House debates

Wednesday, 22 August 2018


Education and Other Legislation Amendment (VET Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018, Student Loans (Overseas Debtors Repayment Levy) Amendment Bill 2018; Second Reading

5:57 pm

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

We on this side of the House love talking about education and training. It's in our DNA. We know that investing in education and training is money well spent. It's telling when you look at this side of the House and the number of speakers on this bill. In fairness, it is a fairly benign bill. We are lining up to talk about education and training and on the government side they've had, I think, one speaker. On this side, we know that investing in education and training is money well spent. Indeed, a study into Victoria's TAFE sector shows a $2.19 return for every dollar invested—not a bad return at all. Education and training is the single biggest enabler of social mobility, and education and training is a pathway to a brighter future. On this side of the House, we believe that pathway should remain open to all.

The only things that we believe should limit kids from a fantastic education or training are aptitude and effort—never their postcode and never their parents' pay packets. But we are happy to support this bill before the House today, as it does improve transparency in the area of student loan repayments. We are delighted to speak to this bill because it serves to remind us just how much work remains to be done to ensure that Australia has a world-class post-secondary education and training system. Little tweaks won't do. The issues confronting this vital sector are far bigger than that.

We would love it if the government adopted our policy to undertake a full review of the student loan system as part of a root-and-branch inquiry into post-secondary education and training. If the government—whether it's under the current Prime Minister or a new Prime Minister, in the days ahead—fails to take us up on that, if Labor is elected to government after the next election, within the first 100 days, Labor will initiate that review. We think a review into education and training in this country is so important that it needs a full review and inquiry. Let's find out where the problems are so we can get a fix that takes us into the future. And let's take the politics out of it. The future of our kids is far too important to be caught up in the sort of nonsense that bedevils this place this week.

A strong TAFE sector is essential as a part of education and training in Australia, not just for those who embark on its courses but for national prosperity. There is a feeling, I'll admit—I get this in my electorate sometimes—that Labor, over the last 15 or 20 years, has believed that every kid should go to uni. I have hit resistance on that idea. There are a lot of people who say their kids don't want to go to university, but they don't want their kids leaving school at 14 and going on the dole or kicking about in casual work either. People want a different pathway. And that's where TAFE and training comes in. There are many, many fantastic jobs and careers that people can get from doing a vocational course. It leads to good pay packets and long careers if they go to TAFE. But TAFE needs to be properly resourced.

As the member for Macquarie mentioned, TAFE has been neglected for far too long and teachers have been left hanging for far too long. I think it is fair to say there is a view that, if you are not at school, not at uni or not working in a good job, then you should be in a training course of some description. Back in the eighties, about 30 years ago—and I'm probably betraying my age here a bit—the Hawke government introduced HECS. I think the first name for it was the graduate tax. It later became HECS and now it is HELP. It was essentially a student contribution for education. It started out very modestly—it was very, very modest by today's standards—and it has ramped up over the years. The current government was hoping to increase it even more. But we have staunchly sought to prevent that, and I am pleased to say the Senate has agreed with us on that. The last thing this country needs is $100,000 degrees, because it just puts kids behind the eight ball from the get-go. So HECS, or HELP, has been a good program. It has made people contribute to their education. As we know, education is both a private benefit and a social benefit. And HELP, to date, has also included TAFE. This bill separates out VET-HELP and makes it very clear that that is what it is about—and it is the second order of priority after fees that go towards universities.

Across Australia, despite HELP and the effort to raise the value of education in Australia, 60 per cent of Australia's young people will not attend university. If the other 40 per cent were working or in training, that would not be a problem, that would be perfectly valid. But too many kids are falling through the gaps. So it is important that every Australian kid—in fact, every Australian, even adults—should be able to feel that they can get education that can improve their lives and, in turn, improve society. TAFE is one solution to this. A proper TAFE system, supported by a well-designed VET student loan system, is realistic and, for many Australians, it is a better alternative than university.

It is a great shame that we have seen a significant drop in apprenticeship numbers under this government. In Tasmania, the TAFE system saw over 3,000 students commence studying in a non-trade TAFE course in 2017. That has been good news. TAFE in Tasmania has been going through some problems in recent days. Hopefully, that is now on the mend. TAFE is a flexible learning environment with a breadth of courses providing students and potential students with the opportunity to build their skills across a wealth of areas. It does battle with a perception that the only people who would want to go to TAFE are those who couldn't get into university. That is a perception we need to address. TAFE is a valid option in and of itself; it is not just for people who didn't get into university. There are many, many careers that are valid careers, very good careers, that that you can get with a certificate from TAFE.

