Q&A at Australia India Skill Conference

Unidentified Speaker: Well it is a joy to have you here in India. And I hope you have a productive trip. I know you visited some of the ITIs, you’ve also had a chance to talk to our people about higher education, but I just thought I’d start with saying the success of Australia educational scaling is quite remarkable from our eyes. I’ve been there many times, and every time I’m struck by how wonderfully you’ve been able to make the entire vocational skills program so successful. 

We’re just starting up; we’re at the very early stage. We have so many challenges, we’re trying to figure out how to make it aspirational as an industry, work together, [indistinct] some of your thoughts on, if I may, just start with how do you make skills development really aspirational for our youth? We have enough youth, as you know in this country that is not in short supply. But the question is how do we really find – show them the path that if you don’t want to go through college and varsity degrees, there are many other very successful paths. Love to hear your advice and counsel on that.

Simon Birmingham: Well I think that’s a common challenge, to be honest, we have a, yes, a wonderful vocational and educational training and technical education system in Australia which has been built on the basis of many years of work in a whole range of different ways, whether it’s the good work and particularly State Government convened TAFE organisations, whether it’s the development at a national level of the Australian Qualifications framework, it’s the strong regulatory structures that we now have in place around different training providers to make sure that when they’re public or private they’re of high repute. All of those factors give us a system of cohesiveness and consistency and of now national standing. Of course that’s all completely underpinned most importantly, by actually having a strong relationship between the desire and content of qualifications, and the needs of industry and business. 

But does that give us, a huge proportion of young people who say and think yes this is for me? Not always. And the large expansion of access to higher education and universities in recent years is – it leaves us with some challenges in that space as well. I think how you do it? Well in part the wonderful young people we saw sitting up here just before who provide such exemplary role models, how we promote their success, then back in to the school system; particularly not just their success as, well, skills ambassadors, but their success in terms of what it means about their employability, and in many, many instances – the far greater likelihood that I always try to stress to people – that technical schools, training schools, quite often don’t just mean you have better employment outcomes than sometimes university graduates do, but certainly mean that you are far more likely to end up self-employed, running your own business, pursuing those types of entrepreneurial activity that can lead to all matter of different pathways throughout your career. 

Unidentified Speaker: Absolutely. It’s a very valuable input, particularly as you think about helping people to become more entrepreneurial, perhaps, because otherwise sometimes the pathways to success aren’t that clear. There must have been many things which probably went wrong on the way. We have a lot of learning we would love to leapfrog if we can [indistinct]. Any pointers on that, or you know perhaps – what can we try not to, if I may discuss one other point, for us scalability with quality is a huge hurdle. If you look at our infrastructure, the nature of our villages, the nature of our rural areas, getting enough trainers out there at any point in time I think if I – even if I ask for the statistics, you know, I’m told they are-there is a shortfall of 2 million teachers or some astronomical number like that. How did you try and cover some of those areas, or what advice could you give us now?

Simon Birmingham: I think – and very difficult for Australia to offer advice for reaching the type of scale that India needs. But the opportunity I think what you’re doing well – and I’m pleased you are doing this with our input and success – is building the national framework within which much of this development can occur. Our model absolutely grew in many ways out of the states, and then has had national frameworks developed on top of it. The opportunity that India appears to be seizing – particularly thanks to the priority that Prime Minister Modi has put on skills development – is to really establish that national architecture, such that it is the dominant architecture that then exists across the different states and jurisdictions. That gives them enormous ability for mobility, not just of those who ultimately secure technical qualifications, but mobility of the trainers and assessors, mobility of those who are developing that workforce required for overall training and assessors. That’s why we developed, as I spoke about this morning, why we developed specific course content for international skilling of trainers and assessors that we think can be mobilised in an effective way in markets in countries like India, and done so at scale.

