House debates

Monday, 19 June 2017


National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Annual Registration Charge) Bill 2017, National Vocational Education and Training Regulator (Charges) Amendment (Annual Registration Charge) Bill 2017; Second Reading

5:46 pm

Photo of Kate EllisKate Ellis (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Annual Registration Charge) Bill 2017, and cognate bill, before the House. There has been huge anticipation from those opposite. It is unfortunate that we had to gag the previous debate on an important issue so that we could move on to this debate, but these are necessary amendments to make sure that the Australian Skills Quality Authority, or ASQA, has certainty and that industry funded regulation of vocational education can continue. Currently providers pay an annual registration charge to ASQA. They also pay fees if complaints are substantiated or audits discover breaches. Over time, though, ASQA's regulatory techniques have developed to include intelligence collection and data analysis. These activities are now a core part of ASQA's business. While they inform targeted compliance and enforcement, they are not in themselves services for which a fee or a charge can be directly attributed to particular providers. As a result, there is a risk that the charges levied by ASQA could be considered taxes under section 55 of the Constitution rather than a fee for service. The bills before the House this evening will amend ASQA's establishing legislation to clarify that annual registration fees are collected under an act dealing with the subject of taxation for the purpose of section 55 of the Australian Constitution. This will mitigate the constitutional risk and put the continuation of the current funding arrangements for ASQA beyond doubt.

Intelligence collection and data analysis are effective and efficient parts of modern regulatory systems and it is vital ASQA is able to continue to fund these activities. The regulation of quality in the VET sector matters to students, it matters to providers, it matters to industry and, of course, ultimately it matters to our national economy. That is why Labor supports these straightforward amendments. However, we know that dodgy practices in the vocational education sector in recent years have done significant reputational damage to the sector. They have left many student victims. To repair that damage, it is essential that the integrity of the regulation system is beyond doubt, and confidence in the capabilities of ASQA is central to that trust. The government's recent announcement of a review of VET regulation is long overdue. Labor is calling on the Prime Minister to ensure that this review leads to real improvements in the sector.

We welcome the appointment of Professor Valerie Braithwaite, a respected expert, to lead the review. It is essential that this is a genuine and credible attempt to retrieve the reputation of the VET system, which in recent years has been trashed by unethical practices and by systematic rorting. To do this, the review must go beyond a shallow assessment of ASQA's performance within the current rules. It must address the structure and regulation of the system more broadly so that only the highest quality providers can deliver services and get access to public funding.

We need a system that drives excellence, not a system that merely drives compliance. We need a regulator that is strong enough to make sure that every single qualification is recognised and valued by industry and to get rid of dodgy, low-quality providers once and for all. This review comes after ASQA itself identified that in key sectors like early childhood and aged care the competitive training market has become a race to the bottom on quality. This is not good enough in such important fields. Students and the community deserve so much better. Labor will be standing up for quality and, of course, we will continue to stand up for students.

We know that the Liberals have an absolutely appalling record on vocational education and, for some reason, they also have a logic-defying ideological problem when it comes to TAFE. We know that since the government was elected it has cut more than $2.8 billion from TAFE, from skills and apprenticeships, and just weeks ago in this year's budget the Prime Minister announced a further cut of $637 million over the next four years. Australia now has 130,000 fewer apprentices and trainees than it did when this government was elected. Added to that, TAFE and vocational education funding and the number of supported students is now lower than it was a decade ago. When we know that we have more and more jobs which rely on vocational education and skills, it is outrageous that TAFE and voc ed funding are lower and the number of students in these systems is lower than it was a decade ago.

What this means is that in too many towns in too many regional centres across Australia TAFE campuses have closed, courses have been scaled back and fees have continued to increase. Between 2013 and 2015, employer dissatisfaction with the availability of vocational education in regional and rural areas more than doubled. Between 2013 and 2015 investment in TAFE and vocational education capital infrastructure fell by almost 75 per cent. In the same years, the hours of training delivered by TAFE fell by over 25 per cent. None of these statistics are good enough. All of these statistics are a call to action for this parliament. It is a call that, on this side of the House, we are responding to.

All of this happened while those opposite simply ignored the massive sums of public money and student debt that was being accumulated by dodgy providers. The Government Actuary estimates that $1.2 billion in debt has been inappropriately issued, and the ANAO found that thousands of tax file numbers were handed to providers in bulk in batches of hundreds. We have seen evidence from ASQA, the education department and the ACCC that concerns about VET loans and providers were raised in late 2014. In fact, it took the estimates process to reveal there were cross-government meetings at that time as departments tried to work out what to do about the failing administration of the scheme. But we did not see any real action at all from this government for another two years, when regulatory changes were brought into the parliament late in 2016. The implementation of these changes has been terribly rushed, and the consequences of this catch up job are now starting to show.

It is unthinkable that the system was administered by this government so poorly for so long when students and the taxpayer should have come first, not dodgy providers. But, instead of doing their job, the government changed the minister responsible for vocational education five times as this scandal was allowed to continue to play out. It is very revealing that the one constant in the education portfolio from the 2013 election through till now has been Minister Birmingham. While the minister did have different roles in the portfolio during this time, there are serious questions that remain to be answered. What did he know? When did he know it? What actions did he take?

In recent days, we have seen leaked reports revealing just what damage this government's botched implementation of the loan changes is doing to TAFE. This year, diploma enrolments at TAFE New South Wales have dropped by over 50 per cent. There has been a 50 per cent reduction this year as a direct result of the Prime Minister's cuts. This is the result of a massive gap payment of as much as $8,000 that students in New South Wales now face just to go to TAFE. It is clear that those opposite are happy to see TAFE funding spiral downward and enrolments continue to get worse. If anything, for them, it justifies more cuts. But, for us, we know that the latest attack on TAFE means that students will be forced into the hands of cheap and dodgy providers who cut corners or that we as a nation will face skills shortages as people give up on vocational education and study altogether. TAFE was never the cause of the problems in the sector, and TAFE students do not deserve to be punished as a result of them.

The leaked report from TAFE New South Wales also reveals the damage the government's proposed higher education changes could do to TAFE by setting up a two-tiered funding system for diplomas and advanced diplomas where universities get more public funding and TAFE students are left with unfair up-front fees. All that this will serve to do is undermine TAFE yet again. Our tertiary education system needs more coordination and better collaboration, not some kind of false and rigged competition between TAFE and universities. We need to recognise the strength of our TAFE system and to build on these strengths. But, when it comes to ongoing funding for VET, the Liberals clearly do not have any kind of cohesive plan. It is, again, the forgotten child of the education portfolio, as it has been for far too long.

Here is an example of how low a priority TAFE and VET are for this government. We have the minister badgering the Senate into passing his school cuts because he wants them to come into effect in six months. But the current TAFE funding agreement runs out in just a matter of days, and it is still not clear what is happening next. Yet those opposite do not even have it on the radar; they wish that TAFE and VET would just disappear.

We do not know the details of what the government really has in mind for the replacement of the national partnership, but we do know three things when it comes to this sector. Firstly, we know that the Turnbull government will only train Australians and only possibly fund TAFE on the condition that more foreign workers are imported. That is crazy policy. It does not make any sense, yet it is the policy that this government has announced. Secondly, we also know that they will not do what Labor are doing: guarantee that two-thirds of public funding, state and federal, will go to TAFE. We recognise that TAFE has to be the strong backbone of our vocational education sector. We recognise that there are a lot of quality providers from different backgrounds, but that all of them rely upon us having a strong TAFE at the centre of the system. Thirdly, we know that the government will do one other thing: they will cut at least $637 million from our vocational education sector.

