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Data privacy the main hurdle to the national skills passport, expert says


A skills passport could alleviate accountant shortages, but only if users are willing to part with their data.

By Nick Wilson 10 minute read

The federal government has recently closed submissions on the national skills passport, designed to alleviate skills shortages. Professor Pi-Shen Seet of Edith Cowan University said developing the platform is the easy part while getting users to share their data will be the challenge.

“If the government manages to get all the states and universities on board,” then “the question is whether people want to be on board,” he said.

Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia, said the passport would ideally build on “existing qualifications recognition infrastructure that universities and other tertiary providers already use.”

While vocational education training and university data are already collected under what is referred to as a ‘unique student identifier,’ the national skills passport will go a step further.

Having witnessed the Optus data breach and similar issues from Medibank, Canva, Australian National University, and Service NSW, Professor Seet said many users will be reluctant to share their personal information.

When it comes to job applications, employees are selective in what they choose to display to prospective employers. The passport, by collecting user data, will cause many to ask “Who does my data belong to?”

“There are concerns the applicant is going to be required to show anything that might be relevant for the passport when they might not want to share certain elements,” said Professor Seet. 

On the one hand, users will be able to save time and money on proving their skills and qualifications. On the other, you are depriving job applicants of the right to choose what information they share with employers.

“Bad data leads to bad decisions,” said Professor Seet. “But the issue here is, if a significant number of people don’t want to contribute their data, then you might have good data, but it’s good data for a meaningless number of people.”

In September 2023, the federal government announced it would develop a business case for a national skills passport following consultations with businesses, unions, tertiary institutions, governments, and individuals. The window for submissions closed last night.

Among the reasons provided for the development of a skills passport was the belief that it could “be an important part of addressing Australia’s skill shortage,” said Minister for Skills and Training, Brendan O’Connor.

By creating a formal, trusted skills verification platform, Mr O’Connor said students will be better able to “upskill, reskill and find work as the economy changes.”

Research from people2people suggests that nearly half (46 per cent) of accounting teams in Australia had a shortfall of accountants last year while CA ANZ has called for greater funding to promote student enrolment in accounting, management and commerce courses to alleviate shortages.

The skills passport could be an alternative way to help get more qualified individuals into accounting positions. With broader access to data on who has attained tertiary qualifications or professional certification, the government could better steer its shortage alleviation efforts.

According to Professor Seet, data collected through the skills passport will ideally empower governments to craft tailored skills shortage policies. In that sense, it will be “more than a passport.”

“Let’s say there’s a shortage of electricians. The government will know exactly how many people have those skills, have gone through training, and will know where those people are,” said Professor Seet.  

There have been some suggestions that the skills passport might help to address employment issues among migrant workers. According to a government employment white paper, as many as 80 per cent of migrants with qualifications in accounting fail to find appropriate work.

“Too often migrants work below their skill level or the system takes too long to allow them to work in areas of need,” the white paper read.

While the skills passport could provide a more efficient verification platform for skilled migrants, Professor Seet said the degree of international government integration needed to get there was “probably not going to be [achieved] in my lifetime.”

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