Unidentified Speaker: Yes, I know you’ve been – you were talking this morning about what you were working on [indistinct] skills for industry and training, and training the assessors – about 400,000 of them – so we are delighted to see that happen of course, and I think it’s –  we are very fortunate to be able to get your input into that and get your participation. As you see – how do you see – how do industry and government play a role in developing this and capitalising it as you go forward? Although we represent CII, Confederation of Indian Industry, and therefore have a lot of industry backing here, we quite often struggle to get industry to pay the additional amount of money we hope they will pay for certification when someone comes out of these programs. How did you – perhaps, that goes back too far. How do you get far better luck with the government industry in developing these programs? Again, some advice would be wonderful.

Simon Birmingham: I think – if I look at India, and the little that I know and appreciate but I can see in terms of the scale of businesses operating here, that in some ways I think the opportunity exists for training providers to really forge those direct relationships with business. And while we work very much in a framework in trying to bring the different places and different businesses together to establish the industry needs, there’s – in terms of the urgency happening here but also the scale of what each different business needs, there’s opportunities for providers to be working right alongside individual businesses and tailoring to their amounts and to their needs, which is – [indistinct] try to bring together collaborative arrangements of different businesses and industry structures. I think that’s still important. But I hope you really encourage and hope that the types of relationships we can forge to make quick progress here and to help India make quick progress is about that connectivity between a trainer, training provider, and the businesses who are providing the practical skills but also have the need and demand for those graduates. And I’m certainly – in a couple of my visits here, have seen that seems to be a successful basis for a relationship too.

Unidentified Speaker: Yes, we often get – trainers often criticise industry for not hiring enough, and industry often criticises training organisation for not being relevant enough. [Inaudible] … how do you make sure that your organisation and curriculum and training stays very relevant in the world where everything industry 4.0 is happening, automation is happening. Staying relevant seems to me to be one of the most difficult things to be able to do, if you think over a five year period.

Simon Birmingham: Yes, we’ve just gone through a process of quite significant reform in some of our structures there about how our qualifications are developed or renewed and refreshed. And to really bring industry back to a core and central role in terms of the oversight of renewing a training product and the qualifications within it, assessing whether there need to be changes, making all of those decisions. So I think we – we’ve done that in a model that has an overarching framework for getting the final tick to recognise national qualifications. But then sitting underneath that, a whole series of different industry reference bodies that are industry by industry, and then training package with relevant qualifications within it, able to identify change [indistinct]. Now that all takes time to work up to a full suite of training packages across the relevant industries, but done in a fairly orderly and systematic way you can provide, then, the opportunity for regular renewal and refreshment of it.

Unidentified Speaker: Yes, the – going on from there in terms of, you know, with what we could do with industry; creating entrepreneurs, today it seems to be – is a huge deal in India, because we are all out here saying create entrepreneurs, go onto the web, you know – you can do a start-up all over the place. Have you seen that been done successfully in terms of how do you train entrepreneurs, how do you train young people, encourage them to be entrepreneurs? It’s very hard to become an entrepreneur.

Simon Birmingham: Oh it’s very hard to train an entrepreneur, in that sense, because its culture, its instinct, it’s a risk-taking attitude, it’s a whole range of factors there. But you can certainly make sure that the – some of the skills that are necessary – particularly capital raising financial skills, all those sorts of attributes – are embedded in different ways. And I think that’s something that we are in the future [indistinct] raise a complement to areas of training. An opportunity for people to – it might be learning a very traditional trade-type skill, it might be to make sure they get some complementary skills along the way that help them should they have those intuitive instincts about entrepreneurialism within them somewhere, they have some idea of how to take advantage of that and make the most of it when it overtakes them.

Unidentified Speaker: And technology and automation, you know, it’s moving so fast. How do we –  what do you do in Australia to play a role there – both in education and skills development because the progress there is so quick. And we struggled with that also because we wonder how quickly we can adapt and change to this – to everything that’s happening around us. Enough to again hear some problem how do you cope with [inaudible]?

