Wednesday, 22 August 2018
Education and Other Legislation Amendment (VET Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018, Student Loans (Overseas Debtors Repayment Levy) Amendment Bill 2018; Second Reading
It's my understanding that the two bills, the Education and Other Legislation Amendment (VET Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018 and the Student Loans (Overseas Debtors Repayment Levy) Amendment Bill 2018, are being dealt with concurrently. I rise to speak on these bills concurrently. The VET student loan debt separation bill will amend the VET Student Loans Act and the Higher Education Support Act to establish the VET student loans as a separate program under the VET Student Loans Act. The second bill, the overseas debtors repayment levy amendment bill, will amend the Student Loans (Overseas Debtors Repayment Levy) Act to ensure that arrangements for students with a VET student loan debt who are living overseas are updated to reflect the changes in these bills.
The VET Student Loans program was introduced at the end of 2016 as part of a series of reforms to income-contingent loans for vocational education and training diplomas and advanced diplomas. Income-contingent loans were first made available for VET students under the HELP program in 2007 for study in 2008. This started with pathway courses and was extended to all diploma and advanced diploma courses from 2012 onwards through the VET FEE-HELP program. During the period from 2009 to 2015 we saw a huge increase in the number of students taking up these loans, with numbers increasing from 5,262 to 272,000 students. Regrettably, during the same period, we saw a tripling of course costs and a rise in unscrupulous behaviour from some private providers. It took three years for the government to act and to introduce the VET student loans scheme.
This bill will separate VET student loans debt from other forms of debt taken under the Higher Education Loan Program. Under the current HELP scheme, all debts are treated the same. These debts can come from HECS-HELP, FEE-HELP, SA-HELP, OS-HELP, VET FEE-HELP or VET student loans. This allows for much greater transparency around the repayment of debts of vocational, educational and training student loans and allows for much better modelling of debt that may not be repaid. The bill will also lay the groundwork for a legislative instrument to specify courses eligible for VET student loans to be referred to the national register of courses. The national register is the authoritative information source on nationally recognised VET courses and training packages.
Labor cautiously supports this bill but is reminded of all the work that needs to be done to ensure Australia really has a world-class secondary education, post-secondary education and training system. Labor believes that simply tweaking the current system will not deal at all with the now profound systemic problems in the vocational education and training system, a system with inequitable access to loans and subsidies and, overall, an increasing cost shift to young people, including apprentices and trainees.
We know that the business community in this country are shaking their heads at the chaos on the other side—the dropping today of the government's one-point economic plan, the company economic tax plan, and earlier this week the government's chaos around energy policy. We have seen the business community shaking their heads in response to these decisions from the government. But we also have the business community saying to me, again and again, when I'm meeting with representatives of business, individual business owners and managers who are looking for staff that they feel utterly let down when it comes to vocational education and training in this country. Billions have been ripped from our training system, when we know that the best investment we can make for people looking for work is to make sure they have proper industry-relevant, up-to-date qualifications, and the best investment that we can make in a productive and successful nation is to ensure that we're training our future workforce. It's no wonder that so many in the business community are scratching their heads when it comes to the actions of this government.
Students, of course, and those who work in the vocational education and training area and those who work in universities gave up on the government a long time ago. If you look at the record, you will see that this government has ripped more than $3 billion out of TAFE skills and training. There are 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees—lost over the course of this government. TAFE campuses have closed, courses have been scaled back and fees have increased right across the country. There was a 30 per cent drop in government funded training at public TAFEs between 2013 and 2016. A Skilling Australians Fund has been introduced, inherently flawed and underfunded.
Labor won't just sit by and allow the crisis in TAFE, vocational education and training and apprenticeships to continue. The Mitchell Institute tells us that by 2021 nearly 90 per cent of all jobs will need a TAFE or university-level qualification. Their modelling also says that, because of cuts to higher education, nearly 235,000 Australians will miss out on a university place by 2031. In vocational education, the story is even worse, with enrolments set to fall by 250,000 over that same period. We already have skills shortages. We've got occupations that have been on the skills shortage list for years, and we're cutting investment in the courses that would fill those skills shortages.
In February, I was proud to join the shadow minister for skills, TAFE and apprenticeships, Senator Doug Cameron, to announce that in the first 100 days in government Labor would establish a once-in-a-generation commission of review into post-secondary school education. This sweeping inquiry will look at every aspect of vocational and higher education and will look at the systems to ensure that they can best respond to the needs of Australia's economy and society. We're living in a time of rapid change, and that's impacting on every element of our lives. Now more than ever we need a post-secondary education and training system that responds to those changes and works for every Australian.
We've already met with stakeholders from the union movement, businesses, the community, universities, TAFE, academics and private training providers to discuss the terms of reference of this inquiry. This is what a responsible government should be doing: actually talking with stakeholders to set out a long-term, sustainable vision for a sector which is properly funded and of high quality. We need a vocational education and training system built on quality, collaboration, depth, reliability and transferability that equips people with knowledge and education for good working lives; skills the workforce for existing and emerging jobs; produces skills that power innovation and careers; provides greater social engagement and inclusion by guaranteeing access to quality lifelong learning and further education; provides, in apprenticeships, a contract for employment and a contract for training with nationally recognised portable skills; and recognises the importance of highly skilled TAFE teaching professionals.
Finding the way forward will be both intellectually and practically challenging. It's a job that's clearly proven to be beyond this government. It's abundantly clear that the only way it will happen is under a Labor government. There is an immediate and urgent need to protect, stabilise and rebuild the TAFE system. Labor will place TAFE at the centre of our agenda for vocational education because our commitment to TAFE is unequivocal. TAFE is the backbone of our skills and training sector. Only Labor will guarantee secure and stable funding for TAFE, skills and apprenticeships. We've made the commitment that at least two-thirds of public funding will go to our public TAFE network. Labor will waive the upfront fees for 100,000 students to attend TAFE and invest $100 million modernising TAFE facilities around the country. Labor will ensure at least one in 10 jobs on Commonwealth funded projects are done by an apprentice. Labor will provide 10,000 pre-apprenticeships for young people wanting to learn a trade and 20,000 adult apprenticeships for older workers who want to or need to retrain. A government without a plan for education and training has no plan for Australia's future.
I rise today to support the Education and Other Legislation Amendment (Vet Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018 and related bill. The Education and Other Legislation Amendment (Vet Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018 will separate VET student loan debts from other forms of debt taken under the Higher Education Loan Program. Labor, of course, supports transparency relating to all government student loans and the ability to better track behaviour, to monitor performance and to regulate associated standards.
Those are the good outcomes from this bill and, as you can see, that has taken me a whole 30 seconds to get through. This is a small tweak to a complex and outdated HECS system which is now nearly 30 years old. Fiddling at the edges of the current system will not address the profound problems that undermine vocational education and training and, consequentially, the productive performance and international competitiveness of our economy. We have consistently called on the government to fix the profound systemic problems in the VET system, and this is the government's response: a tiny tweak. The Turnbull government doesn't care enough or have the capacity to do the hard work that needs to be done to build a better post-school system.
