A one-eyed view

The Howard Government likes to posture about how determined it is to capitalise on the opportunities about to be offered by the information economy The rhetoric concentrates on how important it is for Australia to get on board early, lest it miss the boat altogether.

Yet like the court jester whose left hand seems to have no idea what the right is doing, the Government's education policies seem determined to undermine every effort being made by the brave souls at the National Office of the Information Economy.

The IT skills shortage is critical and it's getting worse. One estimate is that we're already at least 25,000 skilled staff short, even before the year 2000 starts to make a serious dent on the workforce. Skilled Australians are already being poached by our competitors overseas and the brain drain seems certain to escalate as the new millennium approaches.

So what has the Government done to redress the situation? It has made savage cutbacks to the higher education sector and raised HECS fees as if it were deliberately trying to discourage young people from seeking a university education. As a result, overall enrolments are significantly down on previous years, with many students apparently no longer seeing any value in a tertiary education for their future career prospects.

With the final report of the West Review of Higher Education expected to be released during the current sittings of Parliament, it is high time to re-evaluate the role higher education will play in the growth of Australia's economy.

As the ACS response to the report has tried to make clear to those responsible for setting education policy, IT&T has a critical role to play in Australia's future economic success.

Developing a sustainable IT&T infrastructure to combat our multibillion dollar IT&T trade deficit will need a large and skilled pool of IT&T professionals.

That means more funding, not less, so universities can develop the online educational programs likely to be essential for survival in a globalised society.

It means encouraging universities via incentives to develop shared IT&T infrastructure.

Above all, it means enlightened leaders like Communications Minister Richard Alston getting together with Education Minister David Kemp to educate him about the strategic importance of IT&T training for our economic survival into the next millennium.

As the ACS put it in its response: "In developing its policies for higher education over the next two years, the Government must pursue outcomes that encourage a growing percentage of students to choose IT&T as their professional career."

That firstly means giving all Australians an opportunity to pursue higher education.

It means actively developing incentives to encourage young undergraduates to choose IT&T as a career path.

If this doesn't happen, Richard Alston may as well pack his bags and go home now, because we will stand forever on the sidelines of the information economy that will drive the world into the next millennium.

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