As if more evidence of the government's deep-seated problem with TAFE was necessary, recently we have seen the Adult Migrant English Program and the Skills for Education and Employment program ripped away from TAFE in regional New South Wales, Tasmania, Melbourne and Adelaide. Other areas where we have seen the AMEP and SEE programs taken from TAFE and given to private providers include the capital region, Canberra; the Illawarra, South Coast; north-east Melbourne; south-east Melbourne and the peninsula; Somerset, Queensland; and Perth north. In some areas, there are double and triple subcontracts, not approved by the department, that will see foreign-owned for-profit companies take the place of trusted and quality TAFE. It is just another way that this government is trying to privatise TAFE when we should be going in the other direction. We in Labor will continue to stand up and fight for our TAFE system.

There is an alternative to the low expectations and the sorry apologies from those opposite. Labor have outlined that we will not just talk about the importance of TAFE and we will not just talk about the importance of a strong vocational education sector but we will actually outline the policy to back it up. That is why we have announced that we will invest an additional $637.6 million into TAFE and vocational education, reversing the government's 2017 budget cuts in full. We have also announced that we will guarantee at least two-thirds of public vocational education funding will go towards our TAFE system. We have announced that we will invest in a new $100 million Building TAFE for the Future Fund to re-establish TAFE facilities in regional communities to meet local industry needs and to support the teaching for the digital economy.

We have announced that we will set a target of one in 10 apprentices on all Commonwealth priority projects and major government business enterprise projects. While those opposite have sat back and watched the number of apprentices in Australia being wiped out by over 100,000, we have announced plans to address it. We announced that we will invest in pre-apprentice programs, preparing up to 10,000 young jobseekers to start an apprenticeship and that these will be delivered by TAFE. And we have announced that we will establish an advanced entry adult apprenticeship program to fast-track apprenticeships for up to 20,000 people facing redundancy or whose jobs have been lost—all to be delivered by TAFE.

TAFE and vocational education is in Labor's DNA. Generations of Australians have got new and got better jobs because they trained at TAFE or because they did an apprenticeship. We know that in our fast-changing world, a modern, adaptable TAFE and voc ed system would not just be a good thing to have; it is an essential thing to have—essential for jobs and for economic growth. While Labor supports the bills before the House today, there is so much more to be done, more to be done for TAFE and more to be done for our vocational education system. But so little will be done if it is left for those opposite to do it. We will support these bills but we will continue to fight for more action and for real investment for TAFE and vocational education.

6:01 pm

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I find it absolutely amazing that the member for Adelaide, just one of those from the opposite side, stands here in this chamber and criticises the federal government for their own failings in the vet sector. We are where we are because of the appalling situation that Labor established when they were in government under the Rudd Gillard Rudd years. It is absolutely galling that they can stand here and complain that we did not fix up their stuff-ups quickly enough. This National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Annual Registration Charge) Bill 2017 is administrative in nature. It ensures the security of an important aspect of our national education system. Unlike the member for Adelaide, those on this side of the House do fervently believe that the vet sector is a very, very important part of our educational sector. I am a product of the vet sector. (Quorum formed)

Clearly, I was landing some blows on the opposition and they wanted to silence me, but I will not be silenced: I will not be silenced when talking about the shortcomings of the VET sector when the opposition were in government.

I said earlier that I am a product of TAFE. TAFE has great meaning for me. I did my carpentry and joinery apprenticeship at TAFE Holmesglen Institute—a fantastic institution. There is a lot of work to do in this sector—absolutely undeniable—but this is a very important sector not just for our trades. Interestingly, when we look at the importance of the VET sector, we can see that, unfortunately, our community has become a culture where there is an expectation that young people will all go to university. I think there is a culture pervading our society where, if you are anybody important or if you have any educational ability, you go to university. I think that is a grave injustice for our young people. We have seen that, I believe, since Julia Gillard was Prime Minister in this country, when she changed the funding models for our higher education sector.

When I am out and about in my electorate talking to people and they hear about someone who is not going to university but doing a trade, they say to me—in a nice way—'Didn't they have the intelligence to go to university?' My response to that is: if you go to TAFE and if you do an apprenticeship, chances are, over your work life, you will earn more money as a tradesperson than if you had gone to university and done a business degree or an arts degree. We are doing our young people a great disservice by perpetuating the myth that all young people should go to university. Doing a trade gives young people the ability to travel around the world—and to take the skills they have learnt all over the world—start up their own businesses and provide for their future family.

Some of the most successful people in business who I know have never gone to university. Many of them are school dropouts, but they went on to do a trade in one thing or another and became very successful in their own businesses. We ought never lose sight of that.

Seventy-four per cent of new university graduates who wanted to find a full-time job do so, but 77 per cent of VET graduates—so three per cent more—find a full-time position once they graduate. The median income of new university graduates is $54,000, whilst for VET graduates it is $56,000. So even when you start out—and I say to kids all over the place, young people: 'You don't have to go to university.' I am not just trying to dissuade them from going to university. If that is what they want to do, great, but you can make an important contribution to our society by going and doing a trade. Chances are you will earn a very, very good living.

We are seeing a great shortage of tradespeople in this country, and that is a matter of great concern to me as a builder. We are going to experience a great shortage of skilled trades in this country over the next 10 to 15 years, if we do not do something very soon. For those young people who are thinking of doing a trade, make hay while the sun shines, I say. Go and learn a trade and, because of the skills shortage, there is every prospect, every possibility, that you will be able to earn very, very good money into the future.

I am going to return to some of the failures in the VET sector, and these failures are a direct result of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd failures in the VET sector. On the Sunshine Coast, in my electorate—the seat of Fisher—and around Australia in the past year, we have seen the impact of major failures by providers of VET and the necessity of proactive intelligence gathering by the Australian Skills Quality Authority.

Last December SmartCity Vocational College, which had campuses in Caloundra and Maroochydore, went into administration, leaving more than 300 staff without jobs. It failed in part, apparently, due to the withdrawal of VET FEE-HELP student loan funding for noncompliance with the Higher Education Support Act of 2003. In particular, the college did not have enough appropriately qualified trainers and assessors for the number of students enrolled, sufficient learning resources or enough facilities to provide the face-to-face training it had promised to enrolled students.

The fallout continues. Days ago, ASQA suspended the registration of Cooloola Training and Counselling Service in Gympie, known as Quest College, which was a subsidiary of SmartCity. An audit of the college had shown a critical level of noncompliance that, in addition to intelligence received regarding recent actions of the provider, led ASQA to the view that immediate action was necessary. Once again, this provider did not have enough qualified trainers and assessors, and it did not have sufficient learning resources with regard to strategies, locations and modes of service delivery.

In May of this year, Careers Australia, one of the largest VET providers in the country with 15,000 students, the trainer of a number of Sunshine Coast residents through their Brisbane campus, also went into administration. This followed a series of scandals including being forced to pay back $44 million in loans claimed for students who did not start or complete their courses.

The ACCC also found that Careers Australia had made false or misleading claims to prospective students. They offered inducements like laptops and iPads, and failed to tell others of the debts they would incur. This included signing up 80 Indigenous students in the remote community of Yarrabah and not telling them that they would even incur any debt.

