Monday, 19 June 2017
National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Annual Registration Charge) Bill 2017, National Vocational Education and Training Regulator (Charges) Amendment (Annual Registration Charge) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I rise to support the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Annual Registration Charge) Bill 2017, and cognate bill, before the House. There has been huge anticipation from those opposite. It is unfortunate that we had to gag the previous debate on an important issue so that we could move on to this debate, but these are necessary amendments to make sure that the Australian Skills Quality Authority, or ASQA, has certainty and that industry funded regulation of vocational education can continue. Currently providers pay an annual registration charge to ASQA. They also pay fees if complaints are substantiated or audits discover breaches. Over time, though, ASQA's regulatory techniques have developed to include intelligence collection and data analysis. These activities are now a core part of ASQA's business. While they inform targeted compliance and enforcement, they are not in themselves services for which a fee or a charge can be directly attributed to particular providers. As a result, there is a risk that the charges levied by ASQA could be considered taxes under section 55 of the Constitution rather than a fee for service. The bills before the House this evening will amend ASQA's establishing legislation to clarify that annual registration fees are collected under an act dealing with the subject of taxation for the purpose of section 55 of the Australian Constitution. This will mitigate the constitutional risk and put the continuation of the current funding arrangements for ASQA beyond doubt.
Intelligence collection and data analysis are effective and efficient parts of modern regulatory systems and it is vital ASQA is able to continue to fund these activities. The regulation of quality in the VET sector matters to students, it matters to providers, it matters to industry and, of course, ultimately it matters to our national economy. That is why Labor supports these straightforward amendments. However, we know that dodgy practices in the vocational education sector in recent years have done significant reputational damage to the sector. They have left many student victims. To repair that damage, it is essential that the integrity of the regulation system is beyond doubt, and confidence in the capabilities of ASQA is central to that trust. The government's recent announcement of a review of VET regulation is long overdue. Labor is calling on the Prime Minister to ensure that this review leads to real improvements in the sector.
We welcome the appointment of Professor Valerie Braithwaite, a respected expert, to lead the review. It is essential that this is a genuine and credible attempt to retrieve the reputation of the VET system, which in recent years has been trashed by unethical practices and by systematic rorting. To do this, the review must go beyond a shallow assessment of ASQA's performance within the current rules. It must address the structure and regulation of the system more broadly so that only the highest quality providers can deliver services and get access to public funding.
We need a system that drives excellence, not a system that merely drives compliance. We need a regulator that is strong enough to make sure that every single qualification is recognised and valued by industry and to get rid of dodgy, low-quality providers once and for all. This review comes after ASQA itself identified that in key sectors like early childhood and aged care the competitive training market has become a race to the bottom on quality. This is not good enough in such important fields. Students and the community deserve so much better. Labor will be standing up for quality and, of course, we will continue to stand up for students.
We know that the Liberals have an absolutely appalling record on vocational education and, for some reason, they also have a logic-defying ideological problem when it comes to TAFE. We know that since the government was elected it has cut more than $2.8 billion from TAFE, from skills and apprenticeships, and just weeks ago in this year's budget the Prime Minister announced a further cut of $637 million over the next four years. Australia now has 130,000 fewer apprentices and trainees than it did when this government was elected. Added to that, TAFE and vocational education funding and the number of supported students is now lower than it was a decade ago. When we know that we have more and more jobs which rely on vocational education and skills, it is outrageous that TAFE and voc ed funding are lower and the number of students in these systems is lower than it was a decade ago.
What this means is that in too many towns in too many regional centres across Australia TAFE campuses have closed, courses have been scaled back and fees have continued to increase. Between 2013 and 2015, employer dissatisfaction with the availability of vocational education in regional and rural areas more than doubled. Between 2013 and 2015 investment in TAFE and vocational education capital infrastructure fell by almost 75 per cent. In the same years, the hours of training delivered by TAFE fell by over 25 per cent. None of these statistics are good enough. All of these statistics are a call to action for this parliament. It is a call that, on this side of the House, we are responding to.
All of this happened while those opposite simply ignored the massive sums of public money and student debt that was being accumulated by dodgy providers. The Government Actuary estimates that $1.2 billion in debt has been inappropriately issued, and the ANAO found that thousands of tax file numbers were handed to providers in bulk in batches of hundreds. We have seen evidence from ASQA, the education department and the ACCC that concerns about VET loans and providers were raised in late 2014. In fact, it took the estimates process to reveal there were cross-government meetings at that time as departments tried to work out what to do about the failing administration of the scheme. But we did not see any real action at all from this government for another two years, when regulatory changes were brought into the parliament late in 2016. The implementation of these changes has been terribly rushed, and the consequences of this catch up job are now starting to show.
It is unthinkable that the system was administered by this government so poorly for so long when students and the taxpayer should have come first, not dodgy providers. But, instead of doing their job, the government changed the minister responsible for vocational education five times as this scandal was allowed to continue to play out. It is very revealing that the one constant in the education portfolio from the 2013 election through till now has been Minister Birmingham. While the minister did have different roles in the portfolio during this time, there are serious questions that remain to be answered. What did he know? When did he know it? What actions did he take?