We shouldn't be surprised by the disdain this bill shows the VET sector. The Abbott-Turnbull government has ripped more than $3 billion out of TAFE, skills and training funding over the past five years. In his last budget, Malcolm Turnbull cut a further $270 million from TAFE skills and training over the next four years. The bill will not deal with the inequities that have grown as student loans have expanded and costs have been shifted onto young people, including apprentices and trainees, the young ones who can least afford the burden of this cost. Worse, the bill does not attempt to fix the mess caused by the privatisation of the VET sector and the consequent rorting of the VET FEE-HELP scheme by unscrupulous and profit-driven private training providers.
Like with so many things this government has turned its hand to, the assumption that a market-driven, privatised approach will build a better, more efficient sector has been proven false. This approach to vocational education has caused great damage. Coupled with a massive decline in government-funded training, the picture is bleak. Introducing VET FEE-HELP turbocharged rorting, where profiteering and dishonest private providers targeted students with inappropriate courses, provided poor-quality education and saddled them with unfair debt.
The marketisation and underfunding of the sector has led to TAFE campus and course closures and the loss of jobs. For students enrolling in VET, it meant cost-shifting to them, fee increases, limitations on access and unequal treatment across the post-school sector—not to mention poor-quality courses. So many young people, and not-so-young people, have also found themselves in the terrible situation of having a debt to repay after their dodgy provider has collapsed financially. So they have debt, no training and no qualification.
ASQA, the training regulator, openly recognises that the training market has created a race to the bottom with fast turnaround and poor-quality training putting enormous pressure on quality education and training providers like TAFE, the public provider. Unlike Labor, the government does not understand the critical role of TAFE as the public provider, the value in skills and apprenticeships or the value of hardworking and passionate public TAFE teachers. The effect of overzealous application of competition policy and privatisation in the sector, coupled with chronic underfunding, has had devastating effects on the sector. TAFE and vocational education funding, as well as the number of supported students, are lower than they were a decade ago, and this is despite an increasing number of jobs requiring vocational skills.
In too many towns and regional centres across Australia, TAFE campuses have closed, courses have been scaled back and fees have increased. Between 2013 and 2015, employer dissatisfaction with the availability of vocational education in regional and rural areas more than doubled, and investment in TAFE and vocational education capital infrastructure fell by almost 75 per cent. From 2016, hours of government-funded training delivered by TAFE fell by over 30 per cent.
These are not just statistics; this abject failing of the government has a real effect on people's lives. Young people in regional areas keen to stay near home and family, or unable to afford to move away to study, benefit greatly from regional TAFEs, gaining skills that give them a start in life close to home. Regional TAFEs provide employment for locals and inject money into the local economy. They are often the heart of the town—a hub for the community to gather and engage. Unlike those who sit opposite us, we value the role of an appropriately funded VET sector for the training, skills and apprenticeships it provides to so many Australians and its vital role in driving the economy and enhancing industry.
In my electorate, I'm fortunate enough to have the wonderful Melbourne Polytechnic, a vibrant and innovative campus providing nearly 300 courses, ranging from short courses to certificates, diplomas, bachelor degrees and master level qualifications. The breadth of their courses is incredible. They provide everything from bricklaying apprenticeships to a Master of Creative Industries. Melbourne Polytech is currently educating over 26,000 students. It's a hub in the north, for the north. Amazingly, they educated their millionth student in 2013, which was also the year they turned 100. Melbourne Polytech focuses on real student outcomes, particularly employment.
I was speaking to Melbourne Polytech teachers the other day and they told me about one student, and I think it says everything about the value of VET education. Lisa won the 2015 Melbourne Polytechnic Student Photographer of the Year award. She decided to study photography at Melbourne Polytechnic because the flexibility of the class allowed her to study part time while caring for her two young, adopted Ethiopian children. This flexibility is one of the crucial reasons people decide TAFE is right for them. Lisa says it took her a while to come around to study. She always found an excuse to put it off, but she kept saying to herself, 'When my kids are in school, I'll study.' So she put her money where her mouth was and enrolled at Melbourne Polytechnic.
She decided to focus her career because she was inspired by her volunteer work with young African-Australians at Collingwood's The Social Studio. This is an organisation that empowers young refugees and migrants from a diverse range of backgrounds to realise their dreams. Lisa said that she didn't feel like she was the right fit for a qualification, but believes that Melbourne Polytechnic offered her a unique perspective, especially studying with and learning her skills from the wonderful teaching staff. She said, 'You aren't just coming here to learn. You're mixing with peers, people who have won big photography awards, people who are living and breathing all things photography. For someone my age, 48, this was integral to my confidence and success. Not for one minute was my age an issue. The teachers never made me feel like I'd gone too far artistically. The teachers constantly told me that my goal was completely possible. Having those teachers made me realise these possibilities.' Lisa now owns Liberation Images, a Melbourne based fashion and portrait photography business that specialises in African-Australian and multicultural models and clients. That, my friends and Deputy Speaker, is what education is about: having your whole life turned around by amazing teachers, by your learnings and by a TAFE sector that is flexible, invested in outcomes and invested in students and not in profits. All of us in this place should be working every day to ensure that every person in Australia has access to a fantastic education.
Let's not forget the wonderful teachers in the VET sector, particularly TAFE teachers—skilled instructors who are experts in their trade and who are prepared to pass on that knowledge to future generations. The vast majority, however, are employed on less than optimal terms and conditions. Short-term or casual contracts mean they live insecure lives, and this gives them and their students little assurance of continuity.
The contrast between Labor and the coalition when it comes to the VET sector could not be more stark. We know it is abundantly clear that we cannot allow for the education and training sector to continue as it is currently designed. It is abundantly clear that this bill does not even consider the challenges that exist in the sector. Labor gets it. That's why the member for Sydney, the member for Griffith and Senator Cameron have announced that Labor will instigate a once-in-a-generation inquiry into the post-secondary education system, to commence within the first 100 days of a Shorten Labor government. There has never been a national review that considers the full gamut of post-school education, and it is time to have one—and the whole sector welcomes it. I believe the review must seriously and rigorously consider alternatives to the competitive training market model.
Now, more than ever, we need a post-school education and training system that works for every Australian. We know the progress we need isn't being delivered in the system that is operating today. Labor will place TAFE at the centre of our agenda for vocational education and training. Labor's commitment to TAFE is unequivocal. TAFE is the backbone of our skills and training sector. Labor has guaranteed secure funding for skills and TAFE and has made the commitment that at least two-thirds of public funding will go to the TAFE network. Only Labor will guarantee secure and stable skills and training funding. Labor is waiving the up-front fees of 100,000 TAFE students and investing $100 million into rebuilding TAFE. Labor will ensure that at least one in 10 jobs in a Commonwealth-funded project is done by an apprentice. Labor is committed to working with unions and industry to have better industrial relations laws that help address the issues of job insecurity.
A government without a plan for education and training has no plan for Australia's future. So, while we are happy to support this small tweak, I call on the government to adopt Labor's policy and support our undertaking of a root-and-branch inquiry into the post-secondary education system. Only then can the underlying problems in the vocational education and training system and the associated funding inequities be brought to light and resolved.
It's good to be able to do something to support TAFE in this House. I think this is one of the first opportunities that I have had in the two years that I have been here to focus purely on vocational education and not just on fixing a mess. It is rather timely that, as I rise to speak, the 'TAFE meets parliament' event is getting underway in this place. I hope that MPs and senators will take the chance to go and speak with the TAFE people here to really understand the diversity of things that TAFE is bringing to our community.
