House debates

Monday, 10 February 2020

Bills

Student Identifiers Amendment (Enhanced Student Permissions) Bill 2019; Second Reading

5:53 pm

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Education and Training) Share this | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to rise this evening to speak on the Student Identifiers Amendment (Enhanced Student Permissions) Bill 2019. I will move that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that, under the Coalition Government, Australia's vocational education and training system is failing kids, workers, businesses and the economy, as demonstrated by presiding over a skills crisis where:

(1) 150,000 apprentices and trainees have been lost;

(2) more than $3 billion has been cut from TAFE and training;

(3) the Government has short-changed TAFE and training by nearly $1 billion; and

(4) our regions have been left behind while unemployment increases".

Labor won't oppose this bill in the House of Representatives, but of course we would like to draw attention to the government's ongoing failure in the area of vocational education and training. This bill allows employers, employment agencies and licensing bodies to access an individual's vocational education and training transcripts upon request and where an individual allows that access. The bill also introduces civil penalties for anyone who alters or fraudulently produces a vocational education and training transcript or who attempts to apply for a second unique student identifier. With some important caveats, these are useful changes.

We recognise that these amendments have been designed in response to interest from employers, employment agencies and Commonwealth and state and territory licensing bodies, based on the need of those bodies to access authenticated VET transcripts whilst also streamlining recruitment and application processes. Labor voted in favour of unique student identifiers for VET students when they were established in 2014, and we understand their value to the education and training system. There's the benefit I mentioned with streamlining application processes and so on, but we will also potentially have a rich source of de-identified data from these figures.

Another bill that is currently before the parliament would extend the unique student identifier from vocational education and training to higher education. Of course, if implemented properly, with proper sensitivity to privacy, this could enhance our understanding of Australia's education system. If we have the data from vocational education and training and data from higher education, we could better look at the way those two systems interact as well as results for individual students, and we'll be able to show, through the life course of a person, the benefit that an education provides.

We do, however, have some concerns about how this bill is currently designed and how it might affect people across their working life. It's important, for example, that this bill doesn't impede someone's ability to make a fresh start in life. If someone dropped out of a training course because they were young or because there was some chaos in their lives—perhaps they were facing homelessness, violence at home, mental illness or ill health of some other type or they might have been caring for a family member—it is not right that that person should be forced to share the whole of their vocational education transcript years later when they have got their life back on track; they should only need to share the part of their qualifications that are relevant to the position that they're applying for, for example. Labor wants to make sure that students aren't placed at an unreasonable disadvantage when they're applying for jobs in such circumstances. We need to make sure that, wherever possible, privacy is protected and that individuals can properly control their own data and control the information that they share. Under the proposed legislation, if a person wants to provide their employer with an extract of their transcript, the extract will be accompanied by a statement that the document represents only a partial qualification history. There's no equivalent requirement on university students.

We've referred this bill to an inquiry by the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee to make sure that potential unintended consequences, such as the one I've just described, that would make it harder for someone to get a fresh start in life don't appear because of this legislation. The committee is scheduled to report on 19 February. That's obviously not too far away; so we will wait to see what they report and determine our approach based on those findings. We need to make sure that, with this sort of legislation, we get the controls and the protections right.

Making it easier for employers to check people's qualifications doesn't change the fact that this government has presided over a national skills crisis where fewer people are getting those very qualifications that they need. The skills crisis is of course making it much harder for employers to find the skilled staff they need. Employers are finding it difficult to fill local job vacancies. At the same time as Australia is experiencing very widespread unemployment and underemployment, we've got almost two million Australians who either would like more hours or want a job. Yet we've got skills shortages and we've got underemployed and unemployed young people, people throughout their working lives—we're not combining those two issues to make sure that we're training those people who want the work for the jobs that are going begging.

The small tweak that this legislation represents doesn't really change the fact that in the third term of this coalition government we've seen continued underinvestment and cuts in the area of vocational education and training that are not just bad for the individuals who are missing out on a job and a career, but they're very bad for Australian employers as well, who are really struggling to find the skilled staff they need.

