The need to bring schooling to all young people has been the key element in education policies across the whole world says Bill Mansfield, ACTU Assistant Secretary.

“If you think training is expensive you should try ignorance” (Nabalco HRD GM)

1. Introduction

1.1 The twentieth century has seen universal basic education become a reality in all developed economies. The need to bring schooling to all young people has been the key element in education policies across the whole world.

In the last half of the century in Australia and other developed economies we have also seen universal education being extended across the teenage years and into early adulthood.

Whilst acknowledging the changes which have occurred in developed economies we should also recognise that children in many economically less developed countries some very close to Australia, are still deprived of anything but, at best, a basic education of around six years of compulsory schooling in facilities which would be regarded as totally unacceptable in Australia.

The universal changes which are occurring with technology, globalisation, work organisation and the structure of the workforce mean that in future education and skill formation will have to change its focus to include the adult workforce in an environment where lifelong learning will increasingly become the norm.

Australia is starting down the path of recognising the need for lifelong learning. However, as I will refer to later, our current and projected education and training performance is not up to the standards of many other developed economies. In the area of vocational training we have made a good start in terms of reforming a narrowly based outdated system but even in this area we still have a lot of work to do.

Reform in Australia’s education and training systems over the last decade or so has provided a solid base for the achievement of the goals set by the Finn and Carmichael reports of 1991 and 1993. These goals envisaged that Australia should aim for :


  • 90% of 19 year olds will undertake Year 12 or will be participating in some form of recognised education or training
  • 60% of 20 year olds will take part in education or training leading to at least AQF3 qualifications
  • 90% of 20 year olds will have at least AQF II level qualifications


These goals were set in the context of a training system which was occupationally narrow, gender biased and which largely failed to recognise the skill development needs of occupations above and below the AQF 3 level. In addition, our education system did not retain a high proportion of students to the completion of Year 12. It was clear that reform was necessary if we were to lift Australia’s skills base to meet the needs and challenges of the future.

The work of the union movement to achieve reform in the vocational training area has been alongside that of employers, governments and providers all of whom are active participants in the reform process. To a significant extent the objectives of all of those involved were similar and the long-term commitment to a partnership to develop the vocational training system has, with some exceptions, been continued regardless of the government in office.

The factors which have led unions and employers in many occupational areas to include vocational training as a priority issue include recognition of the economic and social changes which are having an impact on Australian workplaces. These include:


  • the growth of global markets
  • increasing international competition
  • changes in the way work is organised and managed
  • the increasing importance of service and knowledge-based industries


1.10 The OECD has stated the importance of education and training clearly in its report Technology, Productivity and Job Creation when it observed that :

“Skills and the ability to utilise them are major determinants of growth and competitiveness for firms and their employees, and for economies. They will become more important in the future as economies are more strongly dependent on the production, distribution and use of knowledge than ever before”. [1]

In another report it stated:

“It is increasingly recognised that knowledge, both as an input and output, is central to the process of growth and job creation. Today, knowledge in all its forms plays a crucial role in economic processes. Intangible investment is growing much more rapidly than physical investment. Individuals with more knowledge get better paid jobs, firms with more knowledge are winners in markets and nations endowed with more knowledge are more productive. This strategic role is at the root of increased investment in all forms of knowledge by individuals, firms and nations. In short, OECD economies are, and have increasingly become, knowledge-based economies.” [2]

1.11 The broad factors affecting the national economy are understood in terms of the need for training reform however the value of skills development to the individual employee is also significant.

1.12 Studies undertaken in Australia and overseas have reached the clear conclusion that the level of job security and the incomes received by employees are directly linked to the education and vocational training received/ competencies acquired through participation in skill development.

1.13 In an OECD report the correlation between education and training opportunity and employment security was clearly established. The report showed that in Australia for young people between the age of 20-24 the unemployment rate related to education qualifications was :


  • Below upper secondary education 18.4%
  • Upper secondary 11.1%
  • University level 5.4%


1.14 Along with improved job prospects improved education and training opportunities also offers higher levels of income which when translated into a working lifetime amounts on average to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The OECD report also shows the differences between remuneration of workers 25-64 years of age in Australia by level of educational attainment – the report shows that, when compared to the average annual earnings of a male who has completed upper secondary education :


  • Lower secondary completion – 10%
  • Tertiary completion +40%
  • Non university tertiary +18%


1.15 The results for women are that the differentials are greater.

1.16 These facts reveal the effect of better education and training opportunities on jobs and income. They establish clearly the importance of training opportunities linked to career structures to enable workers to maximise their potential contribution to the enterprise and obtain improved personal benefits.