Unfortunately, the Education and Other Legislation Amendment (VET Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018 and related bill merely tinker around the edges of vocational training, and that is disappointing. The bill places VET student loans second in the hierarchy of repayments after HELP debts. On the positive side, this certainly allows for greater transparency of repayment rates of VET student loans, and that should enable governments to better model those loans. So it is practical in that sense. It also lays the groundwork to be able to specify courses eligible for VET student loans to be referred to on the national register of courses, which ensures that students aren't disadvantaged when a course is replaced. So it is minor administrative work that we are happy to support.
But we on this side of the House know that there is an urgent need to make changes, so that we have a world-class post-high-school vocational education and training system that is designed for the 21st century. This legislation fails to address the inequalities that have grown as student loans have expanded, as profit margins of providers have increased and as educational costs have been shifted onto young people, including disproportionately onto apprentices and trainees.
One of my local TAFEs, Richmond TAFE, held its open day last weekend, and what a privilege it was to speak to teachers, administrators and students about the courses that are offered there: child care, horticulture, computer skills, equine and animal care—it has a huge range. Actually, you can learn to do everything from shoeing a horse—in fact, learn to be a blacksmith—to caring for cats as a vet nurse or carving a feature stone wall and creating a water feature in the garden. Their horticulture courses are designed to skill workers to care for a racetrack or landscape a public space or propagate plants. So Richmond is an amazing TAFE. It's part of an educational precinct that we have in the Hawkesbury, which includes the campus of Western Sydney university.
The Wentworth Falls and Katoomba TAFE, in another part of my electorate, in the Blue Mountains, skill up workers for a completely different set of jobs. They focus on hospitality and on outdoor adventure work, which, of course, is very fitting for the Blue Mountains. Disability support and beauty therapy are among the many courses that are available. The point I want to make is that there is huge diversity in courses in my electorate alone. They're surviving in spite of, not because of, government policy at both the state and federal levels. It's time we had policy from a federal government that helps the sector, rather than nobbles it.
One of the worst things that we would all be aware has happened to vocational education students in the private sector has been the government's failure to stem the corrupt practices of unscrupulous for-profit training providers. They allowed the ripping off of students and the ripping off of taxpayer dollars long after it was clear there was a problem and clear that the system was being abused. And it does seem that it's not over; a recent report showed that the VET Student Loans Ombudsman received over 5,000 complaints about dodgy private training providers in nine months. That really should have been a wake-up call. Alarmingly, the ombudsman expects this number to increase as students lodge their tax returns, only to find they've been charged for courses they haven't done. I have to say that one of my own staff has experienced this just recently. The ombudsman's report states:
… many complainants first discover they have a student loan or discover that the loan amount is larger than they expected, when they submit their tax return.
It's described as one of the biggest rorts in Australian education history by newspapers and commentators. It is feared that many students still remain unaware that they have been charged and therefore haven't reported it.
The failure to act has meant that VET students have really suffered and that the whole sector has got a bad name, which is really disappointing—and enrolments continue to drop. I want to point out that it isn't every private provider that deliberately sets out to rip off taxpayers or students. We know that. We know there are quality providers, and they should be absolutely congratulated on what they do. Quality private providers have a really key role in vocational education.
I also want to talk about the specialist providers, some of whom still have students being excluded from eligibility for VET FEE-HELP loans. As an example, these are the private colleges that are teaching music, dance, acting or filmmaking. For example, they're providing professionally focused training, often using professional-standard equipment. They have small groups and a very large number of teachers to students. They certainly don't deserve to be tarnished by the same brush as many of the dodgy private providers. Their courses may not meet the criteria that are demanded from the more online delivery-focused courses on offer, but they provide a really vital role in skilling up our actors, dancers, musicians and filmmakers to tell Australian stories. I note the recognition that places where pilots study also fitted into this category, and that they were given an exemption. So I really think that we have to make sure we don't just brush all of them into the same category when they really have quite individual characteristics. But be in no doubt: any abuse of the system in place by any provider should be acted on fast. The vast majority of training should be delivered, we think, through the public system.
In contrast to the government's approach, Labor will ensure that at least two-thirds of all government funding for vocational education will go to the trusted public provider, TAFE. The balance will go to not-for-profit community and adult educators, and then only high-quality providers with demonstrated links to industry so that there is less opportunity for bad operators in the private sector to take advantage of students and to give the sector a bad name. We need a robust inquiry into vocational education in Australia, which Labor is committed to doing.
The Abbott-Turnbull governments have stripped $3 billion from vocational education since being elected. The vocational system has been damaged by privatisation, poor regulation and unhealthy competition. So, in our first 100 days of office, Labor will establish this inquiry into postsecondary education. Ensuring secure consumer protections for students will form a key part of our review. Foremost, the inquiry will build a postsecondary education system focused on ensuring sustainable, quality provision in the first place, with TAFE and universities at its centre.
When you think about the data on what has happened to TAFE and the VET system in the last five years, it is a sad tale, with $3 billion taken out of TAFE skills and training funding and a fall of more than 140,000 apprenticeships and traineeships—and still falling. In towns and regional centres across Australia, TAFE campuses have closed, courses have been scaled back, fees have increased and teachers have lost their jobs. There was a 30 per cent drop in government-funded training happening at TAFE just between 2013 and 2016. The numbers are damning.
There have been so few initiatives by this government that have helped TAFE or vocational training, but the one it has tried is the lamentable Skilling Australians Fund. This is the fund that depends on visas being issued to foreign workers in order to get money into it. If the number of visas goes down, so will the funding for much-needed skills development for Australians.
There is absolutely no commitment by this government to training young people or retraining older workers. Now, if we just think about the role that TAFE has, yes, we think about it for young people. They might not have thrived in a school environment, but once they can get their hands on something tangible—whether it is in Richmond TAFE, where they can get their hands on a horseshoe and they can be looking after the animals in the small-animals-care area, or it is being able to learn the skills to be a childcare worker, which involves interacting with young children, as opposed to the high school students that they have spent many years with; whatever it is that changes the dynamic for young people—TAFE seems to be able to offer a range of different experiences that can transform young people's lives. That's why it is such an important institution.
But it isn't just young workers. I have spoken to so many people who have said that they got their second chance from TAFE. They may have left school early, raised a family as a mum or a dad, had time out of the workforce or never really had a career that they were really inspired by, but they were able to go back to TAFE and try something new. The thing that really is telling is that it's not always the first course that someone tries at TAFE that they end up doing forever. But those small courses that give people some skills, even if it's just the confidence that they can actually do it and have the ability to complete a short course—it might be the only course they've ever completed in their life—are the sorts of things that we need to make sure TAFE can still do.
We also need to make sure that support is there for people who have disabilities for them to be able to expand their skills and their knowledge and really be workers who can contribute to society. For me, that's what's so important.
You can't do that if you don't have teachers who can be fully committed to TAFE. What has happened to teachers? I'm very fortunate: the Blue Mountains have more teachers per head of population than any other place in the country. Not only do we have schoolteachers in the public system, in the independent system and in the Catholic system; we also have TAFE teachers. Over the years, hearing the stories of how the system has let them down and how many of them have walked away from it has been really dispiriting and disheartening. Those who have stayed deserve an enormous thankyou from us. They have kept with the system, even though it has been crumbling around them, and they've been determined to make sure that students have not felt the pain of the disaster that has been happening.
