tertiary sector needs attention, many
will be unconvinced that structural changes are the answer. While successive
governments have significantly increased education expenditure in recent years,
funding lies at the heart of the tertiary system’s struggle to meet the demands
of the knowledge economy.

That
dilemma is a product of the country’s size, in part, at least. For a population
of less than 4 million, New Zealand has nearly 30 state-funded universities and
polytechnics, as well as a host of private sector providers (including some 50
industry training organisations). It can’t afford to spend much more than it
currently does on post-school training and development, but it certainly can’t
afford to spend any less.

Further
information…

Australia


Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee: www.avcc.edu.au


Backing Australia’s Ability: www.innovation.gov.au


Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs: www.detya.gov.au


Australian Information Industry Association: www.aiia.com.au


New Apprenticeships: www.newapprenticeships.gov.au


Graduate Careers Council of Australia: www.gradlink.edu.au


Australian Human Resources Institute: www.ahri.com.au


Australian Institute of Training and Development: www.aitd.com.au

New
Zealand


Ministry of Economic Development: www.med.govt.nz


New Zealand Qualifications Authority: www.nzqa.govt.nz


New Zealand Vice-Chancellors’ Committee: www.nzvcc.ac.nz


Skill New Zealand: www.skillnz.govt.nz


Tertiary Education Advisory Commission: www.teac.govt.nz


Human Resources Institute of New Zealand: www.hrinz.org.nz


New Zealand Association of Training and Development: www.nzatd.org.nz

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