Thursday, 13 February 2020
National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I've been a TAFE teacher, a university lecturer and a university professor and I've managed some registered training organisations in the past. Let me say, I'm very proud of Australia's world-class training and education system. I think that that's particularly reflected in the case of a constituent of Cowan, Mr Anthony Di Cristofaro, who lives not very far from me. Last year he was awarded the Apprentice of the Year at the WA Training Awards. Anthony took the time to write to me at length about his story and to tell me about his struggles to get an apprenticeship, what he went through and the incredible resilience that he showed in sticking with his apprenticeship. Just two weeks before he started his apprenticeship, his mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Anthony has three children, so he became a primary carer for his mother as well as looking after his three children while also trying to complete this apprenticeship. He is now a very successful carpenter. Anthony's story reminds us of the importance of a world-class training system and the importance of ensuring that we have a well-regulated training system so that people like Anthony who want to retrain, who want to become skilled, can do that.
I also want to speak to this as a mother. As a mother, let me say this: there is absolutely nothing more disheartening than watching your child's dreams disintegrate and feeling powerless to do anything about it. I see that when I have fathers coming to my office who have sons or daughters who want to take up apprenticeships and they want nothing more than to see their child succeed in acquiring those skills. But I hear these stories of how these young people have had to give up their dreams because they can't access the apprenticeships and the traineeships that they want to access because of cuts to our public training system.
This bill goes some way to achieving some form of regulation in the training system. It imposes a new condition of registration that requires registered training organisations to demonstrate a capability and commitment to deliver quality vocational education and training, which we on this side know is very important. Labor, of course, supports a strong, robust and effective vocational education and training system.
The bill strengthens and clarifies existing ASQA powers, with stronger civil penalties and powers to make directions. Importantly, the reforms follow some widespread frustration among registered training organisations about the way in which ASQA currently conducts some of its audits. These include concerns about an audit culture that focuses on minor issues that don't necessarily impact on the quality of teaching and learning, and concerns about the variability of treatment of providers by different auditors. I have another example from my electorate of Cowan. In this case an RTO in the construction industry failed compliance with ASQA on some minor admin and website errors. As a consequence, they were deregistered. The impact of that was that, in this particular case, 140 students who completed their training were left without a qualification.
I certainly welcome a more robust approach to RTOs and to quality in our vocational education system. Labor's position on this is that we will always continue to back a strong and comprehensive regulatory compliance and education framework for ASQA, particularly following the widespread rorting of the VET FEE-HELP program. We recognise ASQA's vital work in attempting to rid the sector of low-quality and unscrupulous providers, but, there needs to be some form of standardisation in the way in which ASQA approaches its duties to ensure that providers that are providing quality vocational education and training aren't punished for minor errors and that compliance is based on the quality of education and training that's being provided.
While we support a fair and considered approach to the ASQA reforms and we support changes that improve ASQA's capacity to ensure a responsiveness to students, communities and employers, we will not support any changes that attempt to weaken their regulatory framework. We'd like to monitor the implementation of these and other forthcoming amendments to the regulatory arrangements. The shadow minister has spoken about that at length as well.
In talking about the importance of vocational education and training to Australia's education system and its contribution to education, skills and employment, it would be remiss of me not to mention this government's failure to adequately fund and support our public vocational education and training system. Members before me have spoken about the decrease in the number of apprenticeships and traineeships. In my electorate of Cowan the largest number of people employed are in the trades. That has fallen quite dramatically since this government has taken power. I know that is not due to natural attrition. I know that because, as I said in my opening remarks, I have parents and young people coming into my office seeking out apprenticeships and traineeships, seeking out vocational education and training courses that are no longer available at their local TAFE. As a university professor I used to get prospective students come to me. The first thing I would say to them is, 'Why do you want to do a university degree?' I held, and I still stand by this, that not everybody needs to go to university, not everybody wants to go to university and not everybody should go to university. We need a strong vocational education and training sector to train a whole range of skills that aren't provided by the university sector. I gave the example earlier of Anthony, who was the WA Apprentice of the Year. He started out studying for a degree in psychology, I believe, and then changed to commerce. Then he decided that university just wasn't for him. That's not an unusual story. I see a lot of young people and older people who start a university degree and decide that it isn't for them. They want to do a trade. They want to acquire a skill. They rely on our vocational education and training sector to be able to acquire what they need to enter the workforce and be productive and participate in our economic life. It is vitally important that we continue to provide that service for people who are looking for jobs, for people who want to acquire a skill and for people who want to enter a trade, particularly in the construction areas. This is what we need. This is what it means to have a comprehensive education system that affords an opportunity for every Australian to participate fully in the social and economic aspects of our society. It shouldn't just be about universities. It should also be about vocational education and training.
A strong economy requires a skilled workforce. It requires a workforce that is able to meet the demands of industry, and our VET sector is best placed to do that. It is best placed to be really responsive to the demands of industry as those demands change. We need to support our VET sector, particularly public vocational education and training, to ensure that students walk away with a high-quality education that gives them the best opportunity for meaningful employment. I've said this before in this House and continue to hold by this: vocational education and training is an important pillar of our community. It's not just part of our education system; it's part of something that Australia can be proud of. We export education, we export VET, and we should continue to do so.
But I want to make mention of this government's failure to ensure that we have a strong public vocational education and training sector. As somebody who worked at TAFE, I continue to keep up with people that I worked with at TAFE: teachers and managers at the different TAFE campuses where I worked before I entered the university sector. What I'm hearing from them is that many TAFEs have had to reduce the number of course offerings they have. This has meant that they have had to lay off some of the teachers or casualise a lot of their workforce. This is a direct result of this government's track record on training, which, quite frankly, has been appalling—quite appalling.
To me, it appears very clear that the government don't respect vocational education and training, at least not in the public sense. They don't know how to support our VET sector, and it shows. It shows. They have a strong record of cuts to the VET sector, to our public TAFEs. They have a strong record of failing to ensure a robust VET sector. While the bill, which we are supporting here today, goes some way, in terms of the regulation of private RTOs, it does nothing to restore the public vocational education and training sector, which, at one point, was a real sense of pride for Australia.
I remember travelling—about eight years ago, now—to the Gulf States on a business mission and talking to people there who were keen to tap into our expertise on vocational education and training, particularly Australia's TAFE model, the VET sector model, of being responsive to industry needs, and the construction of our training programs. I'm afraid that that's gone. I'm afraid that we've lost the capital that we had to export education, to be a world leader in vocational education and training. And I'm afraid that it's as a direct result of this government's failure to adequately fund the TAFE sector and their ignorance of the TAFE system.
We have fewer apprenticeships and traineeships available today. As I said, while we support these reforms, because they contribute to a more robust regulatory system for RTOs, Australia still has a long way to go to regain the reputation we had as a world leader in the VET sector. I implore this government to turn their attention to the public TAFE system, to recognise the importance of VET in our education system for our employment sector, and, particularly, to give hope to those young people who want to take up a trade, who want to learn a skill and who want to contribute to our economy.