There are many things that we need to do to rebuild TAFE, to take it back to what it was. In New South Wales, TAFE was considered one of the world-leading vocational education training systems. In the first 100 days of government Labor will establish its once-in-a generation review into post-school education, with TAFE and universities at its centre. Labor's commitment to TAFE is unequivocal. It is the backbone of our skills and training sector and is needed even more as people move through not just one or two careers in their lifetime but several careers.
Labor has guaranteed secure funding for skills and TAFE and has made a commitment that at least two-thirds of public funding will go to the TAFE network. Only Labor will guarantee secure and stable skills and training funding, by reversing the $637 million cut to the skills budget and investing $100 million into rebuilding TAFE. As I look around the campuses in my electorate, they're not crumbling but they haven't had a lot of updates to them. You can certainly see the opportunities to equip these teaching institutions with the tools people need to use in their professional working lives. We'll be doing that around the country.
The other thing that will really make a difference for apprentices and trainees is our commitment to ensuring that at least one in 10 jobs on Commonwealth funded projects is done by an apprentice. It is too easy to think that we can find already skilled workers from somewhere else. I have real fears that the international agreements we have signed, which free up and get rid of labour-market testing, will mean that we see even fewer apprentices and trainees being given that chance they need on big projects. We will ensure that at least one in 10 jobs is for an apprentice.
The difference is that without a plan for education—as those opposite don't have a plan—and without a plan for training you have no plan for the future. It's only Labor that has a very clear vision of where our future lies—in a skilled and educated group of people, flexible in their skills, who can adapt to the changes that we know are coming and we need to be ready for.
We on this side of the House love talking about education and training. It's in our DNA. We know that investing in education and training is money well spent. It's telling when you look at this side of the House and the number of speakers on this bill. In fairness, it is a fairly benign bill. We are lining up to talk about education and training and on the government side they've had, I think, one speaker. On this side, we know that investing in education and training is money well spent. Indeed, a study into Victoria's TAFE sector shows a $2.19 return for every dollar invested—not a bad return at all. Education and training is the single biggest enabler of social mobility, and education and training is a pathway to a brighter future. On this side of the House, we believe that pathway should remain open to all.
The only things that we believe should limit kids from a fantastic education or training are aptitude and effort—never their postcode and never their parents' pay packets. But we are happy to support this bill before the House today, as it does improve transparency in the area of student loan repayments. We are delighted to speak to this bill because it serves to remind us just how much work remains to be done to ensure that Australia has a world-class post-secondary education and training system. Little tweaks won't do. The issues confronting this vital sector are far bigger than that.
We would love it if the government adopted our policy to undertake a full review of the student loan system as part of a root-and-branch inquiry into post-secondary education and training. If the government—whether it's under the current Prime Minister or a new Prime Minister, in the days ahead—fails to take us up on that, if Labor is elected to government after the next election, within the first 100 days, Labor will initiate that review. We think a review into education and training in this country is so important that it needs a full review and inquiry. Let's find out where the problems are so we can get a fix that takes us into the future. And let's take the politics out of it. The future of our kids is far too important to be caught up in the sort of nonsense that bedevils this place this week.
A strong TAFE sector is essential as a part of education and training in Australia, not just for those who embark on its courses but for national prosperity. There is a feeling, I'll admit—I get this in my electorate sometimes—that Labor, over the last 15 or 20 years, has believed that every kid should go to uni. I have hit resistance on that idea. There are a lot of people who say their kids don't want to go to university, but they don't want their kids leaving school at 14 and going on the dole or kicking about in casual work either. People want a different pathway. And that's where TAFE and training comes in. There are many, many fantastic jobs and careers that people can get from doing a vocational course. It leads to good pay packets and long careers if they go to TAFE. But TAFE needs to be properly resourced.
As the member for Macquarie mentioned, TAFE has been neglected for far too long and teachers have been left hanging for far too long. I think it is fair to say there is a view that, if you are not at school, not at uni or not working in a good job, then you should be in a training course of some description. Back in the eighties, about 30 years ago—and I'm probably betraying my age here a bit—the Hawke government introduced HECS. I think the first name for it was the graduate tax. It later became HECS and now it is HELP. It was essentially a student contribution for education. It started out very modestly—it was very, very modest by today's standards—and it has ramped up over the years. The current government was hoping to increase it even more. But we have staunchly sought to prevent that, and I am pleased to say the Senate has agreed with us on that. The last thing this country needs is $100,000 degrees, because it just puts kids behind the eight ball from the get-go. So HECS, or HELP, has been a good program. It has made people contribute to their education. As we know, education is both a private benefit and a social benefit. And HELP, to date, has also included TAFE. This bill separates out VET-HELP and makes it very clear that that is what it is about—and it is the second order of priority after fees that go towards universities.
Across Australia, despite HELP and the effort to raise the value of education in Australia, 60 per cent of Australia's young people will not attend university. If the other 40 per cent were working or in training, that would not be a problem, that would be perfectly valid. But too many kids are falling through the gaps. So it is important that every Australian kid—in fact, every Australian, even adults—should be able to feel that they can get education that can improve their lives and, in turn, improve society. TAFE is one solution to this. A proper TAFE system, supported by a well-designed VET student loan system, is realistic and, for many Australians, it is a better alternative than university.
It is a great shame that we have seen a significant drop in apprenticeship numbers under this government. In Tasmania, the TAFE system saw over 3,000 students commence studying in a non-trade TAFE course in 2017. That has been good news. TAFE in Tasmania has been going through some problems in recent days. Hopefully, that is now on the mend. TAFE is a flexible learning environment with a breadth of courses providing students and potential students with the opportunity to build their skills across a wealth of areas. It does battle with a perception that the only people who would want to go to TAFE are those who couldn't get into university. That is a perception we need to address. TAFE is a valid option in and of itself; it is not just for people who didn't get into university. There are many, many careers that are valid careers, very good careers, that that you can get with a certificate from TAFE.
TAFE used to be an excellent training system. It's had its problems in recent years with, I think, underfunding and underresourcing. I'm delighted that, if Labor are elected to government, we will make TAFE central to education and training in Australia. We will make TAFE a central pillar once again. It'll take its rightful place as the central pillar. We've tried the private education model with training, and there are some good providers out there, but there are a lot of dodgy ones who've hit the wall and taken a lot of government money with them on the way out the door. It's a model that doesn't work, so I think it's right that TAFE has its place as the central pillar of training in Australia. There is a place for some private agencies and colleges, but they need to be much better regulated than they have been in the past.
TAFE has been battling with reduced attendance rates, campus closures, increased fees resulting in high withdrawals and a network of state and territory governments that have been failing to support their TAFE systems and failing to prioritise TAFE over the private RTOs. So it has been incumbent on this government—it has been failing the test—and it's certainly incumbent on the next government to ensure that there is a national approach to TAFE education in this country, regardless of whoever ends up leading this government. Australia has seen a fall of more than 140,000 apprenticeships and traineeships over the term of this government to date—that is absolutely scandalous. And there's been a 30 per cent drop in government funded training across our public TAFE system. At a time of supposed economic growth, it is absolutely scandalous that the apprenticeship and training system has been allowed to wither on the vine to this extent. The government has taken its eye off the ball, and, frankly, it's spending far too much time looking over its shoulder for the next knife in its back rather than looking to the future and educating our kids.