Simon Birmingham: My view is that the first thing is to remember that technology rarely supplants the need for the basics. So whether you’re talking in schooling that you still have a strong need for the basics of literacy and numeracy and fundamentals upon which you build the rest of an education or even in training that yes the final latest piece of technology that you might deploy in a workshop environment or in a hospital might not be the one that you were trained on initially but the fundamentals that you need to know about health practice, about cars or whatever it is that you are working on are still common fundamentals to use. But yes, then there’s a constant pressure in other ways. The need, as one of the participants yesterday put it, for an army of coders in the future and how we drive people, encourage people to be skilled in those new areas and that’s something that requires dynamic and responsive providers for higher education in the vocational education levels to be creating new courses and requires us [indistinct] operating schools to be able to focus on how we can provide more opportunity. So we run code clubs and injecting coding into parts of our school curriculum to at least give some of those basic skills and basic interest and hopefully excite and ignite some of that interest for people to pursue those qualifications in their post school lives.

Unidentified Speaker: Senator, we have a huge population as you know and we don’t have enough jobs. So we need to export a lot of them and train them for export, right, so again how do we – how should we do that? You know, I know you are working hard on bringing a lot of collaboration from Australia which we love in the training and assessment areas. But we’re also talking about training people for mobility, for global standards, for allowing our workforce to be able to deploy – be redeployed everywhere, including of course Australia. How did we accelerate that and what else should we be doing? We’re just at an exciting phase. So again I’m looking for, you know, advice from you, certainly advice for people who are attending here to say what is the kind of businesses that they could enter which could also help us out?

Simon Birmingham: The role and the work that’s being done in terms of transnational occupation standards work, India and Australia and other partner countries have collaborated on is really important to providing mobility in the sense of saying well we don’t necessarily all have absolutely identical common qualifications but if those qualifications meet common standards of requirements to meet occupations then you can view that you can have a degree of mobility associated with that. That won’t change the fact that each country’s going to make its own decisions about immigration, visas and labour force movements in their own way but what it certainly does allow then is if you have clear processes for the recognition of each of others’ qualifications, if you have agreed standards at a transnational level about what occupations require, well then if the labour flow and people movement laws and visa arrangements allow, you’ve got an easier process for people to be able to move within them.

Unidentified Speaker: Yes absolutely.

Simon Birmingham: And the same – we’ve made some good progress in a handful of areas, we certainly discuss this morning with Minister [indistinct] where do we think the next, next prospect areas could be to build on those transnational occupation standards and that’s something that Megan and others can happily take on in pursuit for us.

Unidentified Speaker: Well we did – we would love to have that and it would be hugely – I know you’ve had a chance with some of our ITIs, they’re fairly new, some of these are fairly fledgling. Would love to hear your views on what you thought of them and also what else we should be doing and you know, what are the other things we could learn from Australia. Where else can we collaborate with Australia?

Simon Birmingham: I went to an ITI yesterday morning and a number of things struck me. Some of you have heard me note as to how impressed I was that in the first year electronic engineering class, half that class were girls – or young women – and as we really challenge in Australia to try to get more young women to pursue science and maths and engineering type skills, I was really thrilled to see that taking place here. And in fact today as I’ve been out of the TERI-Deakin Nanobiotechonology Institute, met a number of their PhD candidates and again I think eight of the 12 were incredible young women which is just so impressive to see. 

But I was struck by that but I was really impressed with the quality of the installation, the technology that was being used. There was an incredible level of order and discipline happening there. Perhaps that was because the Minister was visiting but perhaps that’s actually embedded in what was happening. The workshop – the mechanical workshop was probably the most spotless I’ve ever walked into in my life. 

But I mean all of that equally pointed to the fact that everybody was clearly busy, focussed on developing the skills, focussed on progressing through their two year diploma program which in some instances led on to a one year apprenticeship. But I noted that nearly each of the different areas whether it was electronic engineering, panel beating, mechanics or machinery, all of them were clearly sponsored by different businesses and industries who clearly would play a hands on role in terms of the content and offered when I spoke to people with engineers that were offering the workplace learning experiences too. So a really strong level of engagement, it was very positive encouragement. 

Unidentified Speaker: Yes I think one of the remarkable things about India’s youth is how ambitious they are and how much energy they have. And they find – certainly we love the fact that there will be [indistinct] us, especially someone else as honourable as you as honoured as we are to have you here at the centre. We love showcasing our people because their enthusiasm speaks louder than any words that we can say. You know, incredible. Where else can Australia and India partner? What else would you like us to see, do over the next two to three years? What sort of areas and there are always synergies but I would love to hear more examples perhaps [indistinct].

