Thursday, 13 February 2020
National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise to speak in support of the amendment moved by the member for Sydney. Labor does not oppose this bill, the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2019, which seeks to reform the operation of the Australian Skills Quality Authority, ASQA, the national VET regulator, to strengthen its powers, enhance protections for students and improve transparency to assist RTO compliance.
The proposed reforms largely implement recommendations of independent reviews that've been supported by the sector. The amendments will impose a new condition of registration that requires RTOs to demonstrate a commitment and the capability to deliver quality VET; strengthen and clarify existing ASQA powers, with stronger civil penalties and powers to make directions; require publication of audit reports and enable public sharing of information on RTO performance to improve transparency; expand ASQA's scope to adopt a more educative approach to lifting quality in VET; and shift ASQA to a full-cost recovery model.
Stakeholders in the sector support the intention of the bill but express their frustrations with the lack of consultation on the legislation. Consequently, there is some uncertainty as to how many of the changes will work in practice. One proposal which is of particular concern to Labor is for ASQA to move to a full minister-directed cost-recovery model. This may result in some providers passing the cost of ASQA services on to students. This change contradicts the recommendations of the Joyce review which stated:
It is important that ASQA be adequately resourced to perform the guidance and educative role and to perform its role more generally. In many jurisdictions there is an understood difference between parts of the regulator's activity that should be directly funded by the regulated through cost recovery arrangements versus what are broader activities for the 'public good', and should therefore be government funded.
The Joyce review specifically noted that the 'Australian Skills Quality Authority should be specifically resourced to provide broad education and guidance to the VET sector.' We will monitor the adequacy of funding of ASQA to make sure it can perform its regulatory and educative tasks.
Labor has always backed a comprehensive regulatory compliance and education framework for ASQA. Following the large-scale rorting of VET FEE-HELP, ASQA's work is crucial in ridding the sector of dodgy providers. Labor supports a fair and considered approach to reforms. We support changes that improve ASQA's responsiveness to students, communities and employers but reject changes that attempt to weaken ASQA's regulatory framework.
Such a framework is necessary to give students like Heather from Berkeley Vale in my electorate the help they need to deal with dodgy providers. Heather contacted my office because she had enrolled with an online vocational college to complete a certificate III in individual support. Heather had decided to pursue a career in aged care because she understood there were good job prospects on the coast in aged care. She paid $3,000 upfront for her course, and everything was going well until she started looking for a work placement. Her online vocational education provider had promoted itself as providing excellent work placement opportunities. Heather said that, each time she contacted an aged-care employer, they were enthusiastic about giving her a work placement, and then they'd find out which college she was enrolled with and suddenly withdraw their offer. She then started asking them directly why and eventually was told they don't provide placements for students from that college. The college had also promised support finding a work placement but that wasn't the case. Heather said, 'I was basically told it was my responsibility to find an internship and the internship was necessary for me to complete the course.'
She decided to make an informal complaint to the VET provider with the support of my office to prompt the college to deliver on its promises and what she had paid for. She said she found the whole experience stressful and wished she had enrolled with TAFE, which was supported by the employers she wanted to complete an internship with. She was considering taking her complaint to ASQA or simply cutting her losses and moving to TAFE. She told me that she felt ripped off and that she had been misled by the college about its ability to deliver work experience, which was necessary to complete the certificate III. This is just one of the many examples of why ASQA needs stronger powers to support students like Heather to get a fair go and get what they paid for.
The unfortunate thing about this bill is that it is just another tweak from a third-term government in its seventh year not prepared to deliver genuine reform to overhaul the vocational education and training sector. It does nothing to address the damage to vocational education that has occurred under this government. They've slashed funding to TAFE and training, and we've seen a fall in apprentice numbers resulting in a shortage of tradies, apprentices and trainees. The impacts of these cuts are being felt particularly in regional and remote Australia, in places like my electorate of Dobell. I recently surveyed local small business owners and operators, and you won't be surprised that they named skills shortages as one of their major concerns for business growth. At the same time, the Central Coast youth unemployment rate, which has ranged from 9.2 per cent up to as high as 19 per cent since the late nineties, remains stubbornly high. Central Coast business owners need skilled staff. Local young people want the skills for a steady job and a secure future. The missing part of this picture is affordable, high-quality, local vocational education and training.
The Morrison government's cuts to TAFE are making it even harder for young people—and people at any stage in their working life on the coast—to get the skills they need and that local employers want. And this is a problem nationwide. While the Australian Industry Group says 75 per cent of businesses surveyed are struggling to find qualified workers they need, there are about 1.9 million Australians who are unemployed or underemployed. We are experiencing an underemployment and unemployment crisis at the same time as we are experiencing a crisis in skills. Does this government just not get it or do they just not care? Do they care about young people from the coast? Three billion dollars: that is the amount this government has cut from TAFE and training. Young people in the regions, like the Central Coast, are bearing the brunt of these cuts.
As I've said, we have a major shortage of Australian tradies, and this is happening at a time when tradies will be needed for emergency recovery from bushfires, floods and storms. Under the Liberals, there are now 150,000 fewer apprentices and trainees across Australia and 37,000 fewer in New South Wales, and there is a shortage of workers in critical services, including plumbing, carpentry and motor mechanics. The number of Australians taking up an apprenticeship or traineeship is lower today than it was a decade ago. There are more people dropping out of apprenticeships and traineeships than there are finishing them and gaining their qualifications. There is a nearly 10 per cent increase in the number of occupations facing skill shortages. The Liberal government either doesn't really care about people looking for work, the unemployed, the underemployed and those seeking skills, particularly in regional remote Australia, or doesn't have the capacity to do the work that needs to be done to build better post-school education. Fiddling at the edges of the system won't address the problems that undermine vocational education and training in Australia today.
Unlike Labor, the government does not understand the critical role of TAFE as a public provider, the value in skills and apprenticeships, or the value of the hardworking and dedicated TAFE teachers. My dad was a TAFE teacher. He was a builder and engineer. He spent many years teaching at TAFE in Ultimo in Sydney and in Newcastle. He got a real sense of satisfaction and pride from teaching engineering at TAFE, the quality of the courses that were provided and the calibre of students who graduated.
In my electorate of Dobell we have two TAFE campuses: Wyong, which offers courses in plumbing, which my brother Eddie did; and electrical and automotive trades at Ourimbah, which offers courses in building and construction. Local students and young people tell me that local TAFEs are now no longer offering the range of courses they need, forcing them to commute. Higher fees and travel costs mean that many can't afford to finish their training. Face-to-face hours have also been slashed. Where courses are available locally, the facilities are aged and outdated and funding isn't being made available by the federal or New South Wales governments to provide local students with the learning environments they need for the skills of today and tomorrow. It could cost as little as $1 million to upgrade a building at Wyong TAFE so that students have the facilities which are taken for granted on other campuses in bigger cities. I committed to this in the May election, and I call on the government to match this commitment. It's urgent. The effect of competition policy and privatisation in the VET sector, coupled with chronic underfunding, has had devastating effects in communities like mine. Too often we have seen dodgy providers overload with students for a quick profit then go belly up, leaving students out of pocket and without the qualifications they need. What will it take for this government to act? It needs to act now.