This bill does give us the opportunity to reflect upon what an Australian training system should look like. It could be world class, properly funded and able to accommodate the changing nature of the workforce, including the emergence of new jobs and career paths based on new technology and new industries. It also provides us with the opportunity to call out this government's manifest failures in education and training, for cutting more than $3 billion out of national TAFE skills and training budgets over the past five years. Why on earth would you cut more than $3 billion out of TAFE over five years when you've got, apparently, $17 billion to give to the banks? What a crazy set of priorities this government must have.
This government simply does not care about TAFE. All it cares about is business. It thinks it can approach education and training as a business model, but that's failed. This government is eroding TAFE's ability to provide training and vocational education. It has encouraged and supported profiteering, dishonest and corrupt private practices, while at the same time failing to invest the money and the time into building a contemporary best-practice, public, postsecondary training system.
Instead of futureproofing our workforce by preparing Australian vocational students with the skills they need for the rapidly transforming labour market, this government has demonstrated that it has no plans for Australia's future needs when it comes to jobs, skills, vocational education and TAFE. Australia needs a strong postsecondary vocational education system and network that provides opportunities for every Australian while also promoting economic growth and social and community progress and delivering educational training outcomes. We know the current system is not doing this. This government's history of mismanagement and budget-stripping will continue.
I appreciate the value that TAFE and vocational training offer our communities. As the member for a regional and rural electorate, I recognise that a large number of the people in my electorate of Lyons rely upon TAFE and vocational qualifications in their chosen industries. As of 2016, 6.8 per cent of people in Lyons who are engaged in education are going through vocational learning, including TAFE. It's a rate which is considerably higher than those who attend university. But that's where the good news ends. In September 2013 there were 1,947 people from Lyons studying or training through TAFE. In September 2017, just four years later, that number had fallen by 244 to 1,703. So, after four years, there had been a fall in the number of people studying or training. It's a drop of 13 per cent in my electorate alone. In Tasmania, over the same period, there's been an overall drop in numbers of almost 2,000 or 20 per cent overall—all this at a time when Tasmania and Lyons are crying out for skilled workers and people to train.
I'm pleased to say that, if elected to government, Labor will ensure that at least one in 10 jobs on Commonwealth funded projects will be done by an apprentice. It is a sad indictment on our country and this government that this has to be an election commitment. It should be a given. You would think that a government that cares about apprentices and young people would be saying to the firms it gives contracts to: 'Employ apprentices. Make sure you've got new skilled people coming through the system.' It hasn't been happening. Firms and companies have not been putting apprentices on. Labor will address that. We will make sure we get that job done. Labor know we need to be supporting local jobs and local training. It saddens me to think that providing apprenticeships on Commonwealth funded jobs has to be this sort of commitment.
My electorate and its businesses, families and communities recognise the value of TAFE. They see it as a stepping stone to success. They see it as a way to build practical skills for modern jobs, and they see it as a way to support our regions and our communities. TAFE and the broader vocational learning system have unfortunately not kept up with the needs of modern Australia's economy and society. Labor will address these issues. Labor will make TAFE central once again to vocational education and training in this country. We will do what this country needs. We will look after young people. We will look after apprentices and get the job done.
I rise to speak on the Education and Other Legislation Amendment (Vet Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018 and the Student Loans (Overseas Debtors Repayment Levy) Amendment Bill 2018. It's important that we reflect on the gulf that exists between both sides of the House when it comes to addressing the issue of not just vocational education and training but also education and higher education generally. This side of the House understands that investment in education, whether it's in early childhood education, primary school, secondary school, higher education or vocational education and training, is vitally important so as to put the Australian economy on its best footing for an uncertain future. Not only is it vitally important for the entire country, for economic reasons, but it's also the best way that we can assist young individuals in making the best fists of their futures by giving them the opportunity to do what best prepares them for that uncertain future. In particular, when we talk about the future of work, we know that there are occupations that do not exist now but may exist in the future that will come to dominate the requirements in education in little more than five to 10 years in the future.
Having an education system which prepares our students for an uncertain future, a future where highly skilled people are more likely to be able to cope with change, is vitally important. Of course, we can talk in the abstract about the importance of education but we also need to consider the machinery which underpins that abstract discussion. We are talking about the funding and the debts that are left for students to pay after they've completed any course of study.
The principal purpose of this particular piece of legislation is to separate VET student loan debts from other forms of Higher Education Loan Program debts, otherwise known as HELP debts, and to establish VET student loans as a separate income-contingent loan administered under the VET Student Loans Act 2016—that is, the VSL Act.
Currently, all debts are treated the same. A debt under the HELP scheme can arise from HECS-HELP, FEE-HELP, SA-HELP, OS-HELP, VET-FEE HELP or VET Student Loans. From 1 July 2019, individuals who incur a VET Student Loans debt will access a separate statement of account for the VET Student Loans debt. From 1 July 2020, individual notices of assessment will display VET Student Loans repayment details.
The amendments in this bill operate together with amendments in the Student Loans (Overseas Debtors Repayment Levy) Amendment Bill 2018, which provides measures to ensure that persons who have a VSL debt who reside overseas will continue to make payments in respect of those debts. Together, these bills are a timely reminder of all the work that needs to be done to ensure that we have that world-class, post-secondary education and training system that's necessary to give students the skills for the future—for that uncertain future that I spoke of previously.
We are constantly reminded that this Turnbull government doesn't care enough or have the capacity to do the hard work that needs to be done to build that better post-school system. Tweaking the current system such as it is will not deal with some of the profound systemic problems within the VET system, nor will it deal with inequities that have arisen as student loans have expanded and costs have been shifted onto young people. Indeed, if you look at the introduction of the original system of providing for students to bear responsibility for the payment of their university fees, that system has changed remarkably over many years and most recently has resulted in accelerated repayment at, I think, a disappointingly low income threshold.
Labor will not oppose this bill in the House. However, this bill does raise several matters which will benefit from closer scrutiny through the Senate inquiry process. In particular that process will need to reassess what to do with income-contingent loans. As it stands, this government is given cover on questions around whether it is doing enough to enable accurate reporting of the debt in the VET FEE-HELP system, including assessments of unserviceable and unfair debt due to the amassing of debt into a single HELP pool.
I'll digress for a moment: I serve on the Public Accounts and Audit Committee. There have been inquiries around the significant level of student loan debt. This should not be a party-partisan issue. It's in the interests of the nation to understand the extent of that debt, the extent to which it's recoverable and whether that debt is being incurred responsibly for an appropriate level of education.
There are currently eight different active income-contingent loan schemes, and I've made reference to those previously. Some of those schemes feed into a single HELP debt pool, but increasingly in recent years, for accounting purposes, we have been creating separate debt pots. These bills create yet another debt pot. This will be the fifth separate pot created, proliferating the accounting task, proliferating the legislative provisions, making the system more complicated generally and increasing the potential for error.
Obviously, when we examine the evidence that's been presented at various inquiries, the matching of data between the taxation system and the education system makes this very difficult, even in the most simple system. But, obviously, with all these different pots it does become more than complex. An inquiry by the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee received a handful of submissions that raised concerns by key stakeholders as to whether alternative means of improving transparency were available without the need for this legislative change. In their submission, the organisation Open Colleges, for example, suggested:
Retaining all forms of such lending under the HESA but focusing on improved data management within and between the systems to deliver disaggregation capabilities would achieve the objective without need for legislative change.
