Digital skills in Australia: Policy approaches to inclusive digital skills

This is part 4 of a 5-part series. Visit part 1: Digital skills In the Australian context, part 2: The digital divide and social inclusion, and part 3: Skill development for a digitally-focused future economy.

The need for greater digital skills in all industries and fields is ever-increasing. As previous posts in this series have explored, the demand for employees with sufficient digital skills is on the rise. However, there is still a persistent gap between the education and training on offer throughout Australia and industry’s expectations regarding workers’ digital skills and technical competency.

In response to this growing need, many industry stakeholders have jumped at the opportunity to step in and help fill this digital skilling gap. While these programs and opportunities are definite positives, there is also a requirement for digital skills policy reform and government response to catch up to what industry is demanding.

Recent shifts in the wider policy environment around skills reform and training point to more positive developments on the horizon for educators and workers alike.

Recognising the need for reform

In 2018, the federal government commissioned an independent review of Australia’s VET sector to examine ways to deliver a skilled workforce for a stronger economy. The following year saw the release of Strengthening Skills: Expert Review of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training System, also known as ‘the Joyce Review’. Joyce’s findings pointed to a number of reform opportunities for the federal government to action, namely:

  • Quality assurance
  • Speed of qualification development
  • Simplified funding and skills matching
  • More reliable information about careers and school pathways, and,
  • Greater access to participation by disadvantaged Australians.

In response to Joyce’s recommendations, the federal government created a system ‘architecture’ between different federal government bodies. This shift was an attempt to unify skills and training standards at a federal level, accompanied by the provision of funding at a state and territory level to manage delivery of particular skills-focused initiatives. While this updated system is a step forward, additional environmental factors – such as those brought on by the pandemic – will further complicate any future national policy reform around digital skills.

Part 2 in this series explored the persistent nature of Australia’s ‘digital divide’ in detail, particularly how it disproportionately affects disadvantaged Australia. As Australia emerges from the peak effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government will also need to lean into its role as the bridge to close the digital divide and unite all Australians in an inclusive recovery.

This position is reiterated in the recent Skills Outlook report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which explores the how the global demand for digital and transversal skills are only looking to increase. The report also reveals that lifelong learning will be the silver bullet for workers worldwide to better cope with the oncoming digital revolution.

Policy approaches to digital skills needs

There is no one policy approach that can effectively address the dual challenges of a persistent digital divide and a general growing need for greater digital skills development in Australia. What is clear though is that any policy approach will need to focus on guiding improvements within the education and training system to better deliver the digital skills more Australians will need to thrive in the digital age.

At federal and state levels, governments have strategised a number of policy approaches to address the challenges associated with nation-wide digital inclusion. Some of these are explored below.

Digital Skills Organisation (DSO) Pilot

In response to Joyce’s recommendation for faster qualification development, the Australian Government has established the Digital Skills Organisation (DSO) Pilot. With a mission to simplify the digital skills sector, the DSO will act to ensure that digital training meets employers’ needs throughout varying industries.

Amongst its focal points, the DSO will work to better identify skills needs, develop agile qualifications and improve the quality of training delivery and assessment. In its first pilot project, the DSO is seeking to Train 100 Data Analysts in an effort to develop an employer-led approach to the creation of course content specific to employers’ needs. It is anticipated that the DSO will work in collaboration with the National Skills Commission (NSC) and National Careers Institute (NCI) to deliver on the federal government’s wider vision to digitally upskill Australia’s workforce.

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