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 addition