The ACCC took action at the same time last year against four further private colleges in New South Wales. The Australian Skills Quality Authority needs this additional funding to be proactive in intelligence collection and data analysis to intervene sooner to protect students from poor quality providers.

I want to debunk some of the myths that the member for Adelaide spoke about earlier. Apprenticeship numbers went into freefall in 2012 after that then Labor government cut $1.2 billion from employer incentives. In total under Labor's National Partnership Agreement apprentice numbers halved. The biggest ever annual decline in apprentices in training occurred in Labor's last year in office, between June 2012 and June 2013. Apprentice numbers collapsed by 110,000 or 22 per cent.

The Turnbull government values the vocational education and training sector. It has created a $1.5 billion Skilling Australians Fund. The fund will create an extra 300,000 apprentices over the next four years. It represents nearly triple the funding allocated to training than was provided through Labor's National Partnership Agreement. This government is providing $60 million for industry specialist mentoring program to support those apprentices who need it most to complete their training and that is for some 46,000 apprentices. There will be 50,000 pre-apprenticeship places. I put my hand up proudly as one of those who did a pre-apprenticeship. Pre-apprenticeships give young people the opportunity to dip their toe in the water and see what it is like before they commit. It is a fantastic way of learning a little bit about your trade before you commit.

However, VET sector failures continue, unfortunately. We can and we must do more. The Assistant Minister for Vocational Education and Skills announced this month a major review of VET sector legislation to be conducted by Professor Valerie Braithwaite of ANU. The report will be available by the end of this year. The bill before the house will ensure that ASQA can continue to collect fees and charges that it needs to conduct its important intelligence collection and data analysis. We need that work because we need a well regulated, sustainable and high-quality VET sector into the future. I would like to commend the assistant minister on the work that she has done on this.

6:17 pm

Photo of Anne AlyAnne Aly (Cowan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on this range of bills which Labor supports. These bills put the continuation of the current funding arrangements for the Australian Skills Quality Authority or ASQA beyond doubt. Labor recognises that these are essentially technical amendments to make sure that ASQA's industry-funded regulation of vocational education can continue with certainty. I have worked in both the training sector and the higher education sector and with both quality frameworks and I can speak highly of both those quality frameworks. The quality framework used in the training sector, in particular, has been invaluable for dealing with issues of dodgy VET providers and ensuring we have and maintain a high-quality vocational education sector.

Intelligence collection and data analysis are effective and efficient parts of modern regulatory systems and, for this reason, it is vital that ASQA continues to fund these activities with confidence. I am happy to stand up here with Labor to support the changes inherent in the bills which allow those activities to continue. Labor supports vocational education and training, or VET, providers in their delivery of high-quality training to domestic and international students.

If I am going to talk about VET, about the quality framework in VET and about the delivery of quality training as part of our broader education system here in Australia, it would be remiss of me not to talk about some of the things that we could be doing better. Several years ago I worked in the training industry. I was a policy maker in the Western Australian department of training for some time before I got poached to do policy in another area and, before that, for many years I worked at TAFE as a teacher, but I also consulted for other registered training organisations in helping them meet their standards of quality for what was then called the AQTF, the Australian quality training framework, which was administered by the body that we know as ASQA. I have seen a lot of change, now that I am outside. I have seen a lot of change from the outside looking into the training sector and the quality training sector. The previous speaker spoke highly and at length about the fact that some students do not necessarily have to go to university. Even as a university professor, I would certainly have agreed with that. Not everyone can; not everybody should; and not everybody needs to go to university. So having a very strong, robust and effective vocational education and training sector is absolutely essential to ensure that all Australians, regardless of their aptitude or their career aspirations, are able to do that with access to quality education.

But the fact is that some dodgy practices in the vocational education sector in recent years have done significant reputational damage to the sector. We have all heard the stories of the dodgy providers, who have been charging tens of thousands of dollars for courses with completion rates of less than two per cent. These dodgy private providers have ripped off students and the taxpayer. As a matter of fact, they have thrived under this government in particular. They have thrived, while our public TAFE system has been absolutely gutted by the Liberals. It does not just stop there. Over the next four years, $637 million will be ripped out of TAFE and vocational education and training compared with current levels.

These bills go some way to ensuring that the sector is compliant with constitutional requirements and in repairing some of the damage that has been done to the sector's reputation through the practices of dodgy providers, who took advantage of the legislation, the policy and the procedures that were in place. They also took advantage of vulnerable young people—mostly young people, but also some older mature age students. They took advantage of the system.

As that damage is being repaired, it is essential that the integrity of the regulation system is beyond doubt. We need to have trust in the regulation system, which is what these bills go some way towards doing. The most important step we can take as a nation to repair the reputation of vocational education and build quality is to re-establish trust. We need to re-establish trust between TAFE, other providers, registered training organisations, industry, government, teachers and, most importantly, students, because this is a sector where trust and collaboration are absolutely crucial for success. Confidence in the capabilities of ASQA is central to developing that trust in the institutions that run vocational education and training and oversee the compliance for vocational education and training, right through to the registered training organisations that offer accredited training and right through to our public system in TAFE.

The regulation and quality in the VET sector matters to students. It matters to students, to providers and to the industry. Ultimately, it matters to our national economy. That is why Labor, recognising how much it matters and how important that trust is, supports a strong, high-quality vocational education and training sector. We support students who undergo training through VET providers. We recognise their need for certainty and security. It is part of the quality experience of training. It is part of reducing the stress on students, because Australia is actually one of the top 10 countries for costs for students to study, and also for student stress as well. This is all part of that. Studying is often a stressful and very expensive exercise, and, as I mentioned, Australia is in the top 10 most expensive countries for students. Labor believes it is crucial that we support students, as well as their education providers, to make the experience not just easier but also a more quality experience.

I speak as somebody who has worked in education. I am a huge advocate of education. I have worked in both the training and the higher education sector. But I have also been a student for a good part of my life—too much, actually, Mr Deputy Speaker! Having a good education experience really does matter in setting somebody up for not just their first job coming out of university or coming out of training or TAFE but also their future beyond their first job. Having a good, strong and positive education experience takes one into life as a lifelong learner. So it is essential that this government leaves behind its ideology and joins Labor in committing to a strong public TAFE system as the backbone of our vocational education system.

Labor has consistently supported a strong public TAFE system and a strong VET sector. While we support these bills and the funding certainty that they provide to providers, we cannot forget the cuts to TAFE and to the sector more broadly under this government. As I mentioned earlier, over the next four years Malcolm Turnbull and this government will cut $637 million from TAFE and vocational education, compared to the current funding arrangements. So it is all very well and good for members on that side to stand up and laud how wonderful the VET sector is and how essential it is to be able to provide every Australian with an opportunity for an education regardless of the vocation that they choose—whether it is something that requires higher education or something that requires a vocation education degree. It is all very well and good for those on the other side to stand up and say that, but it is time for this government to stand up and return to TAFE the integrity that it once had. Put the funding back into TAFE and build it up as a robust public education system.

