One of the hallmarks of a successful federal budget is its ability to pave the way for growth by identifying and executing a vision that will equip Australia for the future.
With its focus on enhancing educational outcomes for the next generation of Australians, Treasurer Morrison’s Budget represents a considered approach that will stand us in good stead.
By including a commitment to needs-based funding for schools, the Gonski 2.0 Review to raise educational outcomes, and the new Skilling Australians Fund, the Government is taking pragmatic steps to improve our international competitiveness and digital readiness.
Addressing declining educational performance
The Gonski Review is particularly important given Australia’s recent declining performance against international education benchmarks, despite being one of the highest-funded nations in this area.
On the back of recent OECD research showing that how money is spent on education is more important than how much is spent, Gonski 2.0 has been tasked with identifying key reforms that will deliver improvements against key standards to make our students more competitive in a digital world.
However, as we embark on yet another review, we must take decisive action in critical areas where we are clearly falling behind. The longer we wait, the more students miss out on the education they need to succeed in today’s globalised economy.
The consequence of inaction is high, as Australia’s $139 billion dollar digital economy is heavily dependent on having a healthy pipeline of digital talent and strong STEM capabilities to drive innovation and commercialisation. It begins with a teacher-empowered educational environment that fosters digital literacy and digital skills.
And the opportunities are enormous. At a rural school in South Australia, teachers are using humanoid robots to teach students coding while also reclaiming the “sleeping” language of the Narungga people. The project is building pride in Aboriginal language and culture while simultaneously equipping students with digital skills – just one example of what capable, supported teachers can achieve.
Skilling Australians Fund
The introduction of the $1.5 billion Skilling Australians Fund, to be financed by levies on foreign workers, will assist in training potentially hundreds of apprentices, entry-level workers and higher-level skilled Australians over the next four years.
However, the changes have received mixed responses from ICT companies. Start-ups have voiced concerns about the cost of the levy, which they say is just a form of taxation, while others have slammed anti-immigration rhetoric surrounding the change, saying it will make Australia less attractive to knowledge workers, who might choose to go elsewhere.
Given the looming imperative for developing digital capabilities and skills across the Australian workforce, with around 2.5 million Australians working in non-ICT roles that also require ICT skills, we anticipate that many of these places will be used for ICT training.
More announcements to come
While the Budget included only a few specific ICT initiatives, such as the new Cyber Security Advisory Office and some FinTech measures, we look forward to additional announcements over the next few months that will further underline the Government’s commitment to the previously announced National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA).
We are also hopeful that those announcements might include funding for the ACS National ICT Educators Program, which seeks to improve student learning outcomes by assisting teachers to upskill their ICT knowledge and skills.
Closely modelled on the highly successful British Network of Teaching Excellence in Computer Science (NoE), the ACS initiative proposes to establish a national grassroots community of professional practice involving schools, universities, ICT employers and professional bodies. In the UK, the NoE is run by the Computing At School group (CAS), a 26,500-strong group coordinated by the BCS – The Chartered Institute for IT.
Over the past few years, the Network has provided teachers with access to many thousands of professional development programs, with participants experiencing an average 88 per cent increase in confidence at teaching computing subjects. They also reported significant improvements in student learning outcomes and enthusiasm.
The 2016 ACS Digital Pulse projected skills gaps of 67,000 ICT workers by 2020. Australia desperately needs to increase the number of students undertaking digital technologies.
Through our long-standing relationship with the BCS, the ACS has access to a range of digital resources which could be adapted for Australia.
As a short-term measure in the face of rapid digital disruption, the ACS National ICT Educators Program will empower ICT teachers and have a significant impact in growing digital literacy and capabilities to meet current and future demands across the Australian workforce.
Anthony Wong is President of the ACS and was a member of the ICT Industry Innovation Council.