Simon Birmingham: Well I hope that we can see both some of our training providers, TAFE, private providers and some of our universities really establish some stronger physical presences here. We’re incredibly fortunate to have such strong mobility between our countries and particularly to have large numbers of Indian students studying in Australia and we want to maintain that but we also in terms of helping India need to [indistinct] skills, agenda and mission, hope that we can see more activity by providers directly here partnering with other providers here or industry here making the most of those opportunities. I think that’s the next step in a very direct impactful training level. 

There’s other work of course for us to do at a government-to-government level insofar as it impacts on the laws that facilitate that, and other arrangements around visa categories and the like but I think where we can see greatest impact right now is to in a sense get on with the business of training and make some of the things we’ve done, some of the groundwork we’ve laid over the last couple of years a reality that’s actually used in a practical sense on the ground to make a difference.

Unidentified Speaker: Well just before we close, one or two last questions – we have – we’re still struggling with embedding the entire vocational skills program aspirationally into our schools and education in coexistence. That is a very essential part as you come through to recognise the potential offsets. How does that work in Australia? How have you managed to do that there so well? Because it really starts quite early as you move up and then students really recognise the alternative paths that they have. Here we still struggle because it’s still not such a great work, you know, people aren’t out there and I hear you – what you said about celebrating success, showing role models et cetera, but still working with the school system must have been difficult or really difficult at this point to excite people about location skills. Is it?

Simon Birmingham: I think we’ve sort of gone on a bit of a rollercoaster journey at times and that many years ago we had strong technical college and technical schools that sort of streamed students at different stages and that all went by the wayside but as we’ve had increased levels of school retention to hire minimum leaving agents and so on there’s become a need to bring vocational training back into the school system. We signed off a couple of years ago on a national framework of vocational education in schools which set some very good directions for our school systems. Some unquestionably do it better than others but we really only are seeing good inroads in terms of the number of schools that are able to structure an operable pathway opportunities for students. There’s, I’d say, one of the points to be cautious of through the school system is making sure that if VET is being offered, it’s either offering enough pathways to enable you to truly be giving young people choices that are relevant to where they want to go or it’s offered more in a broad preliminary pre-apprenticeship type structure that gives them a taste such that when they leave school they then have some idea where they want to go. That if your school’s only offering one or two very specific areas of qualification, that can see sort of large numbers of students streaming to areas that aren’t really their passion, obtaining qualifications that may not be much use to them or anybody else. So one of the lessons looking around for me is either keep it broad or have a lot of choices.

Unidentified Speaker: I think that’s very good advice for us, which we must take to heart. It’s been a wonderful day, I want you to thank you very much indeed, thank you so much for carrying this day off so well. I wandered if I could just ask you to do a few closing remarks and then I’ll just close up with that?

Simon Birmingham: Well just to echo the facts, many of you have been toying away in this boardroom in the associated rooms all day today, so I really do appreciate that, while I’ve buzzed around in a number of different locations between the start of the day and the end of the day and I appreciated hearing Megan’s summary of today’s discussions and events and the breadth of undertaking that occurred here but importantly it’s not what happened in this room today that matters, it of course is what you will do with what happened in this room today that matters; that you take the topics that were discussed, learnings that occurred, act on them as we’ve been talking about. We apply some of the breakthroughs we’ve made over recent years and turned them into real training opportunities on the ground. That you seize of the contacts that have been made through discussions here in associated events to make sure that you build on them and build those type of collaborative partnerships that we talk about as being so central to success in vocational education and that hopefully you’re able to really do so today. 

So thank you very much to all of the organisers, the Confederation of Indian Industry, thank you. To Megan, to my department and all the work that’s gone into bringing such a great group together, and I really look forward to hearing of them, learning of the successes that come out of it like today in the weeks and years to come.

Unidentified Speaker: Thank you very much and it’s a real pleasure [indistinct].

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.