In plain language, what that really means is the fact that the data gateways between the tax office, for example, and the education system are currently broadly incompatible. They're actually not providing the data in a flow between the two organisations in both directions so that we can make policy decisions based upon the material that we're seeing in a live manner.
In their additional comments in the committee report, Labor senators noted:
… the government continues to fail to address the inequities that have grown as student loans have expanded, rent seeking—
which we've spoken about in this place previously—
has increased and educational costs have been shifted onto young people, including to apprentices and trainees.
I note that this is a particular concern, especially in the context of a Universities Australia report released recently which found that about one in seven students in 2017 regularly went without food and other necessities because they could not afford them.
The Abbott-Turnbull government has ripped more than $3 billion out of TAFE, skills and training funding over the past five years. That government has presided over a fall of more than 140,000 apprenticeships and traineeships. Nationally there was a 30 per cent drop in government funded training, whether occurring at TAFE or elsewhere, between 2013 and 2016. Since the Liberals came to power, there have been more than 443 fewer apprentices and trainees in my electorate of Bass.
This is in addition to the outrageous rorting of the VET FEE-HELP system that has occurred and been identified, where profiteering and dishonest private providers targeted students and saddled them with unfair debt. Evidence has been received by various inquiries as to the offer of free laptops, iPads and other incentives for very low-value training. As I said in my opening, it's in the interests of the broader economy and the community generally that we support good-quality vocational education and training but not low-quality vocational education and training.
In one particular case, a young lady had been self-funding trips to a provider campus in Queensland on the promise of graduating with a dual diploma in early childhood education and school-aged children's education. She was abruptly advised after 12 months of study that the provider was closing down, going into voluntary administration. With some intervention by my office and facilitation from the Australian Council for Private Education and Training, to whom I'm most grateful, this student was eventually able to get her qualification recognised.
But we know that there are thousands of students who've not been that fortunate. The government sat on its hands whilst corrupt for-profit training providers reeled in hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money.
Effective vocational education and skill formation is essential to our national economic and social prosperity. Despite its critical role in providing the conditions for prosperity, this government has not made the investments it should have made in vocational education and training. It has cut $3 billion from vocational education and apprenticeships, with additional cuts in the 2018-19 budget of $270 million over the forward estimates.
In contrast to this, in the first 100 days in government, should there be a Labor government elected, Labor will establish a once-in-a-generation commission of review into postschool education. It will examine and make recommendations about how our vocational and higher education systems address the country's economic and societal needs. The review will be inclusive and commence with an inquiry into the structure of the vocational education and training system, including curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, funding and quality assurance. Critically, it will examine the role of TAFE, which Labor has committed will be at the centre of Australia's future vocational education system. This inquiry will look at every aspect of the vocational and higher education systems to ensure that they can best respond to the needs of Australia's economy and society.
Labor have stated that we will place TAFE at the centre of our agenda for vocational education. TAFE has educated and trained millions of our citizens. It delivers critical education and training services to regional and rural Australia. Labor's commitment to TAFE is unequivocal. TAFE is the backbone of our skills and training sector and has been for generations. TAFE will play a vital role in our skill formation system. It sits at the forefront of the 21st century challenges. It is essential to Australia's future prospects and its domestic and international competitiveness. Labor has guaranteed secure funding for skills and TAFE and has made the commitment that at least two-thirds of public funding will go to the TAFE sector.
Only Labor will guarantee secure and stable skills and training funding, by reversing this Prime Minister's $637 million cut to the skills budget and investing $100 million into rebuilding TAFE. This investment will mean the re-establishment of TAFE facilities in regional communities that have lost campuses or course facilities. Investment in TAFE infrastructure will ensure that Australians have access to the best possible preparation for the rapidly changing world of work I referred to earlier. TAFE is the custodian of quality in our vocational education system. Skilled workers help the economy grow and make us all more prosperous. TAFE provides pathways for millions of Australians to fulfilling work and further study. Labor will reverse the decline of TAFE and make sure that quality vocational education is available in our suburbs and regions.
For generations, Australians have followed the trusted path into decent work through an apprenticeship. They provide young people with the opportunity to build prosperous working lives as well as retraining for experienced workers seeking to reskill throughout their careers. After all, that future of uncertain work means that people will be going back to retrain on multiple occasions throughout their careers. Labor will ensure, as the member for Lyons has said, that at least one in 10 jobs on Commonwealth funded projects is done by an apprentice. Labor will only fund projects where major contractors have an apprenticeship and training plan that links in with local TAFEs and provides skills to workers living locally. This is a challenge for our future. Our economic future depends upon investment in vocational education and training.
While Labor will not oppose these bills, I want to speak on them today because they remind all of us of the work to be done to build a more equal society. And that work is education. Other speakers have spoken on the technical matters. I want to use my time to talk about the human face of these changes. I want to talk about Tom, Christine and Maggie, because education is not just good for the individual; it's good for all of us. It's the outcome of education that matters: knowledge, skills, opportunities and control over your life. These are the words of Michael Marmot. He goes on to say, 'Education is not a bad proxy for empowerment.' He's right. In Australia the best start is a postschool education—an apprenticeship, a traineeship, a degree. My dad was an engineer, a builder and a TAFE teacher and the first in his family to go to university. He told all of us kids that education was a great elevator in life. He's right.
I'll start by sharing Tom's story. He wrote to me recently. Tom's from Berkeley Vale, in my electorate, on the coast. His story is the story of TAFE. Tom said he left school in 1963 at the age of 15 after completing the intermediate certificate. Unfortunately, he failed maths 1, which was required to obtain an apprenticeship in fitting and machining. Fortunately, at the time, he could do that through TAFE. He completed and passed it in 1964. This set him on his way. He was then able to be apprenticed in a five-year apprenticeship, of which four years of education were required at Sydney Technical College. Incidentally, that's where my dad taught engineering. It's now called TAFE.
After completing his fitting-and-machining course Tom went on to acquire additional qualifications. Then he enrolled in a mechanical engineering certificate through TAFE. He completed this course in four years, part-time. Because of this he gained employment as a detail draftsman. He then advanced to become a senior design draftsman. He also finished an electrical welding certificate through TAFE, at Gosford Technical College on the Central Coast, while employed as a senior technical officer, at Eraring Power Station, with the Electricity Commission of New South Wales.
Tom said, 'I gained entry into Newcastle university with a 15-unit standing in mechanical engineering. I completed four units of maths in addition to the 15-unit standing but did not complete the degree. However, I would not have gained entry to the degree without the qualifications gained through TAFE.'
Tom's now retired on a good superannuation pension and says he owes it all to the TAFE system. He was employed by several companies in his working life and he has never had any trouble getting a job. Tom says: 'I owe all of this to the TAFE system in New South Wales.' For Tom, TAFE was the pathway to a fitting-and-machining apprenticeship, to a mechanical engineering certificate and to an arc welding certificate. With the right skills and training, Tom had a successful career and is now secure in his retirement. We were talking to his wife today and were told that he won lawn bowls—so he is very happy today. That's the type of security in retirement that every person deserves. Tom has that because of his career through TAFE and the superannuation scheme introduced by Labor.