In WA, these planned cuts for TAFE are going to result in $56.4 million taken out of our public sector VET system. Those cuts are going to mean higher fees as well as fewer courses—so more money, less choice. I like to meet with some of the young people in my electorate. There was once a time when I mentored a lot of young people, both as somebody who ran a not-for-profit organisation and as a lecturer. I often meet with young people in my electorate who are at that precipice of trying to work out what it is that they want to do with their lives. Many of them want to go to TAFE and study in vocational education training, but they simply do not have the opportunity. They simply cannot find the courses and they cannot afford the courses. We cannot let this continue. Labor understands that TAFE and vocational education are critical to creating jobs, helping business expand and growing our economy. If you want jobs and growth, that is jobs and growth. If you want jobs and growth, you give people jobs. You give people jobs through giving them an education. As a result of the Liberal cuts, funding for TAFE and vocational education is lower than it was a decade ago.

It was in 2011, when I was travelling around the world doing the work that I was doing, in pretty much every country I went to people in equivalent roles stopped me and talked to me about how wonderful the Australian TAFE system was and how wonderful our vocational education and training sector was. Believe me, it was a source of real pride for me to be overseas in other countries and have people commend Australia on our vocational education and training system and want to replicate the quality that we had in our vocational education and training system in their countries. So it is an absolute travesty that it has disintegrated to such low levels; that the integrity of our system has been compromised so much; and that cuts to the system will further compromise that by making it less available to those most in need. Our quality public TAFEs have been neglected. Too many campuses have been forced to close. Australia used to have a TAFE system that was the envy of the world, but now, thanks to these cuts, our TAFE and VET system is suffering, and our students are suffering—our children are suffering. Labor supports these bills, yes, and we recognise the importance of ensuring certainty in funding for providers. However, much as we support this, much as we recognise that the integrity of the system must be upheld, and much as we recognise that there is value in ensuring that there is certainty of funding for providers—despite all of that, we must also recognise that the Turnbull government has consistently undermined the TAFE and VET system, providing anything but certainty for providers and students.

The government needs to invest in education, it needs to invest in skills, and it needs to invest in training, now more than ever. We cannot talk about Australia having a strong, robust, effective, quality education system if we do not include in that a recognition of the role that vocational education and training plays, and if we do not pay attention to ensuring that our TAFE and vocational education and training system is enabled, as much as it can be, to be and to deliver the best quality education that it can.

6:32 pm

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Vocational Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in the cognate debate on this bill, the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Annual Registration Charge) Bill 2017 and the related bill. As indicated by the shadow minister, I will indicate up-front that I also support these bills before the House today.

These two bills go to some corrections needed to improve the Australian Skills Quality Authority's ability to effectively do its job in a reliable framework; in particular, in a reliable funding framework. On many occasions over recent years, where the government has brought forward bills to address regulation and the role of ASQA, we on this side of the House have been able to support those bills. In the two bills that are before us today is a recognition that there is a risk at the moment that the charges which are levied by ASQA could be considered taxes under section 55 of the Constitution rather than fees for a service. At the moment, regulatory activity by ASQA is generally covered by a fee-for-service type of structure. But ASQA has developed, and does very important work in intelligence collection and data analysis. As we know from the way the sector has been decimated by appalling conduct by too many providers, there is a need to have a regulator who is also out there proactively gathering intelligence and looking at the sector. These bills go to those issues, and for that reason I would like to commend them. I want to take a bit of time to cover the detail of what is in the bills, and then I want to talk about the context within which these bills sit and the current status of the sector.

The bills before us will amend ASQA's establishing legislation. As I said, the purpose of the bills is to clarify that annual registration fees are collected under an act dealing with the subject of taxation for the purpose of section 55 of the Constitution, and that is to mitigate the constitutional risk and to put the continuation of the current funding arrangements for ASQA beyond doubt, which is obviously something we would all support.

I have to just report to the House that I think that some of ASQA's most significant work has been on the sector-wide reports that they have done on a number of industry sectors over a number of years. Those intelligence-gathering or strategic types of reports have been very important for leading the debate in this country on what needs to be at the heart of any debate on vocational education and training, and that is quality.

Hundreds of thousands of Australians rely on a vocational qualification to get them into the workforce. That is, by and large, the main reason most people study in the sector. They might be young people, or retrenched workers looking to re-enter the workforce, or parents who have been out of the workforce with child-raising responsibilities and are looking to train to re-enter the workforce. We have to ensure that anybody who studies in this sector knows that the piece of paper they will walk away with is valued and recognised in the Australian economy.

In particular, what comes to mind is the work that ASQA did on strategic reports on two important sectors which are actually employment growth sectors: child care and aged care. These are obviously sectors where we are constantly seeing the need for more workers and there are good career opportunities for people. We want to make sure that we are giving Australians the quality training that they need to give them a good start in those sectors.

We have seen reports on this. One that most particularly sticks in my mind was on ABC radio in Victoria. In that report a group of childcare providers indicated that, as some of the childcare training being done in the private sector was so badly done, they had unofficial blacklists of training providers that they would not employ people from. Members in this House might think about what that actually means. Say a young person does childcare training with one of these providers. They are very keen to get a job in the sector. They are doing all the things that we—as their parents or their community or the parliament—ask them to do. Then they get that piece of paper and they go out and apply for jobs, and they constantly miss out. The problem is: they have no idea why they are missing out, but it is because their training provider has been unofficially blacklisted. So they have paid—in many cases, quite exorbitant amounts of money—for that qualification, but it has no standing or value for them in actually getting them a job.

That is why it is so critically important that we put quality and trust back at the centre of the vocational sector. I have to say: much of the work that ASQA was doing in this space was critically important for those reasons.

As I have indicated, the vocational education and training sector is a hugely important education sector in the system. Those opposite often like to criticise Labor for encouraging people to go to university. We had the outrageous target of 40 per cent of Australians having a university qualification! I hardly think it is an encouraging sign that those opposite think that having a target of 40 per cent of the population having university qualifications was overreach. But we never walked away from the fact that the other 60 per cent of the population in a modern economy were going to need post-secondary qualifications as well. What we had in place were a range of national partnership agreements that looked at working with the states and territories to fund the broader vocational education and training sector.

What we are seeing from this last budget, as we approach 1 July, is the end of that national partnership agreement. Nothing has been indicated by this government as to what, if anything, will succeed that funding agreement. That is, in effect, ripping over $630 million out of the vocational education and training sector.

We have seen reports on this. Indeed, in New South Wales, only today, the managing director of TAFE New South Wales talked about the devastating impact on enrolments that the decisions of this federal Liberal government are having on TAFE in New South Wales. So we, on this side of the House, think that that is an absolute abrogation of responsibility to this sector. It is beyond time that those opposite stopped treating the vocational education sector as some sort of poor cousin.

The government announced a $1.5 billion skilling Australia program. Let us have a look at what that actually is. One of the most important things about our skilled migration program is that it is a temporary program. It is there quite rightly and should be quite effective in providing for a short-term skills gap when there are not sufficient trained Australians to do a particular job. Why is it temporary? It is temporary because the expectation in this country is that we will be training up Australians to do those jobs in the longer term.

What sort of Orwellian proposal does the government put forward in vocational education in this budget? They say, 'Well, we've got this program on 457 visas so we're going to charge a levy on them to fund a skills program.' If you put the two together it does not take long to work it out. If you are decreasing the number of skilled migrants coming—which, one would suppose, was the target—you are decreasing the pool of money available to train up Australians to take on those jobs. And you will just have the same problem arising again. Instead of as the national partnership agreements did under the previous Labor government, providing an agreed joint arrangement with the states and territories to fund vocational education and training, this is a pea-and-thimble arrangement. It is perverse in its intentions.

