Universal lifelong education and retraining

Education and retraining should be free, universal, and accessible at all points during a person’s life.

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The rapid pace of industrialisation has brought many opportunities. Worldwide, the average worker produces ten times more value today than in 1930. Many jobs today are safer, more creative and more enjoyable than at any point in history.

But unless we take action now, these gains will be eroded. The world is in a state of flux. New industries rise and fall rapidly on the back of changing technologies. And even as we’ve become more productive and technologically capable, we’ve done a poor job of liberating people from long hours and exploitative conditions. This is because corporations take advantage of increased productivity to boost their profit margins, while forcing workers to compete for their jobs against increasingly sophisticated machines. Far too many people have been displaced by technological advances they could never have planned for.

Rapid change is the reality of the modern economy. And because the world of work is changing, workers must be equipped to change with it. All education and retraining should be free, universal, and accessible throughout the entirety of a person’s life.

To build thriving communities in the twenty-first century, we need to give every single person the opportunity to access new skills and unlock new opportunities, no matter how much education they’ve previously had – or how old they are. Australia currently invests just 0.23% of GDP on programs designed to retrain people back into work – almost nine times less than comparable economies abroad.16

We need to understand that investment in people, is investment in the future of our nation. Proper retraining of labour displaced by automation would boost the Australian economy by $1.2 trillion over the next 13 years.17 When people skill up and find new and better jobs, they produce more goods, earn higher wages, and contribute more fully to society. The reality is, we can’t afford not to invest in the education of the Australian workforce.

1. Reverse the disastrous privatisation and corporatisation of TAFE. Technical colleges should be the centrepiece of our future education system. TAFE is able to facilitate flexible education throughout a person’s working life because of the short, skills-based courses they offer. People should be able to dip in and out of TAFE throughout their career, to re-skill, skill up, or change direction. TAFE colleges should become recognised centres of excellence for skills we need to develop for our economy to thrive – rather than neglected public colleges or exploitative private providers.

2. Robust support for apprentices. At the moment, apprenticeships are penalised, with workers’ hourly rates sitting significantly below a living wage. This discourages many Australians from learning valuable occupational skills, often highly sought after in the community. Apprenticeships should be funded by the Australian Government under a Job Guarantee program – so those who want to learn are given a decent living wage.

3. Publicly funded university, at any stage in a person’s life. While university was once the domain of the privileged - the advanced skills, critical thinking and problem solving that a university education provides have become necessary staples of the modern employment market. No-one questions the role of the government in providing free K-12 education because we all benefit when every child is equipped with basic numeracy and literacy skills. And we will all benefit from individuals equipped with the skills to demand higher incomes more than pay back the cost of their education over their tax-paying lives. Our universal education guarantee should be extended to include university.

16OECD, (2015) “Public Expenditure on Active Labour Market Policies in 2015”.

17AlphaBeta, “The Automation Advantage”, Insights, August 2017.