Monday, 28 May 2007
Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008
The 2007-08 budget brought down by the Treasurer was very much about locking in the gains of the past 11 years and ensuring the right economic settings for the future prosperity of Australia and Australians. An important aspect of this is education and training. Realising Our Potential invests an extra $3.5 billion in education and training over four years. It provides additional funding of over $1.7 billion for universities, $222 million to improve access to tertiary education, $638 million for vocational education and $843 million for schools. The government is also financing unprecedented new investment in universities through the Higher Education Endowment Fund, with initial capital of $5 billion, achievable because of the 2006-07 surplus.
The government is committed to assisting apprentices to invest in their future. Skills for the Future committed $837 million to support skill creation. Realising Our Potential builds further on this and will attract new apprentices with wage and fee support and shorter apprenticeship while increasing the status and availability of quality technical training.
These measures are part of the government’s plan to restore the true value of technical and vocational training that declined under Labor. In the current economic environment young people can often earn more by casual labouring than by entering an apprenticeship. This can discourage potential apprentices, even though there is no doubt that having a qualification will stand them in better stead in the long run. It is important that our young people are trained and qualified for times beyond the current boom. Should there be a downturn, those who have chosen to labour for short-term cash gains will be disadvantaged. We cannot afford to let this happen to our young people.
Therefore, first- and second-year apprentices under 30 in skill shortage areas who have struggled with low incomes will greatly benefit from the announcement of a tax-free $1,000 wage top-up and up to $500 per year which can be used towards training fees. This will provide an effective wage increase of up to 10 per cent for some apprentices and will undoubtedly relieve the financial pressure which can act as a disincentive for those wanting to enter trade training. Both apprentices and registered training organisations will benefit from the $58.5 million allocated to working with industry and local employers to develop and implement fast-track apprenticeships based on competency based achievements rather than time served. The $50,000 on offer to individual registered training organisations to work with industry partners to further develop innovative and flexible training arrangements to fast-track apprenticeships is sure to be well received by both employers and apprentices.
The commitment to a further three Australian technical colleges, at an investment cost of $83.6 million, is a further step in the right direction to ensuring that Australia is effectively addressing its trade skills needs of the future. Even before this announcement, I had been a strong advocate for the establishment of an Australian technical college on the old railway workshop site in Midland, in the electorate of Hasluck. With industry support and its historical ties to apprenticeship training, it is a perfect location. Australian technical colleges have provided a fantastic opportunity for young people with the interest, commitment and ability to develop the skills they will need to succeed in their chosen trade career. It will continue to be essential that we provide a vocational education and training framework that allows the young people of Australia to discover and achieve their full potential across a range of rewarding careers. Australian technical colleges are proving to be an integral part of that framework.
It has been heartening to see the way that local business, industry and the community have embraced the Australian technical colleges. By the end of 2007 a significant number of Australian technical colleges will be up and running, providing an opportunity for young people to access practical vocational education pathways and careers in traditional trade areas in specialist trade schools. I have been pleased by the success of the Australian technical colleges such as Perth South, which has been established using a model developed and driven by local industry and the community. The college has enjoyed strong support from key industry associations, including the Housing Industry Association, the Master Builders Association, the Automotive Industry and local employers. As in all Australian technical colleges, the proactive contribution from industry and local communities is ensuring that the skills students obtain meet the needs of local businesses and employers. They are providing an integrated year 11 and 12 curriculum which includes academic, business and trade skills that set the students on the pathway to a career and apprenticeship.
TAFE has often been touted as a panacea to Australia’s training needs. This may once have been the case; however, under successive state Labor governments, TAFE has changed its focus to trying to be all things to all people, reducing its industry involvement and focus on trade training. This has in large part led to the current shortage of skilled tradespeople. Under a federal Labor government, apprenticeship numbers in traditional trades dropped from 151,000 in 1991 to 122,600 by 1993.
There are now more than 400,000 Australian apprentices in training compared to 154,800 in 1996. While the TAFE system still delivers approximately 70 to 85 per cent of all publicly funded training programs, it very much needs to refocus on trade training requirements, addressing the skill needs of industry and providing effective employment outcomes for its clients. Until the TAFE system is reviewed with a much stronger focus on flexibility and responsiveness to industry, employer and student needs, it will not have the ability to effectively meet the future skill needs of Australia. Likewise, while some schools such as Southern River College and Thornlie Senior High School in my electorate of Hasluck have done extremely well in introducing effective vocational programs, many schools have struggled. Why? Because they need specialist technical and industry specific skills and resources beyond the scope of the academic budgets of most high schools. The simple reality is that it costs more to deliver effective vocational training than to deliver English or geography. State Labor governments need to realise this and do something about it. Australian technical colleges are showing the way in developing industry specific opportunities for the 70 per cent of high school students not going to university, focusing on both academic and technical skills needed by students to develop successful careers in a trade. They also provide an excellent learning environment for those who learn by doing.
These budget announcements build strongly on other training initiatives implemented by the Howard government. For example, late last year the Prime Minister announced a number of initiatives in the $837 million Skills for the Future package, providing more opportunities for Australians to gain new skills and develop an entrepreneurial workforce. In announcing these measures he said:
It responds to demands from employers for a higher level of skills, a broader range of skills and more frequent updating of skills. It helps more Australians wanting to take up a trade apprenticeship in mid-career, as well as assisting apprentices to acquire the necessary skills to run their own businesses.
The budget initiatives and those announced in Skills for the Future are far-reaching and really demonstrate the Howard government’s understanding of the need to continually upgrade skills and for some to develop new skills no matter what their age.
In contrast, I found that the Leader of the Opposition’s budget response demonstrated a lack of real understanding of Australia’s training and skill needs and what really needs to be done to achieve successful outcomes for industry and the Australian workforce of the future. The Leader of the Opposition is suggesting that he will introduce VET—vocational education and training—to 2,650 schools around Australia. This initiative is simply not sustainable in the long term, has obviously not been properly thought through and is underresourced in every possible way. It is unrealistic to expect all schools to deliver trade training. It will spread resources too thin, producing mediocre results. This will not give Australians the skills or careers they need in the long run. This view was strongly supported by Mr Brian Toohey in his column in the West Australian on 14 May. It is not every day that I agree with Mr Toohey’s commentary; however, here he has got it right. He noted:
Kevin Rudd has made a bad policy mistake by promising to give every high school in Australia a trade training role. The job is much better done in specialist technical and vocational colleges where the money can be concentrated on producing fully skilled graduates.
Mr Toohey went on to say:
Rudd promised $500,000 and $1.5 million per school to build and equip workshops and computer laboratories—and no money for staffing them. It must be a long while since he has looked at building costs let alone the price of equipment needed.
It is ironic that on the day the Leader of the Opposition made his budget reply I was meeting with a delegation from the Australian Education Union, who raised the issue of the lack of skilled industry trainers and equipment in TAFE. How Mr Rudd’s 2,650 high schools are going to provide quality hands-on skills and technical training with a limited budget and limited staffing in underresourced workshops is an issue that Mr Rudd has conveniently overlooked, especially when state Labor governments around Australia cannot manage the TAFE sector or schools sector.
The general public has raised similar concerns, as evidenced by many letters to the editor published in the Weekend Australian on 12 May. I quote:
Kevin Rudd’s proposal to place industry-standard training facilities in high schools has merit ... but from where does he intend to get all the staff? TAFE colleges have been experiencing considerable difficulty in recruiting suitable lecturers, so what is Rudd’s strategy for sourcing the hundreds of skilled staff which will be necessary to provide industrial-level training in schools?