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A bonded approach to the education of skilled workers

By  Don Edgar  and  Patricia Edgar

Aug 25, 2023


Education Minister Jason Clare's important review of education seems to have lost the plot. Secondary schoolers have been told for years that their aim should be university entrance. That approach has distorted the focus of secondary schooling toward achieving a high score in HSC while the technical side has been downgraded in both funding and status.

Now, Clare has upped the stakes as he says, 'everyone' will need a degree to hold down a job'. Many students are, rightly, sceptical. It's as though 'equity' means 'same outcomes', not just 'equal opportunity'. There's a world of difference, and while every student must be given an opportunity, there's no guarantee of uniform motivation, effort, or outcome. You can lead a horse to water?

Yes, the world of work is changing rapidly. It's not just STEM/IT skills that are needed and it's not just a university degree that brings higher wages. Australia needs its domestic students to be steered into specific areas of skill shortages, with a more realistic approach to funding which will secure those students in work.

The paradigm of 'free' entry for all, followed by HECS/HELP loan repayments once you're earning an 'advantaged' salary has distorted the picture. Yet in this current review of HECS/HELP, fees will remain and the same people who came up with the system are advising government on tweaking that system. Disadvantaged students - high on Clare's agenda, cannot afford to either stay on at school or go on to a degree without some income support. And it seems they don't want to delay major life decisions like marriage and buying a house until such fees are paid off. As well, they are increasingly sceptical of the value of getting a degree in the first place, with drop-out rates on the rise.

The latest Victorian 'tracking' study shows fewer Year 12 completers are choosing university as their destination (52.5%, down from 56.1% in 2020), choosing instead to go straight into a job, rejecting the notion that a degree will make them 'job-ready' and perhaps thinking ahead to further study as they gain life experience.

This has major implications for how universities operate. They need to become more flexible in structure, loosening rigidly sequential course structures, more open to later life entry, more tailored to specific areas of employment, with on-the-job practical programs integrated with theoretical learning. There are useful examples of this from the past.

In the 1950s, State secondary school enrolments expanded, helped by the retraining of returned servicemen and women as teachers for the State systems, but still leaving a shortage of trained teachers. This was followed by offering small-scale 'teaching bursaries' to school students who wanted but could not afford to complete high school. It was sufficient to cover the cost of most textbooks (no laptops in those days) and was an early commitment to continue training at tertiary level as a teacher. It was targeted at but not confined to rural and regional students.

Then, for those who Matriculated with high scores, the opportunity to go on to further study was guaranteed by a Teaching Studentship, either Primary or Secondary, which enabled attendance at a Primary Teachers' College to do a 2-3-year course or enter a university and train as a Secondary School teacher (3-year degree plus one-year Diploma of Education). This further study guaranteed an in-depth knowledge of one's subject matter and a full year of practice teaching under the guidance of experienced high school teachers. Some of the academic subjects in Dip. Ed. were esoteric, but special lectures and supervised practice in methods of teaching meant a real understanding of how to teach specific subject matter and how to manage a classroom.

Importantly, the Studentship covered what university 'administrative fees' then existed, plus a generous living allowance, thus avoiding the need to hold down a paid job while studying full-time. For a kid from the bush this was a game-changer, making university study a real possibility instead of an unreachable dream. As well, for country students who had no relatives in the city, the State provided hostels with full meals and accommodation. They were of course single-sex hostels but located within tram or walking distance of the university. Friendships started then lasted a lifetime.

The 'catch' was, if you accepted a teaching Studentship, you were bonded on completion to teach in allocated schools for three years or pay back the money. Most of us accepted the bond, regarding a teaching career as worthwhile. After Dip Ed you nominated three preferred school locations and were assigned to one according to the local high school's teacher shortage needs and your own subject specialisation. It was an effective way of filling staff shortages with well-trained young teachers, an incentive for more rural and regional kids to stay on at school and aspire to higher ambitions.

In the 1970s a specialised program for mature-age entrants was also introduced to fill teacher shortage - the TSTC or Trained Secondary Teachers' Certificate was offered by a separate College at Melbourne University to adults recruited from various trades and professions who were prepared to take up teaching as a second career; they were, like the post-war ex-servicemen, highly motivated and life-experienced.

The model cannot be applied to every field but would be worth considering today as an alternative to HECS-bound entry for all. Australian regions suffer shortages in medical staff - doctors, specialists, pharmacists, aged care nurses, even properly qualified lawyers, accountants, IT specialists. Why not target such shortages in a similar way? Pay for interested country students to complete a degree, along with living allowances, and bond them to practise in a specific country town in need of such a qualified specialist.

There was a major flaw in the Studentship system in that women had to resign from the teaching service once they married. Sexual discrimination was at its height. Drop that nonsense and such a scheme could be value-adding in several ways, and the cost-benefits multiply.

Bonded training brought young professionals to rural towns and regional centres often facing depopulation and decline; and because they began life in the bush many stayed on and didn't migrate back to the city. The newcomers brought energy and innovation, became local football heroes, joined local clubs; they met partners, married, and had children; local schools stayed open and young rural families stayed on.

The 'Bond' may seem onerous to some and opposed by those who dislike planning by 'the Nanny State'. But the dire shortage of GPs, pharmacists, nurses might be overcome, and rural centres kept alive in this simple way. Direct funding targeted at specific skill shortage areas might be a better option than an unrealistic goal of expecting every young person to go to university, confine their search for a job to an urban location, and face the burden of repaying HECS fees across a lifetime of service to the community.