Just last week we saw new figures released in the Report on Government Services, the RoGS report, which showed that under this government the number of people completing training courses has almost halved since it came to power. According to that RoGS report, the number of government funded vocational education and training completions was 144,100 in 2018—the year that the report refers to—compared with 254,800 in 2014. So in 2014 there were over a quarter of a million; in 2018 there were just over 144,000. That is a 43 per cent decline in just five years. It really is shocking when you consider the skills shortages that we see around the nation.

This comes about a month after we learnt that the coalition government had short-changed vocational education and training by nearly $1 billion. This isn't cuts I'm talking about; this is an additional underspend of close to a billion dollars. That's almost a billion dollars budgeted for TAFE and training, earmarked for skills and VET, that was never spent. That billion dollars included incentives for businesses to take on apprentices, support to help people finish their apprenticeships and a fund designed to train Australians in areas of need.

That close-to-billion-dollar underspend comes on top of more than $3 billion cut from TAFE and training since Labor was last in government. The Prime Minister claims that his government wants to 'really lift the status of vocational education in Australia'. But you can't lift the status of vocational education while you're cutting billions of dollars from vocational education. You can't lift the status of TAFE and training while you're cutting billions of dollars from TAFE and training.

The government likes to say, 'The reason for the underspend is that these are demand driven programs and there's just not demand.' I don't know how any government can say there is no demand when three-quarters of employers tell you they can't find the skilled staff they need and we've got almost two million Australians who are unemployed or underemployed. In fact, every time this government cuts funding to TAFE and training we see fewer qualified graduates, falling performance across the sector and disastrous consequences for industry. There's a pattern where we see, from the Prime Minister, the spin on the surface, the fine words about lifting the status of vocational education, but the reality is declining funding and sliding standards.

After years of mismanagement and underfunding, more and more Australians have either lost confidence in our vocational education system or they've been, literally, locked out of it by higher fees, course closures or closures of TAFE campuses across Australia. Look where that's left us. We've got a genuine skills crisis in this country, a skills crisis that has become gangrenous. Under the Liberals there are 150,000 fewer apprentices and trainees than there were when Labor left office. The number of Australians doing an apprenticeship or traineeship is lower today than it was a decade ago. We've got fewer people doing an apprenticeship or a traineeship than 10 years ago. How can that be possible, when we know the demand for those skills? That number has fallen in every state and territory. In fact, there are now more people dropping out of apprenticeships and traineeships than finishing them. That's what three billion dollars of cuts looks like in practice. That's what happens when a government underspends by a further billion dollars in a sector—which already has a shrinking budget—under enormous pressure.

As I say, businesses are desperate for more trained staff. We've got shortages of workers in so many trades that it's depressing to list them—plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing, motor mechanics, pastry chefs. It's right across the board. These are good jobs that we're not training people for, because of the underinvestment in vocational education. The Australian Industry Group says that 75 per cent of businesses surveyed are struggling to find the qualified workers they need. I see this everywhere when I'm travelling, in big cities, country towns, inner suburbs and outer suburbs. Talk to people who are looking to put on a butcher's apprentice or an apprentice electrician or a plumber, or to get a plumber to come to their house, and they'll tell you how hard it is to find a pastry chef or a cook or a hairdresser. Three-quarters of businesses want to be employing Australians but can't find enough workers with relevant skills. It's at the same time as too many of our people are looking for work or for more hours of work.

These trends should never coexist. A government with any kind of substance or imagination would be finding ways to fill these skills shortages, using our TAFE and training system to make sure that our training system is fit for purpose, fit for our economy and fit for people looking for work. But we don't have that kind of government. We've got a Prime Minister that would rather hire celebrity ambassadors than confront this country's most pressing issues. As always, we've got a Prime Minister that's looking for a marketing solution to a policy problem. We won't solve our skills crisis with a stunt. We won't rebuild TAFE and training with a gimmick. We need real leadership and we need real funding. Sadly, this Prime Minister is unlikely to provide either. I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that, under the Coalition Government, Australia's vocational education and training system is failing kids, workers, businesses and the economy, as demonstrated by a skills crisis where:

(1)   150,000 apprentices and trainees have been lost;

(2)   more than $3 billion has been cut from TAFE and training;

(3)   the Government has short-changed TAFE and training by nearly $1 billion; and

(4)   our regions have been left behind while unemployment increases".

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