Business groups are calling for urgent action to revamp vocational education and training after figures showed student enrolments continuing to fall, with school leavers steering clear of the troubled sector in favour of work or university.
The latest data from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research found there were 1.1 million students at government-funded providers in 2018, down 1.9 per cent on 2017. New enrolments in subjects fell 5.7 per cent.
Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott said employers needed skilled workers for Australia to be competitive.
“To get this equation working again, let’s end the cultural bias against vocational education,” Ms Westacott said. “We endorse the Prime Minister’s focus on skills, which is central to our ability to compete and ensure Australian workers are protected.”
James Pearson, chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the figures showed the federal government needed to act on promised reforms and increase funding.
Mr Pearson said the drop in enrolments reflected reduced funding from federal and state governments, which he said “underlines the urgency of VET reform”.
Victoria experienced the largest drop, with enrolments down 8.5 per cent. NSW enrolments rose 2.5 per cent.
While overall figures for the sector fell, enrolments at TAFE increased slightly, up 0.9 per cent to 576,000 from 571,000. The number of students at other kinds of registered providers fell 5.3 per cent from 429,000 to 407,000.
The latest figures follow even larger declines in previous years. TAFE enrolments fell 6.5 per cent between 2016 and 2017.
Following a review of the sector by former New Zealand minister Steven Joyce, the Morrison government committed to changes aimed at addressing skills shortages.
A $525 million package unveiled in the federal budget included the creation of a National Skills Commission to oversee the sector and other measures to boost the appeal of vocational education and training options.
Responding to the latest figures, Employment and Skills Minister Michaelia Cash said the pace of change was picking up following the Joyce review.
“Confidence in the sector was at an all-time low following Labor’s failed VET FEE-HELP program and that is why I have been focused as the Minister for Skills on lifting the profile of VET to make it a genuine first choice for school leavers,” she said.
Craig Robertson, chief executive of TAFE Directors Australia, noted there had been large declines in the 15 to 19 age category, which fell 3.1 per cent.
He said the decrease in the number of people seeking diplomas and advanced diplomas was a direct result of the “ineffective” VET student loans program, which has been criticised as overly complex.
Advanced diplomas fell 7.5 per cent and diplomas fell 4.8 per cent. There were also significant drops in Certificate IV, II and I qualifications.
“Generally, it seems to be continuing the slide away from vocational education and training,” Mr Robertson said.
“Possibly what’s going on is that people are just not seeing the qualifications as attractive enough either as a learning pathway or leading into jobs that are attractive in terms of conditions and salary.”
He said the sector needed to be revamped and providers needed more control to deliver training that students wanted.