In effect, the government cannot guarantee they will raise $1.5 billion. They have been very vague on where exactly that is to go towards, in terms of apprenticeships. They are talking about 300,000 apprentices but there is no indication whether that is going to be employer incentives or training programs. What exactly is this money going to be spent on? And what is the government going to do if they manage to see the number of 457 visas go down, because they are training up Australians, and the money disappears? What happens to the next round of people looking for employment? This is the problem at the heart of what the government does in this sector. It is all short-term. It is all just to grab the headline. It is all just to give members opposite something to say when they talk about vocational education and training. But it never actually addresses the structural issue at the heart of this critically important sector in Australia.

My colleague the member for Cowan made this point, quite rightly, and I am sure everybody in this House has had this experience. Around the world there are two countries that people look to for vocational training and apprenticeship systems: Germany and Australia. It has been a national advantage to us, our trades training system in this country. Indeed, in our own region, as the emerging economies—in particular, India and China—move away from unregulated trade based work in their economies to requiring people to have qualifications and more regulation of who does that work, they are coming here to see how we are doing that sort of work. We are, at the very same time, dismantling those things. It is very short-sighted.

I am very pleased that as part of his budget reply speech the Leader of the Opposition, in talking about education and jobs, put this right at the centre of what Labor is committed to. I want to remind the House that not only are we committed to returning the over-$630 million that the government has cut out of the sector but that we also committed $100 million to the rebuilding TAFE facility program. We are so conscious of the devastation that has been wreaked in TAFEs across our country. It does not matter where you go—towns, cities or small suburban areas—I will tell you one thing: everybody loves their TAFE. And they love it for a very good reason. It has been there when they need it. They know it is there for their kids, and they can trust it because it provides quality. We need to make sure that we do not lose that, and we need to commit funding to make sure it is able to do that critically important job. An important part of that is the Leader of the Opposition's commitment that, for federal money, two out of every three dollars we invest in this sector will go to the public provider. It is critically important to have that solid backbone to our system that the public system provides and that TAFE has done for many generations of people.

Those opposite have not said a word on TAFE. They never mention it. They have made no commitments to it. They have grabbed the apprenticeship issue because they think that they can get a bit of a bang out of their budget for it. It is a con job. Yet behind our great apprenticeship system has been the quality TAFE system in this country. If you do not do something about ensuring that TAFE continues to have a viable future not just online and in the big cities but also in all the communities, towns and suburbs across the country, we will pay an economic price for that in this country. So I am very pleased that Labor has been clear on our commitment to TAFE and to how we need to rebuild it for the future. I also want to acknowledge that one of the real ways you can create apprenticeships is that, when government puts money into building projects, you actually make sure a percentage of those people on those projects are apprentices.

Those opposite liked to criticise the BER program and the social housing program during the GFC. I went to site after site in my electorate where builders said to me, 'I was about to put off my apprentices before this program came into place.' When government leverages its spending it can create real opportunities for apprenticeships. We actually did not see a decline in the number of apprentices over that period of the GFC, which is unprecedented. This needs to happen now. When government is spending money, as Labor has committed, at least one in 10 will be an apprentice and that will create real jobs and opportunities for those apprentices.

So I say to government members opposite that it is nice to say the motherhood statements and it is nice to say you get the sector, but you need to make sure that you are putting your money where your mouth is, and this budget did not do that. The commitment around the Skilling Australia Fund has no guarantees, and I would encourage members opposite to start pushing for a solid, firm and long-term commitment by their government into TAFE and into apprenticeships in this country. I thank the House.

6:47 pm

Photo of Ross HartRoss Hart (Bass, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very pleased to be able to talk on these bills, the National Vocational and Education Training Regular Amendment (Annual Registration Charge) Bill 2017 and the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator (Charges) Amendment (Annual Registration Charge) Bill 2017, today. I propose to explain why it is that vocational education is important and I will go into the reason that this legislation is necessary to address a constitutional issue. I also want to deal with the history of technical and further education in Australia. I believe it is important that we understand the context of why technical and further education, particularly the public TAFE system, is so much a part of the Australian psyche. Finally, I want to talk about the economic plan that Labor took to the 2016 federal election, because TAFE was front and centre in that economic plan and it is front and centre of our economic plan going forward.

Vocational education is really important, and we need to continue making investments in vocational education. The Australian Skills Quality Authority, ASQA, is the federal regulatory body for vocational education. In the past the authority has operated on a partial cost-recovery basis. It charges for its services as a regulator to registered training organisations and Commonwealth Register of Courses and Institutions for Overseas Students, CRICOS, providers. It charges a mixture of annual registration charges together with these with respect to substantiated complaints or on the occasion of audits which discover breaches.

However, the techniques that the authority uses have evolved over time. Those techniques now include intelligence collection and data analysis. These activities, as you would expect, are now a core part of the authority's business. Whilst those activities informed targeted compliance and enforcement, they cannot be the subject of any fee or charge which can be attributed to particular providers. Over time these activities have been funded out of the annual registration charge. Because of changes to the scope of the authority's activities, there is a risk that the charges that have been levied by the authorities might be considered as taxes rather than fees for services. This of course raises the risk that the charges are unconstitutional by virtue of section 55 of the Australian Constitution.

These bills will amend the establishing legislation of the authority to clarify that the annual registration fees are collected under an act dealing with the subject of taxation for the purposes of section 55. This will mitigate the constitutional risk and facilitate the continuation of current funding and current activities and, as a result, put those activities beyond doubt. These bills, accordingly, are technical in nature and, for this reason, Labor supports the bills. It is perfectly appropriate that the authority pass on to industry the cost of regulation. This is a situation where, because of the evolution of the role of the authority over time, these amendments have become necessary. It is important to note that the authority has determined that intelligence collection and consequential data analysis play an effective and efficient part in performing its regulatory function. This is consistent with modern regulatory systems. It promotes efficiency and the targeting of resources based upon the evolution of the sector—a sector which continues to evolve even now.

It is vitally important that the maintenance of quality in the VET sector is something more than aspirational. This matters to students, it matters to providers and it should matter to industry. Above all, we need to have and to maintain the best vocational training system we can so that we can drive increased productivity in our economy. Well-paid, highly skilled jobs are driven by the flexibility and responsiveness of our vocational training sector. Industry demands that highly skilled employees are available as we make a transition towards specialised manufacturing and highly skilled trades.

Nevertheless, there have been significant problems in the sector—in particular as a result of dodgy practices. Many students have been left high and dry by unscrupulous providers who have exploited the system. There are of course well-run and highly regarded private operators in the VET sector as well as the state-run TAFE colleges. Good operators have had their reputations damaged by those who have exploited the system and have left students in the lurch. It is arguable of course that the reputational damage has hit the entire sector. Whilst it is clear that education—whether it is at university or in the TAFE sector—is acknowledged as the best pathway towards a better job, the fact that so many students have been left with debt or have been offered poor courses of little practical value to them is of significant concern.

