Thursday, 13 February 2020
National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020; Second Reading
Labor will not oppose the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2019. The bill reforms the operations of the Australian Skills Quality Authority, the VET regulator. Labor has always and will always support a strong, transparent and properly resourced regulatory framework for ASQA. The bill will strengthen the powers of the regulator to enhance student protections. It improves transparency in ASQA's audit process and will assist in moving ASQA towards a more informative and educative approach to compliance.
Key amendments will impose a new condition of registration that requires RTOs to demonstrate a commitment and the capability to deliver quality vocational education and training. They will strengthen and clarify existing ASQA powers, with stronger civil penalties and powers to make directions. They will require publication of audit reports and enable public sharing of information on RTO performance to improve transparency. They will expand ASQA's scope to adopt a more educative approach to lifting quality in VET, and they will shift ASQA to a full cost-recovery model.
As the member for Sydney noted, we do have concerns about the shift to a cost-recovery model. It was not recommended in the Joyce review, and it may mean that some providers will have to pass the cost of ASQA's services on to students who can least afford it. This is just about the last thing that VET students need. Stakeholders in the sector noted their frustrations with the lack of consultation on the legislation, and there remains some uncertainty as to how many of the changes will work in practice. There is concern about making significant changes while an internal review into ASQA's operations is yet to be finalised. It is incumbent on the government to get this right. The VET sector needs to know how it will work.
I want to put on record why Labor will always support ASQA's strong regulatory framework. It's because we have seen, sadly, the sector almost ruined by scandals and rorts: students who were not even aware they had been signed up to do courses; students enticed into courses that provided scant education and no job prospects but offered enticements like free iPads. RTOs have collapsed, taking with them student dollars and leaving the students saddled with debts. I've heard story after story of young apprentices and trainees being left in the lurch by dodgy RTOs, left with no qualifications and no job, and out of pocket for thousands of dollars. It breaks their hearts and it breaks their parents' hearts.
At a time when we as a nation are screaming out for skilled workers, it's a travesty that this government has neglected the VET sector and our youth. But it is not only our youth. There are many other workers needing reskilling to get a job after they lose theirs or have been made redundant. Think of the workers in the automotive sector. They had good, solid jobs. They were highly skilled workers with decent pay and conditions. Those jobs have gone, on the whim of a Treasurer and his government. Thousands of skilled workers employed directly by the car companies themselves lost their jobs, as did many more thousands in the supply chain or services companies that serviced the automotive sector. Research shows that, when an industry collapses or is shut down, one-third of workers manage to get a similar job, one-third end up in casualised, less skilled, low-paying jobs and one-third never work again.
Planning for full employment, in particular in the face of sectoral change, is complicated but necessary and can be done. Reskilling and retraining are the most important parts of that puzzle for getting those workers back to work. The VET sector, TAFEs, RTOs, community colleges and group-training organisations all have a role in ensuring that we have maximum employment through skilling, reskilling and lifelong learning. In a world where people no longer have a job for life, where workers are more likely to move through the workforce and where technology changes at a rate faster than we can keep up, we must have an agile, comprehensive and valued VET sector.
I come from the Labor Party. That means that I have a vision for VET. Imagine a sector where courses are reworked to reflect new and traditional skills, where teachers are offered secure jobs with good pay, where the best of the best can be attracted to teach, where students are proud to have secured a place at a prestigious TAFE, where they have delivered qualifications that have set them up for life, where students have state-of-the-art equipment and world-class amenities, where qualifications are equally valued with the university sector, where dual qualifications may be possible across the university and TAFE sectors, where businesses compete for collaboration and opportunity, where they open their doors of expertise for people to be trained and where business does their bit for ensuring a future with a productive, skilled workforce. Imagine Australia as a world leader in vocational education and professional standards and growth.
Sadly, we do not have that. It is still just a vision. But we need a framework to set this up. We need a regulator that has a compliance role, for sure, but also a role in education, enabling, transforming and evolving the training organisations. We have a vision for TAFEs and the VET sector, one where they are vital, robust and valued. This government does not. It gives a lot of lip-service, but it doesn't really do anything useful. Yes, we support this bill, but it is just a tinkering in a sector that is crying out for significant reform.
For almost seven years the government has shown a palpable lack of leadership. We're now finally seeing some piecemeal reforms in response to a flurry of quite disconnected reviews, but it's too many wasted years with still no clear vision. The Productivity Commission says the VET system is a mess, the BCA are calling for fundamental reform, and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry has called the government's commitment to VET 'lukewarm at best'. The Chief Scientist doubts the system is equal to the challenges posed by a rapidly-changing technological future. Business concerns in relation to skills shortages cannot be addressed with a 'business as usual' approach to skill acquisition, vocational education and TAFE.
Consider this: TAFE and vocational education funding and the number of supported students are lower now than they were over a decade ago. This is despite an increased number of jobs requiring vocational skills. There has been $3 billion in federal funds slashed from the vocational training system, and we learned last year from the federal education department's own data that the Liberal government have failed to spend $919 million of their own TAFE and training budget over the past five years. The Liberal government's $1 billion underspend 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. These programs are crucial for young people getting their first start in life.
The result? The number of Australians doing an apprenticeship or traineeship is lower today than it was a decade ago, and we have more people dropping out of apprenticeships today than completing them. There has been an almost 10 per cent increase in the number of occupations facing skills shortages—all that, while we have 1.9 million Australians looking for work or looking for more hours of work, and we've got three-quarters of Australian businesses saying they can't find the trained and skilled staff they need.
In my electorate of Cooper, there's an engineering firm that makes intricate metal parts for machinery, and they cannot get apprentices. The ones they have trained have gone on to great higher paid jobs as they have matured with their skills. The owner has no problem with that. He understands he is passing on knowledge and skills to the economy broadly. In fact, he is very proud of his legacy and he knows where many of his apprentices have gone. He would be happy to take on new apprentices but he can't get them. We have a textile manufacturer exporting high-end denim wear to the US and the UK who cannot get machinists and quality cutters—no-one trains them anymore.
I am a nurse. In fact, I did a Bachelor of Education as well as my nursing qualification so I could play a role in the education of future nurses, of enrolled nurses and of carers. I've had experience in both receiving and delivering quality vocational education, and it starts with a commitment to the end goal of skilled workers through collaboration with industry, trainers and government. That connection between industry training organisations and government has broken down. In fact, in many ways, the VET sector has divided and moved away from industry. It is no longer supplying the skills that industry demand, nor is it providing the quality of skills required. In fact, the VET sector is a perfect example of market failure—where the marketisation of the sector created the provision of cheap courses that served neither the workers' interests, nor industry's interest nor the economy's interest. Everyone from the BCA through to the Australian Council of Trade Unions is calling for intervention to restart the process.
Of course, there are many wonderful registered training organisations out there that work very hard day in, day out, but unfortunately the system is failing them and they are finding it harder and harder to do their jobs. The government's response has been pathetic. It is not listening; it is tinkering. It just doesn't care.