What the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) Didn’t Say About Skills and Jobs

9 February 2016

Opinion piece

By Craig Fowler

The four-year $1.1bn NISA comprised four interrelated ‘clusters’ of initiatives with a collective purpose to increase productivity, support high-wage jobs and the ‘next wave of economic prosperity’. None was a surprise given the policy advice accumulated by governments, plus the evidence that Australia was sliding in the ‘international competiveness peloton’. Part of this policy stockpile was credibly assembled into a coherent ‘systemic’ response, but other initiatives essential to an effective national innovation ‘system’ were largely overlooked.  

Whilst Australia makes contribution to ‘world-first knowledge and inventions’ in areas of its (bio)science/industry strengths, for the most part Australia must continue to excel at being a fast adopter and adapter of imported innovations and technologies. A key enabler is the absorptive ability of businesses to harness new ideas through the smarts of its employees. These are typically higher and vocational education graduates, either fresh from school, or older and longer employed. Adapting complex design and engineering processes or integrating digital technologies into novel business practices in addition demands imaginative management practices.

Scientific research underpins a quarter of Australia’s economic output.  If correct, then optimal diffusion of innovative practices through a mobile and skills-adaptable workforce is essential. Embedded STEM-skills is a prerequisite. The best of the VET sector delivers ‘electricians, cardiovascular technologists, machinists, aircraft mechanics, auto technicians, dental hygienists, mechatronics engineers, air ambulance paramedics’ with skills that ‘build homes and bridges, perform preventive and primary health care,…keep complex IT networks running, and operate…computer controlled tools and robots’.  So in applauding NISA for stimulating collaboration between academics—typically post graduate Masters/PhDs (~AQF levels 9/10) employed in research institutions and R&D production professionals in industry—a criticism is NISA’s conceptual narrowness.  It does not address the need for improved collaboration between enterprise and the tertiary sector in general, focussed on higher Certificate/Diploma/Degree holders (~AQF level 3-8). These graduates are 54% of the 11.8m labour force and through whom ‘better ways of doing things on the job’ is diffused in the economy.

The tertiary education sector is a willing collaborator. Many universities already link or plan courses to work engagement, seen in: University Australia’s Work Integrated Learning strategy co-badged with industry peak bodies; in regional institutions linked to regional employers, and in proposed alternate ‘fourth year’ programs. All this builds on valued industry input into course curriculum underpinning graduate professional accreditations. As appropriate, universities now brand student benefits akin to those long espoused in VET; education, skills and job-readiness. This acknowledges the ‘interaction between professional and technical learning,…theory based, experimental and competency based learning is blurring boundaries’.

In the VET sector the apprenticeship model has proven an effective (and legislated) ‘industry-partnered collaboration’ that combines a student/employee in both ‘learning for and on the job’. The UK Government has initiated measures to bolster apprenticeships for higher level apprenticeships, controversially part funded by a company levy.  This reflects a determination to lift workforce skills in advanced technology, construction and digital media and attract students not going to university. Entry standards are higher and training blends vocational and university courses in response to companies seeking more employable apprentices.  Such approaches elevate the value of ‘mid-tier-professionals’ supporting businesses to acquire technical, service and 'softer' skills, including benefiting newer enterprises in growth sectors.  In other nations the VET sector also contributes measurable value to industrial R&D.

So what might an evolved NISA do in ‘skilling for innovation’? It could target industry-specific professional development for teachers, promoting co-immersion in industry and education sectors to rejuvenate its workforce. It might fund ‘higher apprenticeships’ in Industry Growth Sectors or target enabling services and encourage co-invested tertiary/industry training, and as spin off promote this to international students.  It might highlight careers of ‘VET-trained business entrepreneurs’ who become employers1. It might re-think the whys and how employers can (and don’t) take on ‘learners’ as graduates, interns or apprentices. The best often win jobs and become case studies for business returns on skill investments. It might highlight the NBN is only fast connectivity, and that ‘Australian industry…lags other countries in fostering innovation and digital entrepreneurship, re-emphasising the value of ‘digital native’ graduates. It could enable a tertiary ‘unique student identifier’, enforce ‘open data’ to improve market intelligence, remove unnecessary inefficiencies in tertiary sector regulation (at AQF levels 3-8) and deep scrutiny of standards in course assessments.

NISA is commendable. Successes in research and entrepreneurship are celebrated. But it may prove inadequate in ‘skilling for innovation’ existing (and start up) companies. A wider collaborative remit and a quantum jump in co-investment between tertiary institutions and employers is needed to have the nation ‘surf’ a bigger ‘wave of economic prosperity’, making the now announced inquiry in workforce for a new economy by the Standing Committee on Education and Employment welcome. The National Industry Skills Fund was reduced by $274m in the 2015/16 MYBR, perhaps part offset for NISA. 

[1] What role for VET in the entrepreneurial ecosystem? NCVER Research in Progress