As the reputational damage to the sector is repaired, it is very important that the regulatory system operates with integrity and is properly funded. Re-establishment of trust in the vocational training sector involves building quality and sustaining that quality at all levels. That means that there needs to be trust between TAFE, other providers, industry, government, teachers and, above all, students. For too long, the question of trust and collaboration has been undermined by the presence of unscrupulous operators. An effective regulator will ensure that all of the providers, whether in the public or private sector, are able to trust that no-one gets a free ride by behaving in an unscrupulous manner. This also must mean that ideology is left behind in funding technical and further education.

Labor believes that there is a place for a strong public TAFE system as the backbone of our vocational education system. The exploitation of students in the past by unscrupulous private operators has meant, in some respects, that the public system has been left to pick up the pieces. Distortions in the market have meant that these unscrupulous operators have flocked to easily-delivered, cheap courses, maximising their profit from public funding. In the main, the public system has been forced to address most of the expensive equipment-intensive, low-volume training load. There needs to be recognition that a public technical and further education system fulfils a vitally important role in preparing our workforce for the more complex skills based future.

There is another thing that needs to be highlighted about our public TAFE system. These colleges are locally based and enhance local communities. As has been highlighted by the Leader of the Opposition—and indeed in speeches today regarding the importance of technical and further education and, in particular, the public TAFE system—our cities, suburbs and towns are enhanced by the presence of these vital institutions. TAFE, the Leader of the Opposition argues—and I agree—is central to jobs in the regions and country towns. It is very easy to understand why. I did some background reading on the history of TAFE. If anyone wants to refer to a very good summary on the development of technical and trade training since the establishment of the mechanics institutes in England in the 19th century, I recommend a read of the Development of TAFE in Australia by Gillian Goozee.

The earliest iteration of these schools were schools of minds—the mechanics' institutes and technical schools established through the first half of the 19th century and throughout Australia. The mechanics' institutes were an interesting case in point. They were found in many cities and towns, and provided education to the working classes and the first public libraries. These were locally focused and provided direct benefits to local communities. They subsequently evolved; some may have become technical schools, some may have been subsumed into public library systems. In Tasmania, there have been many mechanics' institutes, some of which survive as buildings today, including the delightful Scottsdale Mechanics' Institute, which was recently renovated and now fulfils a function as a public hall. But the point is that these were, and are, local institutions. As the Leader of the Opposition has recently said, if a regional town in Australia has a TAFE, it is invariably better off than a town without a TAFE.

Opening up the vocational education and training sector to competition has not detracted from our TAFE colleges remaining local and well supported, and it has also focused on attracting overseas students to the regions. Recently I hosted in my electorate the member for Longman in her capacity as chair of Labor's Australian Jobs Taskforce. We visited the central Launceston campus of TasTAFE. We were able to see firsthand the importance of TAFE training in addressing workforce demand; in this case, delivering a Diploma of Nursing, which provides trained staff for aged care. It was particularly interesting to note that this TAFE had recruited students from overseas. Investment in innovation and the maintenance of high quality meant that overseas students were prepared to invest time and money in practical training in my electorate in Launceston, to enhance their employability within their own countries. I must also mention that one overseas student had previously worked in IT. He determined that IT was not going to provide stable, secure, long-term employment due to the threat of being outsourced, so he decided that a Diploma of Nursing with a focus upon aged care was going to provide for his long-term job security.

The history of technical and further education shows and successive reviews over more than 100 years have highlighted the positive economic benefits of investment in TAFE, whether the system is described as a system of technical colleges, schools of minds, trade schools or otherwise. The great economic advantages that were made after the Second World War were, in part, driven by investment in TAFE. The Whitlam years saw a transformation of the education sector, from technical and further education to universities. Gough Whitlam saw—as Labor does now—that investment in education transforms not only an individual's future but also the future of our communities and of our economy. The challenges that we faced in the 1970s, commencing with the dropping of tariff barriers and the deregulation of the Australian economy in the Hawke-Keating years, meant that we had to transform our workforce. Investment in education meant that we as a nation needed to ensure that we invested in both higher education and vocational education.

The economic plan that Labor took to the 2016 election was founded on education and training. Labor had a plan for investing in job-creating infrastructure to boost productivity. Labor knows, of course, that needs-based funding is essential to ensuring that lives are transformed using the power of education. This message is easily understood throughout our communities. The government says that it has adopted needs-based funding, but their actions speak otherwise. Central to our economic plan was a focus upon TAFE and upon restoring integrity to our national training system. We want no more of the shonky institutions that have sold to the most vulnerable in our society the false hope of real vocational training—when in reality, all they have been doing is generating enrolments through dubious inducements, free iPads and dodgy scholarships. In 2014, the 10 largest providers of vocational education in Australia received in excess of $900 million in funding. However, their results speak volumes. Only five per cent of their students graduated—that is 4,181 students. In other words, the public system spent over $215,000 a head on these 4,181 students.

Our future will be determined by our ability to provide training for the well-paid jobs of the future. Just as the IT worker from Singapore recognised that there is a better future in aged care, we need to recognise that the future will involve responding to outsourcing and automation. Faced with the potential for outsourcing and automation in a market which either has to increase demand or drive down cost, we need to be mindful that the secure jobs of the future are those which are unable to be outsourced or automated.

We are determined that our future is not a low-wage economy. Labor understand that we need a high-skilled, high-productivity labour market to support well-paid jobs. We know that by 2020 we will need at least 100,000 new medical allied health workers and carers in the aged-care sector and to assist in delivering the NDIS. Low-skilled work does not provide a secure future for our children. We must build a skilled and smart workforce. We recognise the importance of a fair wage. We support protecting low-paid workers who are in receipt of penalty rates. We need to recognise that the payment of fair wages supports not just the employment of individuals but sustains the local economies of local communities. As I indicated earlier, these bills are technical in nature but vitally important to ensure that the regulatory regime is maintained and is responsive on a fee-for-service basis. Labor supports these bills. I commend the bills to the House.

7:00 pm

Photo of Gai BrodtmannGai Brodtmann (Canberra, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

Deputy Speaker Kelly, you know what is so tragic about tonight? It is that we have had these passionate, eloquent, committed speeches being delivered on the Labor side of the House on the value and importance of vocational education and training to our nation's future and in providing the transformative powers for people to advance their careers, to advance their options in life and to give them choice—and we have had a long, long list of speakers on this side who are very committed to vocational education and training and very passionate about it and we have had some excellent and eloquent speeches—but on the other side, what is the commitment on VET, Deputy Speaker? Their commitment on VET is one speaker. That is how much those on the other side of aisle value vocational education and training. That is how they value it; they put up one speaker. It is absolutely appalling.

An opposition member: Shame, shame!

Yes, shame. VET is one of the great Australian traditions, such as the workers colleges that my colleague just spoke about and the mechanics institute that my colleague spoke about. VET provides us with opportunities for exports, particularly to developing nations like India. We have had all these fabulous speeches on this side and one from the other side. It speaks absolute volumes about what the Turnbull government, the Liberals and the Nationals, think of vocational education and training and how much they value it.

I am going to share some of the experiences of my father, who was an electrician. He was dragged kicking and screaming from high school in Preston in the fifties. He wanted to stay on and live the dream to go to university, which was impossible for a working-class boy from the wrong side of the tracks. It was absolutely impossible, so he left school at 15 and went and trained as an electrician. He loved that career but he had other aspirations. So while he was married to my mum and after I was born and my middle sister was born, he would go off to night school at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, after finishing a full day's work as an electrician, and study to become an accountant. That took many, many years. Anyone who studies part time, particularly at night, knows it is a very tough gig. It is tough because you have to pull those hours of a full day at work, a long and committed day, and then go off and study for a couple of hours each night at night school—and in the middle of winter, it is pretty ordinary. My dad did that at RMIT and he got his certificate in accountancy, and then went on to live a whole different life from the path that was originally planned for him by his parents. It was a life where he achieved many of his dreams and aspirations, and it was as a result of him realising the transformative qualities of vocational education.

