Walking through the BMW car factory in Munich in 2002, I was struck by the scale and sophistication of the operation. German technology at its best.
In that country, technical education is held in high regard. Early in their secondary schooling, depending on their aptitude, children are put in an academic or technical stream. With the latter group, this is not considered to be second best.
Vocational education in Germany is a crucial foundation for Germany's world-class manufacturing sector.
In Australia that same year, federal education minister Brendan Nelson was trying to lift the status of vocational education. He said at the time, "I would be very proud if one of my children chose this path over going to university".
Unfortunately, he could not convince the Howard Cabinet to boost vocational education quality by providing the required resources. Nor was his case supported by a large proportion of parents who wanted a university education for their children.
The incoming Howard government in 1996, discovered a $10 billion black hole in the budget. They made up 40 per cent of this shortfall by cutting education funding. Minister David Kemp told my Senate Committee at the time, "the vocational sector would need to do more with less".
About the same time, the role of the state government technical colleges was reduced when the private sector was encouraged and funded to take up a larger share of training. Many states aided and abetted this policy shift, as it meant budget savings.
The concept of the vocational 'privatisation' agenda was sound because the old technical colleges were not very agile in their response to the changing training needs of industry. But the introduction of private training providers Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) was poorly executed.
There was too much emphasis on saving the government money and poor oversight of the quality of the education offered by the new providers. Both local and international students were often ripped off, and those who paid fees for their training sometimes didn't receive value for money.
A retired TAFE head teacher recently told me, "I watched in dismay as the vocational education system was dismantled over 20 years or so. Sadly, there was little accountability for RTOs. They jumped into training that was cheap to provide. What happened to the traditional trades? Once again, left to the ever-diminished government funds. The privately provided training was often poorly delivered, and frankly, the sector was often unscrupulous".
The poorly designed and funded vocational education sector that has evolved in Australia over the past 20 years has left it as the Cinderella of education. As the Prime Minister continues his challenge of reforming the Australian federation, vocational education is an excellent place to start.
With the university sector already under the control of the national government, it makes no sense to leave the other half of tertiary education in the hands of the eight states and territories. They all have different standards, funding levels and public/private provision arrangements. There should be a complete take over of post-high school tertiary education by the federal government.
It is essential that skills-based training should be given a higher funding priority, to turbocharge its development to catch up with the current needs of industry. According to ACCI chief James Pearson, "we need more people vocationally trained in robotics, AI, advanced manufacturing and digital skills to take traditional trades deep into the 21st century".
There should be a complete take over of post-high school tertiary education by the federal government.
There is now some hope that at last Australia might be heading in the right direction. The Prime Minister in his recent address to the National Press Club criticised the current vocational education system as "clunky and unresponsive to skills demand". He identified this sector and a renewed focus on technical skills, as a key plank in the government's new JobMakerplan to drive a post-pandemic jobs recovery.
Echoing Brendan Nelson from an earlier era, the PM said that he wanted "trades and skilled jobs to be aspired to, not looked down upon as a second-best option". This is a welcome change, but the government has a lot of ground to catch up.
To guide the future funding decisions of government, the National Skills Commission will begin work on July 1, 2020. It will provide a country-wide view of the skills needed. But reshaping and delivering a world-class vocational education system in Australia, after years of neglect and so many missteps, may need another Morrison miracle.