Why is this government denying so many young people the opportunities that gave people like Tom his start in life? Tweaking the current system won't deal with the systemic problems in the VET system, nor will it deal with the inequities that have grown as student loans have ballooned and costs have been shifted onto young people, including apprentices like Tom and trainees. These bills remind us that this government really doesn't care enough to do the heavy lifting that needs to be done to build a better postschool system in Australia. Vocational education and training matters. It's good for the individual like Tom and it's good for our society as a whole.
Vocational education and training matters, particularly in electorates like mine on the New South Wales Central Coast, where the number of people who leave school to take up a trade is higher than in other areas. According to the latest census data, 57.7 per cent of people living on the Central Coast with post-secondary qualifications have vocational educational qualifications compared to the national average of 46.1 per cent. But this is the pathway that is being systemically undermined by conservative governments at a federal and state level.
This government has ripped more than $3 billion out of TAFE skills and training over the past five years. Cutting funding to TAFE is not just mean; it's bad economic policy. This government has presided over a drop of more than 140,000 apprenticeships and traineeships, and we will see significant skills shortages in the future, particularly in regional and rural areas. In towns and regional centres across Australia, TAFE campuses have been closed, courses have been scaled back and fees have been increased, putting them out of reach of many students. Nationally, there was a 30 per cent drop in government funded training at TAFE between 2013 and 2016. The training regulator, ASQA, openly recognises that the training market has created a 'race to the bottom', with fast-turnaround, poor-quality training putting enormous pressure on quality education and training providers like TAFE. VET FEE-HELP encouraged rorting, where predatory providers targeted students and saddled them with debt.
I now want to talk about another student, Christine. Christine recently contacted my office. She's undertaking a certificate III in pathology through a private provider in Parramatta. Christine is retraining after having a family and had previously worked as a nurse in pathology. Most of the course was offered online, with some face-to-face classes in Newcastle, and Christine turned in her assignments in Parramatta. Christine needs to complete one week's placement with a pathology clinic to finish the course. This was scheduled for November last year. The provider initially said that they couldn't find a placement. When they finally found one at Warners Bay, Christine drove there only to find out it hadn't been finalised. She believes that the pathology clinics won't deal with the provider due to malpractice. Christine has paid $6,000 for the course and wants and needs to complete it. Worse, Christine originally wanted to undertake the course through TAFE but couldn't as 60 people were competing for only 25 places. This government has stood by while corrupt for-profit training providers, like Careers Australia, reeled in hundreds of millions of taxpayers' money and left students like Christine with large debts and no qualification.
With the lowering of the VET FEE-HELP repayment threshold this financial year, students may get a surprise when they're asked to repay debts for which they've received no qualification, in some cases for courses they did not even realise they were enrolled in. I'll now turn to Maggie, because this is exactly what happened to her. She is one of my constituents. Maggie and her family moved to the Central Coast two years ago and Maggie found herself looking for work. When this took longer than she originally expected she considered upskilling to help to boost her chance of being able to land a job on the coast. She was searching for jobs online and she entered her contact details in a pop-up advertisement for Careers Australia. Almost immediately she got a phone call and was encouraged to enrol in a diploma of business administration. She didn't realise at the time that providing personal information, including her tax file number, was an enrolment, nor was she advised of any course fees for this diploma of business administration. Shortly after this phone call, Maggie found a full-time job. She didn't undertake any coursework with Careers Australia, wasn't aware she had been enrolled in a course with Careers Australia and tells me it took three attempts to then withdraw from the course. When she lodged her tax return, she discovered she had a debt of $9,439 for a course that she didn't intend to enrol in and hadn't undertaken.
The government has to act now. They have to act urgently. How can somebody like Maggie end up with a $9,439 debt for a diploma in business administration that she didn't intend to enrol in and then only found out that she was enrolled in when she lodged a tax return? This is just dodgy and it must be properly looked in to.
The answer to this is a strong TAFE. TAFE is of national importance. This government should fund TAFE to prepare Australians with the skills for a rapidly changing labour market. Instead they've designed a training fund that relies exclusively on a levy for skilled migrant visas. Independent analysis has established that the design of the Turnbull government's Skilling Australians Fund is flawed. If the number of visas goes down, so will funding for much-needed skills. Not surprisingly, for 12 months the states and territories have steadfastly refused to sign up to the government's Skilling Australians Fund.
This government's mishandling has meant that, since July 2017, the Commonwealth has contributed no money to replace the lapsed National Partnership Agreement on Skills. The Prime Minister doesn't appear to have any answer on jobs, skills, vocational education or TAFE. Now more than ever we need a post-education-and-training system that works for every Australian, particularly young people in rural and remote Australia.
In its first 100 days a Labor government will establish a once-in-a-generation commission of review into post-school education. The sweeping inquiry will look into every aspect of vocational and higher education to make sure that we can get the best response to the needs of Australia's economy and society. We don't want to see more people like Maggie and Christine ripped off by dodgy RTOs.
Labor will place TAFE at the centre of vocational education. Labor believes in TAFE. It's the backbone of skills and training in Australia. Labor has guaranteed secure funding for skills and TAFE and has made the commitment that at least two-thirds of public funding will go to the TAFE network. Only Labor will guarantee secure and stable skills-and-training funding by reversing the government's $637 million cut to the skills budget and by investing $100 million in rebuilding TAFE. Under Labor at least one in 10 workers on Commonwealth-funded projects will be an apprentice. That will make a difference in regional communities like mine.
On the Central Coast of New South Wales today, the youth unemployment rate is 18.6 per cent—18.6 per cent in a regional area that's an hour and a half north of Sydney and an hour south of Newcastle, two of Australia's leading cities. Every time I visit a classroom—and I was a student in classrooms on the Central Coast—I think one in five of those students will potentially be on the end of a job queue. That's not about talent. That's not about effort. That's a structural problem that leads to inequality and that's something that must be fixed. It's something that must be first acknowledged by the government and then properly addressed. Tweaking around the margins isn't going to fundamentally transform the vocational education system, and that's what young people and older people in Australia so desperately need. This government doesn't have a plan for education and training, it doesn't have a plan for Australia's future and it is clear that the Prime Minister has no plan for the future other than trying to save his job.
I'll go back to my opening remarks. I think it's something that we all need to think about in an increasingly unequal world, in a world where there's a widening gap between those that have and those that don't. I speak as someone who worked in mental health for most of my life and saw the consequences of government's decision or indecision, government's action or inaction, and the very real impact it has on people's lives.
I think that's something that we need to look at. We need to look beyond the numbers. What we need to look at is the real human face of these decisions and the consequences and the impact that they have on people, particularly younger people in regional and rural communities across Australia. That is because we know that, if we really want to have a more equal society in Australia, the work that we must do is in education.
As I said at the outset, education is not just good for the individual; it's good for all of us, and it's the outcomes of education that matter. It's the knowledge, it's the skills, it's the opportunities and it's the control over your life that really matter. In Australia, every young person deserves the best start in life. In order to have that, we need to have a properly funded, properly regulated, postsecondary education sector.
I commend the previous speaker for highlighting the obvious: education is good for all of us. It gives us control. It gives us options. It gives us choice. It gives us opportunities. And I know because my sisters and I are living proof of the transformative powers of a quality public education and the transformative powers of a tertiary education.