In recent days, we have seen leaked reports revealing just what damage this government's botched implementation of the loan changes is doing to TAFE. This year, diploma enrolments at TAFE New South Wales have dropped by over 50 per cent. There has been a 50 per cent reduction this year as a direct result of the Prime Minister's cuts. This is the result of a massive gap payment of as much as $8,000 that students in New South Wales now face just to go to TAFE. It is clear that those opposite are happy to see TAFE funding spiral downward and enrolments continue to get worse. If anything, for them, it justifies more cuts. But, for us, we know that the latest attack on TAFE means that students will be forced into the hands of cheap and dodgy providers who cut corners or that we as a nation will face skills shortages as people give up on vocational education and study altogether. TAFE was never the cause of the problems in the sector, and TAFE students do not deserve to be punished as a result of them.
The leaked report from TAFE New South Wales also reveals the damage the government's proposed higher education changes could do to TAFE by setting up a two-tiered funding system for diplomas and advanced diplomas where universities get more public funding and TAFE students are left with unfair up-front fees. All that this will serve to do is undermine TAFE yet again. Our tertiary education system needs more coordination and better collaboration, not some kind of false and rigged competition between TAFE and universities. We need to recognise the strength of our TAFE system and to build on these strengths. But, when it comes to ongoing funding for VET, the Liberals clearly do not have any kind of cohesive plan. It is, again, the forgotten child of the education portfolio, as it has been for far too long.
Here is an example of how low a priority TAFE and VET are for this government. We have the minister badgering the Senate into passing his school cuts because he wants them to come into effect in six months. But the current TAFE funding agreement runs out in just a matter of days, and it is still not clear what is happening next. Yet those opposite do not even have it on the radar; they wish that TAFE and VET would just disappear.
We do not know the details of what the government really has in mind for the replacement of the national partnership, but we do know three things when it comes to this sector. Firstly, we know that the Turnbull government will only train Australians and only possibly fund TAFE on the condition that more foreign workers are imported. That is crazy policy. It does not make any sense, yet it is the policy that this government has announced. Secondly, we also know that they will not do what Labor are doing: guarantee that two-thirds of public funding, state and federal, will go to TAFE. We recognise that TAFE has to be the strong backbone of our vocational education sector. We recognise that there are a lot of quality providers from different backgrounds, but that all of them rely upon us having a strong TAFE at the centre of the system. Thirdly, we know that the government will do one other thing: they will cut at least $637 million from our vocational education sector.
As if more evidence of the government's deep-seated problem with TAFE was necessary, recently we have seen the Adult Migrant English Program and the Skills for Education and Employment program ripped away from TAFE in regional New South Wales, Tasmania, Melbourne and Adelaide. Other areas where we have seen the AMEP and SEE programs taken from TAFE and given to private providers include the capital region, Canberra; the Illawarra, South Coast; north-east Melbourne; south-east Melbourne and the peninsula; Somerset, Queensland; and Perth north. In some areas, there are double and triple subcontracts, not approved by the department, that will see foreign-owned for-profit companies take the place of trusted and quality TAFE. It is just another way that this government is trying to privatise TAFE when we should be going in the other direction. We in Labor will continue to stand up and fight for our TAFE system.
There is an alternative to the low expectations and the sorry apologies from those opposite. Labor have outlined that we will not just talk about the importance of TAFE and we will not just talk about the importance of a strong vocational education sector but we will actually outline the policy to back it up. That is why we have announced that we will invest an additional $637.6 million into TAFE and vocational education, reversing the government's 2017 budget cuts in full. We have also announced that we will guarantee at least two-thirds of public vocational education funding will go towards our TAFE system. We have announced that we will invest in a new $100 million Building TAFE for the Future Fund to re-establish TAFE facilities in regional communities to meet local industry needs and to support the teaching for the digital economy.
We have announced that we will set a target of one in 10 apprentices on all Commonwealth priority projects and major government business enterprise projects. While those opposite have sat back and watched the number of apprentices in Australia being wiped out by over 100,000, we have announced plans to address it. We announced that we will invest in pre-apprentice programs, preparing up to 10,000 young jobseekers to start an apprenticeship and that these will be delivered by TAFE. And we have announced that we will establish an advanced entry adult apprenticeship program to fast-track apprenticeships for up to 20,000 people facing redundancy or whose jobs have been lost—all to be delivered by TAFE.
TAFE and vocational education is in Labor's DNA. Generations of Australians have got new and got better jobs because they trained at TAFE or because they did an apprenticeship. We know that in our fast-changing world, a modern, adaptable TAFE and voc ed system would not just be a good thing to have; it is an essential thing to have—essential for jobs and for economic growth. While Labor supports the bills before the House today, there is so much more to be done, more to be done for TAFE and more to be done for our vocational education system. But so little will be done if it is left for those opposite to do it. We will support these bills but we will continue to fight for more action and for real investment for TAFE and vocational education.