Earlier this month, the new-look Coalition Government made its first big pledge in relation to tertiary education. In a joint announcement from new Minister for Small and Family Business, Skills and Vocational Education, Michaelia Cash, and Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, the government said it would be offering scholarships to over 1,200 rural, regional and remote students to support them to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses.
Looking past the obvious play towards the trending topics of drought-affected regional Australia and dwindling STEM skills, the injection of cash would, at first glance, appear to be a positive for the vocational education sector. As identified by Professor John Halsey in his April report into regional education, there is a gap to be addressed in relation to the upskilling of regionally and rurally-based young people. Surely, scholarships aimed squarely at students living outside capital cities will help redress this imbalance?
The problem, however, is that the scholarship approach is merely a quick fix, with the potential to drive still further students away from VET and towards university. For example, there is no requirement for the scholarship recipient to undertake the study in their local region. In fact, the payments are expressly intended to assist the recipient with the ‘financial costs of attending their institution…’ as well as going towards the cost of the qualification.
The scholarship program also fails to acknowledge one of Professor Halsey’s key recommendations: the need to expand the availability, affordability and accessibility of high-quality work experience placements, VET, dual VET/university options and two-year associate degree programs for regional students. There is nothing in the scholarship package that indicates an intention by the government to support regionally-based VET providers.
We would be very interested to hear from regional RTOs about whether they believe they will see a benefit from this proposal. In particular, whether it will result in an increased interest in the take-up of tertiary education from regional students. From where we sit, it does not appear that vocational education providers will see much benefit.