TAFE used to be an excellent training system. It's had its problems in recent years with, I think, underfunding and underresourcing. I'm delighted that, if Labor are elected to government, we will make TAFE central to education and training in Australia. We will make TAFE a central pillar once again. It'll take its rightful place as the central pillar. We've tried the private education model with training, and there are some good providers out there, but there are a lot of dodgy ones who've hit the wall and taken a lot of government money with them on the way out the door. It's a model that doesn't work, so I think it's right that TAFE has its place as the central pillar of training in Australia. There is a place for some private agencies and colleges, but they need to be much better regulated than they have been in the past.

TAFE has been battling with reduced attendance rates, campus closures, increased fees resulting in high withdrawals and a network of state and territory governments that have been failing to support their TAFE systems and failing to prioritise TAFE over the private RTOs. So it has been incumbent on this government—it has been failing the test—and it's certainly incumbent on the next government to ensure that there is a national approach to TAFE education in this country, regardless of whoever ends up leading this government. Australia has seen a fall of more than 140,000 apprenticeships and traineeships over the term of this government to date—that is absolutely scandalous. And there's been a 30 per cent drop in government funded training across our public TAFE system. At a time of supposed economic growth, it is absolutely scandalous that the apprenticeship and training system has been allowed to wither on the vine to this extent. The government has taken its eye off the ball, and, frankly, it's spending far too much time looking over its shoulder for the next knife in its back rather than looking to the future and educating our kids.

This bill does give us the opportunity to reflect upon what an Australian training system should look like. It could be world class, properly funded and able to accommodate the changing nature of the workforce, including the emergence of new jobs and career paths based on new technology and new industries. It also provides us with the opportunity to call out this government's manifest failures in education and training, for cutting more than $3 billion out of national TAFE skills and training budgets over the past five years. Why on earth would you cut more than $3 billion out of TAFE over five years when you've got, apparently, $17 billion to give to the banks? What a crazy set of priorities this government must have.

This government simply does not care about TAFE. All it cares about is business. It thinks it can approach education and training as a business model, but that's failed. This government is eroding TAFE's ability to provide training and vocational education. It has encouraged and supported profiteering, dishonest and corrupt private practices, while at the same time failing to invest the money and the time into building a contemporary best-practice, public, postsecondary training system.

Instead of futureproofing our workforce by preparing Australian vocational students with the skills they need for the rapidly transforming labour market, this government has demonstrated that it has no plans for Australia's future needs when it comes to jobs, skills, vocational education and TAFE. Australia needs a strong postsecondary vocational education system and network that provides opportunities for every Australian while also promoting economic growth and social and community progress and delivering educational training outcomes. We know the current system is not doing this. This government's history of mismanagement and budget-stripping will continue.

I appreciate the value that TAFE and vocational training offer our communities. As the member for a regional and rural electorate, I recognise that a large number of the people in my electorate of Lyons rely upon TAFE and vocational qualifications in their chosen industries. As of 2016, 6.8 per cent of people in Lyons who are engaged in education are going through vocational learning, including TAFE. It's a rate which is considerably higher than those who attend university. But that's where the good news ends. In September 2013 there were 1,947 people from Lyons studying or training through TAFE. In September 2017, just four years later, that number had fallen by 244 to 1,703. So, after four years, there had been a fall in the number of people studying or training. It's a drop of 13 per cent in my electorate alone. In Tasmania, over the same period, there's been an overall drop in numbers of almost 2,000 or 20 per cent overall—all this at a time when Tasmania and Lyons are crying out for skilled workers and people to train.

I'm pleased to say that, if elected to government, Labor will ensure that at least one in 10 jobs on Commonwealth funded projects will be done by an apprentice. It is a sad indictment on our country and this government that this has to be an election commitment. It should be a given. You would think that a government that cares about apprentices and young people would be saying to the firms it gives contracts to: 'Employ apprentices. Make sure you've got new skilled people coming through the system.' It hasn't been happening. Firms and companies have not been putting apprentices on. Labor will address that. We will make sure we get that job done. Labor know we need to be supporting local jobs and local training. It saddens me to think that providing apprenticeships on Commonwealth funded jobs has to be this sort of commitment.

My electorate and its businesses, families and communities recognise the value of TAFE. They see it as a stepping stone to success. They see it as a way to build practical skills for modern jobs, and they see it as a way to support our regions and our communities. TAFE and the broader vocational learning system have unfortunately not kept up with the needs of modern Australia's economy and society. Labor will address these issues. Labor will make TAFE central once again to vocational education and training in this country. We will do what this country needs. We will look after young people. We will look after apprentices and get the job done.


No comments