I have spoken many times in the House about how my sisters and I are the living proof of the transformative powers of education—and there I am talking about secondary and tertiary education—but my father was living proof of the transformative powers of vocational education. His first career was vocational, as an electrician. His second career was vocational, through an accountancy degree. My father did that accountancy course at the RMIT, and I have a real soft spot for it, not just because it educated my father to realise that transformation but also because I was union president at what is the oldest workers' college in the world.

What a great vision. Australia, in the late 1800s, was living those principles of social enlightenment, and one of them was providing educational opportunities to workers, providing educational opportunities through mechanics institutes in little country towns in remote and regional parts of Australia, providing people with the opportunity to read books, to actually go and borrow books, which were outrageously expensive. Books were so valued and treasured.

So there were the mechanics institutes and there was the grand old RMIT—the first workers' college in all the world, and it was realised in this country. It was created in this country, driven by those strong principles of social enlightenment, the great Labor principles and values of equity and access to opportunity and education for all, no matter what your background, your postcode or what side of the tracks you live on. So I have a very proud connection with the RMIT, the oldest workers' college in the world, not just through my father but also as a result of doing my second degree there and being union president there and affiliating them to the National Union of Students—but we will not go there.

I also have a very strong connection with another fabulous vocational education institute, and that is the University of Canberra. It is not in my electorate, unfortunately, but I tutored out there before I went into politics. I loved tutoring. I have a number of friends who are still tutoring out there. Again, it was a great opportunity to bring my industry experience, my background, to shape the new communicators of Australia, the new communicators of Canberra.

We have heard a lot about the dodgy practitioners and organisations that have basically caused this bill, and the significant reputational damage that has been done to the entire sector—particularly those really good-quality, world-class outfits, and I will come to one of those in a minute. We have also heard about the debt of so many of the students who went through these dodgy courses—how these dodgy operators can sleep at night, I do not know. Debt has been incurred by these students, who went in in all good faith and trust to get a decent education and got what was very often a very substandard qualification.

We have heard so much about the trust deficit that has resulted from the fact that these dodgy people have been operating for so long and have gotten away with it. I am concerned about the trust deficit in vocational education and training because vocational education and training provides so many transformative opportunities, but it also provides great export opportunities. It provides great export opportunities to developing nations. India is going through a boom under Modi. It needs to educate hundreds of thousands of people in the tertiary sector. It needs to educate hundreds of thousands of people in vocational education and it just does not have that tradition of vocational education and training that we have here in this nation, as the first country in the world that had a workers' college.

I can see tremendous export opportunities for Australia in the vocational education sphere, particularly with nations like India that basically need the skills to build a thriving, growing, developing nation. It needs those skills. It needs the standards that come with that skills development. That is why VET is so important to Australia, not just to get the skillsets that we need here but also as an export opportunity and to develop the world and to assist the world in its progression, growth and prosperity. The fact that there is a trust deficit is a concern on so many levels, but, most importantly, it essentially damages the reputation of the really good outfits, one of them being the Academy of Interactive Entertainment. I met with them just recently and they expressed a number of concerns about the legislation and the changes that the government is introducing in terms of cuts to TAFE. They are a very good outfit that specialises in games design, the careers of the future, virtual world development, animation and production.

I want to briefly speak on the cuts that this government has implemented since it has been in power. Since the Turnbull government was elected, it has cut more than $2.8 billion from TAFE, skills and apprenticeships. In this year's budget, it cut a further $637 million over the next four years. Australia, thanks to this government, now has 130,000 fewer apprentices and trainees than it did when this government was elected. To give you an idea about the scale of that, that is one third of the ACT population. The list goes on and it is incredibly depressing. So many TAFEs have been cut in regional towns and centres, again defying the tradition of the mechanics' institutes and the workers' colleges. Investment in TAFE and vocational education infrastructure has fallen by 75 per cent and the hours of training that have been delivered by TAFE have fallen by over 25 per cent. That is just a fantastic legacy! Well done, Turnbull government! You are winners when it comes to vocational education and training! No wonder you have no-one talking about it. No wonder you have no-one wanting to stand up and talk about the value of vocational education and training to this nation. It is because of that absolutely appalling record.

I am conscious of the time, so I will conclude by saying that TAFE and vocational education is in Labor's DNA and in my DNA. Generations of Australians have now got new and better jobs because they trained at TAFE or did an apprenticeship, just like my dad. While we support the bills that are before the House tonight, there is so much more that needs to be done in terms of investment in vocational education and training and TAFE by this government. There is so much more that needs done, and they can start by showing the sector a little bit of respect.

7:12 pm

Photo of Joanne RyanJoanne Ryan (Lalor, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to rise tonight to speak on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Annual Registration Charge) Bill 2017 and the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator (Charges) Amendment (Annual Registration Charge) Bill 2017. I support the bills before the House tonight as I support the TAFE sector and vocational education and training.

These bills ensure that the ASQA, the Australian Skills and Quality Authority, will have certainty. They make changes and amend ASQA's establishing legislation to make it explicit that registration fees are collected under an act dealing with the subject of taxation for the purpose of section 55 of the Constitution. This will ensure the current funding arrangements for ASQA and, further, ensure that ASQA techniques to investigate complaints—techniques like intelligence collection and data analysis, which are effective—are able to be funded into the future. These amendments go to the core of ensuring quality in the VET sector, which is critically important in skills development and employment.

I rise tonight to speak on this bill because I value every opportunity in this place to speak about education—tonight explicitly about vocational education and training, the great history of our TAFE sector and what a wonderful job it has done in service to our nation. ASQA and the sector have suffered enormous reputational damage across the last few years. We have heard stories of student victims: people who have been charged a lot of money and have gone into debt to pursue a certification, only to find that certification ripped away from them because of shonky providers operating in this space. Students have had their certifications cancelled. This bill is part of the first step, I hope, in rescuing that reputation, in retrieving that reputation of our TAFE sector and our vocational education sector. To this end, I also welcome the government's review of ASQA and VET regulation. It is long overdue—four years overdue—but it is welcome. I welcome the appointment of Professor Valerie Braithwaite to head that review.

Let's be very clear: this review needs to result in improvements to restore faith and trust in the sector. Only genuine quality providers should operate in this sector and there are no better providers than our publicly funded TAFEs. This review will hopefully see steps made to put TAFEs back on the map to ensure that they are funded so that we can have a vocational education sector that is about excellence, not just compliance. We have seen where the road of compliance has taken us with some shonky providers in this space. They were all compliant on paper but not compliant when it came to offering excellence in education. The importance of vocational education to our economy cannot be underestimated. It is essential that this system be given its due resourcing and have a quality assurance system put in place. To do that, the government need to leave their ideology behind. They need to join with Labor in committing to a strong public TAFE system as the backbone of our vocational education system.