1.17 In addition to the significance of training opportunities, an important conclusion from a professional survey of workers and union members undertaken by the Labor Council of NSW was that the second most important issue (behind wages/salary) where unions “should do more” was career opportunities. We have too many members stuck in dead-end jobs with employers having no interest in improving their opportunities for either training or advancement.

1.18 Unions have argued that access to vocational training and career development throughout a working lifetime should be a right associated with employment. This “right” should stand alongside others such as safe workplaces, fair wages, equal pay and no discrimination – in many ways it is as important as these issues.

1.19 There is general agreement that Australia’s vocational training system is an important element in terms of an individual’s ability to perform to his or her capacity, enterprise competitiveness and the ability of the economy broadly to cope with the pressures of globalisation, economic growth and rapid technological change.

Lifelong Learning

Although some of the individuals who promoted the need for reform in VET (such as Laurie Carmichael, a former senior official with the Manufacturing Workers’ Union) saw its development as part of a process which would lead to the opportunity for lifelong learning the concept has only recently begun to emerge as part of the broader reform agenda.

Growing international interest in the concept of lifelong learning has culminated with release of The Köln Charter by the leaders of the G8 countries spelling out the aims and ambitions for lifelong learning. The communiqué, released in June 1999 states :

“The challenge every country faces is how to become a learning society and to ensure that its citizens are equipped with the knowledge, skills and qualifications they will need in the next century. Economies and societies are increasingly knowledge-based. Education and skills are indispensable in achieving economic success, civic responsibility and social cohesion.”

“The next century will be defined by flexibility and change: more than ever there will be a demand for mobility. Today a passport and ticket will allow people to travel anywhere in the world. In the future, the passport to mobility will be education and lifelong learning. This passport to mobility must be offered to everyone. (Köln Charter, Aims and ambitions for lifelong learning)”

The lifelong learning theme was also the central theme of the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) second internal congress on technical and vocational education held in Seoul in 1999. The main theme of the congress was “lifelong learning and training for all” with a focus on how to ensure that the education and training systems of nations are able to meet the changing demands of work in the 21st century through the provision of education and training throughout life.

In Europe the concept of lifelong learning has had a rationale which goes beyond the skill needs of the enterprise and the economy. In a major report to UNESCO in 1996 Jacques Delors stated that it was the “heartbeat of society” and it was underpinned by four pillars of :

Learning to live together

Learning to know

Learning to do

Learning to be

He went on to state that :

“Not only must [lifelong learning] adapt to changes in the nature of work, … it must also constitute a continuous process of forming whole human [beings’] knowledge and aptitudes … and the critical … ability to act.”

Australia has also given attention in recent years to the concept of lifelong learning. While in some other countries the thrust of the debate has been on citizenship and life skills, to date the lifelong learning debate in Australia has placed a greater emphasis on skills training and re-training to improve employability and economic competitiveness.

It is this employment focus which gives the concept its critical importance. It could be argued that lifelong learning is more tangible if it is seen as the driver of employment-related skills formation policies.

The lifelong learning concept is increasingly being given recognition in Australia. For example, Australia’s national policy for vocational education and training, endorsed by Australian ministers for training stated in 1998 that:

Changes in the markets for products and services, industry restructuring and technological change have all contributed to a growing acknowledgement that people need to upgrade and update their skills throughout their working lives.

The ANTA policy ¾ A Bridge to the Future: Australia’s National Strategy for Vocational Education and Training 1998-2003 ¾ makes lifelong learning one of its central themes.

Having acknowledged the importance of lifelong learning to the future development of education and training in Australia, I should also make it clear that although we are moving in the direction of making it a reality the current focus of unions and employers generally is in bedding down a series of reforms to our training system which are intended to make it more relevant to our immediate and our future needs for individuals entering the workforce or in need of training to a higher skill level.

3. System Frameworks

The acceptance and implementation of lifelong learning can only be achieved if we have a comprehensive and workable national framework to establish the content, delivery assessment and recognition of the skills of individuals in the training system. There must also be adequate quality control which would allow participants from governments, employers and participants to have confidence in the outcome. In addition, there must be a preparedness to put our money where our mouths are and be prepared to meet the costs involved in the growth of education and training opportunities.

As a result of the process of system reform we now have in place;


  • An Australian Qualifications Framework which has six levels of vocational qualifications



  • An Australian Recognition Framework to register and audit training providers along with mutual recognition of providers, qualifications and training products



  • Training Packages made up of competency standards, qualification outcomes and assessment guidelines for most industry areas



  • A national strategy developed by the Australian National Training Authority endorsed by all Ministers and applied throughout the country


The outcome of the efforts of many people over the last decade has been an explosion in demand for VET. Apprenticeships and traineeships have more than doubled with increased availability of skills development to women, older workers, indigenous Australians and the disabled. We now have around 275,000 apprentices and trainees with the majority (207,000) at AQF III level. Nearly half of all teenage full time employees in Australia are now in the formal VET system. More opportunities are also available to older workers with 88,000 places being filled by workers over the age of 25.