We heard from speaker after speaker on this side of the House who rushed to put their name on the list to come in here and speak about TAFE and vocational education. We heard about the government's record, a bit of a state of the nation report, if you like, around vocational education and the problems that we have with TAFE. The record of the past four years is not good. We have had $2.8 billion cut from TAFE, skills and apprenticeships across four years. In the most recent budget were further cuts—$637 million across the next four years. We have just heard from the member for Canberra that there are 130,000 fewer apprentices and trainees than when the government was elected in 2013. It is an extraordinary record of neglect. Both TAFE and vocational education funding and the number of students have gone down over the decade, despite population growth and an increase in the number of jobs requiring vocational skills. Between 2013 and 2015, dissatisfaction in regional and rural areas with the availability of vocational education doubled. Investment in TAFE and vocational education through capital expenditure has fallen by 75 per cent and hours delivered have fallen by 25 per cent over the two-year period. The government came in here tonight, late to the party, to make some changes, which we support on this side of the House. They will give us some assurance that ASQA will be able to rebuild its reputation and ensure its funding so that it can continue to look into complaints made by students and members of the public.

A few speakers have spoken tonight about the export opportunities. In my electorate, I have a lot of international students and a lot of them are enrolled in vocational education and TAFE. The reputational damage that has been done to this sector is also damage done to our reputation internationally as providers of international education. It is time for this to stop. I welcome the review and I hope that the review goes far enough to ensure that TAFE is put back as the backbone. It appears to me that the government has very little planned for TAFE or VET. I do not say that on a whim; I say that after being in this chamber for four years and not seeing any action taken to stop the shonky providers from ripping off students and setting up business practices that have damaged the reputation of our nation as an educator.

Labor's policy is clear—we took it to the last election—and it is about investing an additional $637.6 million into TAFE and vocational education, reversing the government's 2017 budget cuts in full. We will guarantee at least two-thirds of public vocational education funding for publicly funded TAFE. We will invest in a new $100 million Building TAFE for the Future Fund to re-establish TAFE facilities in regional communities, meet local industry needs and support teaching for the digital economy—a critical element. We will set a target of one in 10 apprentices on all Commonwealth priority projects and major government business enterprise projects. This is absolutely essential, and I offer it to those across the chamber as a great piece of policy, something that they might look to implement—and, please, as soon as you can. We will invest in pre-apprenticeship programs, preparing up to 10,000 young job seekers to start an apprenticeship to be delivered by TAFE, the traditional place for pre-apprenticeships to be delivered. We will establish an advanced entry adult apprenticeship program to fast track apprenticeships for up to 20,000 people facing redundancy or whose jobs have been lost. That, too, will be delivered by public TAFE.

Building the skills that we need and giving people the capacity to enter the workforce or to change jobs are absolutely critical. Having the ability to train or retrain is a promise that we have given to the Australian people, and we have a long tradition in it. We need to see this government take action to ensure that that tradition continues, that it gets back on track and that we start to undo the reputational damage. TAFE and vocational education are absolutely critical in this country. Generations of Australians have got new and better jobs because they trained at TAFE or did an apprenticeship. In our fast changing world, a modern, adaptable TAFE and vocational education system would not just be a good thing to have, it would be essential. I see the member for Chifley in the chamber and I know his connection to innovation; he knows the importance of having a growing vocational education sector that goes into the digital economy to ensure jobs for the future.

In closing, Labor supports the legislation in front of us tonight; it supports TAFE and it supports the vocational education system. So I commend this legislation to the House and commend the government on calling for the review. I just hope they get on with the job and get on with it quickly before any more damage is done to this sector.

7:22 pm

Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In this cognate debate, I indicate from the outset that I support the passage of these bills. It is essential to ensure certainty for the Australian Skills Quality Authority, ASQA. It also gives me the opportunity to talk a little about vocational education itself. I know that those on the other side are not exactly knocking at the dispatch box to have an opportunity to speak on this. Looking at the speakers list, only one government member chose to speak on this issue.

Vocational education is very important to our nation—there is no question about that. People on the other side might think it is all about university, but, Deputy Speaker, you would acknowledge the value that vocational education plays in your own electorate. We as a nation are certainly in transition. In building airports, building roads and other construction we need tradespeople. The answer cannot be that we import all our trades from wherever we need them from overseas, and 457 visas are not the answer to this country's future.

I find it passing strange that in the last three budgets handed down by this government, they have taken $2.8 billion out of vocational education and training. That is hardly an investment in this nation's future. In this budget alone about $630-odd million was taken out of vocational education. That money would ordinarily be put to creating the trades and the skills base that we need for the future. Here is a government that no doubt relies their free trade agreements and puts exemptions in so they can bring workers in at will who are not subject to the same restrictions of ordinary 457 visas; and think they will get away with it in looking at the vocational needs of this country. The net result of what has occurred since the government took office in 2013 is we have had 130,000 fewer apprentices and trainees in this country.

For some reason, those opposite seem to have this view that public education is not good. We are seeing that in the schools debate at the moment. But with public education in the vocational sector, TAFE is a brand which is universally recognised. Employers all around the country understand and value of the TAFE brand. The standards of vocational educational delivered through TAFE are, as I say, well recognise and respected. Yet, TAFE has been subject to a series of cuts. TAFE has certainly not been well funded. For various reasons, TAFE has largely been the poor cousin. Yet, TAFE should be the predominant vocational training agency in this country because TAFE actually sets the standards.

In a recent report that, as I understand it, just fell off the back of a track or was leaked, the New South Wales TAFE management has confirmed these concerns about the government's policy on TAFE. The report reveals an alarming and devastating drop of 51 per cent in diploma enrolments as a result of this government's cuts. The document also discloses that this is as a result of a revamped student loan and massive gap payments of as much as $8,000 that TAFE students would now face, putting courses out of reach for many people, particularly those coming from very much working-class areas that I represent.

Mr Jon Black, Managing Director for TAFE New South Wales, has certainly not been backward in pointing the finger at the new VET Student Loans scheme, as introduced by this government in January this year. Mr Black illustrated the disincentive for prospective students when he said:

(It's) harder to get a loan for a vocational course than a peace agreement from the UN.

That is the managing director of TAFE NSW. So it is certainly pointing the finger of blame at the way this government has decided to review the funding capabilities of students. If you add to that the intention to free up universities with sub-bachelor courses—again, a disincentive to steer students away from public-funded TAFE—it puts further pressure on the public-funded system.

It is important that we maintain a properly funded TAFE system. Certainly, it is important for the future of this nation to have confidence in the development of the schools that we do need for the future. That is why Labor will reverse the government's $637 million cuts to TAFE and schools around apprentices. Labor will also reverse the pattern towards privatisation and guarantee that at least two-thirds of all public vocational education funding will go to TAFE itself. Labor is committed to establishing to a new $100 million Building TAFE for the Future Fund so to establish TAFE facilities in regional communities and revamp facilities that have been neglected for so long by this government. In the budget reply speech, the Leader of the Opposition made the pledge to invest in pre-apprenticeship programs, as well as establish advanced adult apprenticeships. Labor will commit to one in 10 apprentices on all Commonwealth priority projects being met. This will drive the development of tradesmen for the future and necessitate that we do have a vibrant and well-funded TAFE system to support that development.

I support the bills that are before us. It is only right that ASQA be properly resourced so that they can do their fundamental work to ensure that vocational educational is conducted to the requisite standards and that qualifications are recognised and valued across the nation.

Debate interrupted.