In terms of the take-up of formal training it is worthwhile noting:


  • That skilled trades and related occupations still cover half of all new apprentices but are only 14% of all jobs in Australia



  • Clerical, sales and service occupations cover nearly 32% of all jobs in Australia and 30% of new apprenticeships are in these occupations



  • New apprenticeships in labourer and related occupations have reached 11% of all new apprenticeships and these occupations account for 10% of all jobs in Australia



  • Managerial and administrative occupations are 7% of all jobs but account for only 1% of all new apprenticeships



  • Intermediate production and transport occupations account for 9% of all jobs but only 4% of new apprenticeships


It can be seen that the reform process has achieved a strong base and also is being accessed by workers over their working lifetimes but still has a way to go before there is universal access to VET opportunities to all people entering the workforce.

Who’s to Pay?

One key issue related to lifelong learning which to date has not been addressed by policy makers is the matter of who is to pay.

At present total spending on VET by governments, employers and individuals is around 8·5 billion which is equivalent to 1·5% of GDP. We spend much more on compulsory and higher education.

As I stated earlier our international performance in terms of educational qualifications is currently below standard (21st out of 28 OECD countries) and forecasts of our performance in 2015 are not much better. We do need to improve our performance if we are to become a Knowledge Nation in the future.

As you would know the responsibility for education and training policy is largely with the States but the financial cost has to date been shared between the States and the Federal Government. At present there is a serious dispute between the Federal and State governments about who is to bear the cost of growth in VET funding in the years ahead.

Industry (employers and ACTU/unions) has stated that the cost of growth should be shared between the States and the Commonwealth however at this time the Federal government appears unwilling to put other than small amounts of growth funding on the table.

The concern we should have regarding the current political impasse is not simply about its effect on VET places but in the broader area of extending opportunities for lifelong learning can governments agree on who is to pay in what potentially could add billions of dollars to the education and training budget?

In terms of the future cost of lifelong learning it is likely that many of the initiatives to assist with its introduction will probably not be focused on the traditional classroom in either the education or training sectors. Much of the “learning” will take place in the home, the workplace and in the general community.

It will be stimulated by the creation of learning communities through partnerships being established between groups of learners, educational institutions and industry. It will also be heavily influenced by learning opportunities delivered electronically direct to the home or workplace. In this regard it is worthwhile noting two initiatives which have been taken by unions in Australia:


  • Virtual Communities – a union/industry initiative to deliver low cost access to computers and the Internet



  • The MBA offered through the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers, Australia is available by distance learning through Deakin University, the largest MBA involvement in Australia


In the future we should envisage the cost of education and training for lifelong learners and others coming down but to achieve the innovations necessary to make lower cost and greater access a reality we need more leadership from Federal and State governments, industry and the union movement.

Areas Of Concern

4.1 Finally I don’t want to leave you with the impression that everything which has been done to date has been perfect. In a number of initiatives the outcomes have been much less so. Some of our concerns go to areas such as:


  • The quality of training providers has not been rigorously tested in a system which is now market-driven
  • Mutual recognition of training courses and qualifications continues to be difficult in some States
  • The implementation of Training Packages has been slower than anticipated in some States
  • The outcomes of some training undertaken on-the-job has been less than satisfactory in some industry areas
  • The introduction of school based VET has yet to be fully integrated into the VET system
  • Some employers who take on VET students are being motivated by lower wages and incentive payments and they do not provide quality workplace experience to the trainee
  • Inadequate attention has been paid to date to workable Recognition of Prior Learning arrangements to recognise the competencies achieved through experience


4.2 Whilst acknowledging that we still have problems to overcome in the full implementation of training reforms those problems are understood and they are being addressed by all of the parties concerned. In my view, given the maintenance of our national effort, we will overcome those difficulties inside the next couple of years.

5. Conclusion

Overall we are doing some good things which, with ongoing support, will raise Australia’s skills base and hopefully by 2015 put us in a better position than the forecast shown earlier suggests.

Some critics of the VET reforms appear to see no merit in our achievements to date. It is unfortunate that they don’t seem to understand that reform is not easy and will inevitably include some wrong turns despite the overall positive gains that are made to what was a totally inadequate system for the future skills development needs of Australian workers and their enterprises.

In terms of lifelong learning we are starting on a new journey to make it a reality. I hope that in my lifetime I can see it succeed.


Some of the material in this presentation was drawn from “New Directions in Australia’s Skills Formation – Lifelong Learning is the Key” by Chris Robinson, NCVER

[1]OECD 1996 The Knowledge Based Economy p. 9

[2]OECD 1996 Technology, Productivity and Job Creation pp 7-8