Like so many Australians, like so many here in this chamber, I was the first in my family to go to university. It was the changes that the Whitlam government made in the seventies that allowed me that opportunity. When I first went to university, when I went to the Australian National University in the early eighties, my first degree was free. That was thanks to Whitlam, who opened up those opportunities for so many hundreds of thousands of Australians who were the first in their families to be educated. It was an amazing reform, one of the many amazing reforms of the Whitlam era and one that was truly transformative for our nation in positioning us for a modern future and in opening up opportunities to so many hundreds of thousands of Australians who were the first in their families to be educated, thanks to free tertiary education.
As I said, education is transformative. It's been transformative for me and my sisters. Those who know my story know that, as I said, I was the first in my family to be educated at university. And here I am now, thanks to the people of Canberra, enjoying the great honour and privilege of representing them here in this parliament. My middle sister is Australia's first Master of Wine and a world-renowned winemaker and was also a scientist in her former life. She was at the vanguard of AIDS research in this country during the 1980s. And then there is my baby sister, who is a world-renowned neurologist who is a specialist in stroke and dementia. So here we are. My incredible sisters have had all these opportunities, as have I, thanks to the education that we received, thanks to the tenacity of my mother, thanks to a quality public education and also thanks to the great work done by Gough Whitlam in opening up tertiary education to hundreds of thousands of Australians.
Thanks to that work, thanks to that tenacity and thanks to that opportunity, I and my sisters broke a three-generation cycle—an intergenerational cycle of disadvantage, an intergenerational cycle of poverty, an intergenerational cycle of lack of opportunity, lack of options and lack of choice. My great-grandmother was a single mother. My grandmother was a single mother. My great-grandmother brought up 13 children on her own. My grandmother brought up seven children on her own in a Housing Commission house in Melbourne. And my mother, also a single mum, brought us up because my dad left us when I was 11—and with $30 in the bank. It was tough. But education is the silver bullet. It is the great transformer.
Over the years, various federal governments have increased their reliance on income-contingent loans. They've made students pay more for tertiary education, and they've expanded loan programs into completely new domains. There have been close to a dozen different income-contingent loans. Assuming that VET FEE-HELP is still kicking around, there are currently eight different active schemes.
Essentially, the Education and Other Legislation Amendment (VET Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018 will separate VET student loan debts from other forms of debt taken under the Higher Education Loan Program, or HELP. The separation doesn't change the existing arrangement but prioritises the repayment of VET Student Loans over other loans, like the Student Start-up Loan and the Trade Support Loan. The new prioritisation framework lays the groundwork for courses to be specified as eligible for VET Student Loans by referring them to the national register of courses. This is a register of nationally recognised VET courses and training packages.
Labor has argued that it is time to reassess the architecture of our entire postsecondary education system. The measures in these bills are a timely reminder for us to reassess what we do with income-contingent loans. Labor's great reform of 1989—and the great reform of Whitlam in the 1970s—means HECS is now nearly 30 years old. That expanded higher education opportunities by helping to finance opportunities for people who, in general, would derive great benefits from university study. It did so without compromising the government's ability to direct resources to people who were less well-off—people who may be unemployed, people who may be aged, people who may have a disability or people who need health care. It's worth noting that, even today, 60 per cent of our young people will not go to university.
When I went through university in the eighties with my first degree, which was free, only five to 10 per cent of Australians were tertiary educated—and I was one of those. I must admit, I was opposed to the changes that were made by Labor—again, the great reforming Labor, particularly on education—in the eighties. I was the union president of the oldest workers college in the world, the RMIT. I was in the National Union of Students. My very first Labor conference was actually protesting against HECS out the front of Wrest Point down in Tasmania. There were probably many of us who marched. But, with age and with wisdom, we realised that the transformation that happened as a result of that HECS reform opened up the opportunity for so many to go to university.
When university was free, it opened up many opportunities—many were the first in their family to go—but it was still about five to 10 per cent. Once you got into the HECS era, it opened that up from that five to 10 per cent to about 30 or 40 per cent of Australians getting a tertiary degree, which is extraordinary. It was a great result, a great reform. As I said, I was opposed to it as a student politician and as head of the Labor Club down at RMIT and also head of the union. I protested with my NUS colleagues. But with age and wisdom, I now realise that this was a major reform that has delivered significant benefit and significant opportunity. The Whitlam reforms made that first step towards opening up opportunity for tertiary education. The Dawkins reforms broadened that even further to an even larger group of people who now had that opportunity.
These bills—unlike those significant reforms by Whitlam, unlike those significant reforms by Dawkins, unlike those significant reforms under the Hawke and Howard governments—just tweak the edges. It reminds us of all the work that needs to be done to ensure we have a world-class postsecondary education and training system. Tweaking the current system will not deal with the profound systemic problems in the VET system. It will not deal with the inequities that have grown as student loans have expanded and as costs have shifted onto young people, including apprentices and trainees. It reminds us that this government doesn't care enough or have the capacity to do the hard work that needs to be done to build a better postschool system.
The VET sector is an area of huge concern for Labor. We are concerned about insufficient funding of the VET sector. We're concerned about the history of VET providers profiting under the VET FEE-HELP. And we're incredibly concerned about the skills shortage crisis in Australia. Canberra has been hit hard by the Turnbull government. We are always hit hard by coalition governments. When John Howard was elected in 1996, we lost tens of thousands of people from Public Service jobs and from our beloved national capital. We had three seats then. We had three electorates here in Canberra for the federal parliament. As a result of the plummet in the population, thanks to the savage cuts by the Howard government, we were then reduced to two seats. We've only, finally, got the third seat back. I look forward to helping whoever should win the preselection for that third seat to contest that election for Labor. I'm looking forward to being there. I've been there since 1983 handing out how-to-vote cards for Labor and I look forward to doing it yet again in the next few years. We're always hit hard by coalition governments. We've seen cuts to our Public Service and cuts to our national institutions, and I remind you of our pathetic share of the national infrastructure spend in this year's budget, but that's another speech.
Vocational education has not escaped unharmed. We are in a serious skills shortage in Canberra. The number of trainees and apprentices in Australia has plummeted by 49 per cent since 2013. That's a massive 49 per cent drop in trainees and apprentices right here in the nation's capital. This statistic does not go unnoticed in my community. You don't have to walk too far from this building to speak with someone who has been charged an absolute fortune for calling a tradie on the weekend, if they've managed to get a tradie on the weekend. I know that it's not just the expense for people at home but it's also the challenge for businesses that want to grow and prosper. Businesses with new ideas and innovations just can't find the talent to be able to do that. So it's hampering business opportunity and it's hampering economic opportunity here in the ACT. We're short on bricklayers, early childhood teachers, hairdressers, locksmiths, mechanics and bankers. The list goes on and on and on. Local businesses just can't fill these positions, even though they are trying. Instead of investing in skills and vocational education to fix this disaster, the Turnbull government ripped away $270 million in the 2018 budget, and this was on top of the $1.5 billion commitment this government made in last year's budget which wasn't spent. I repeat: not a cent of the $1.5 billion commitment to apprenticeships and TAFE in the budget last year has been spent. What's the point of budgeting for it if you're not going to use it?
What's the impact of those cuts in vocational education? It's a sector that provides a great opportunity, particularly for people from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who don't necessarily see tertiary education as an option for them and want to go into a trade or a vocational career. It provides a great opportunity for those who want to have a pathway from school through to VET and then on to university but want to take their time, find themselves and work out the groove for themselves. This government, with its never-ending cuts, has denied access and opportunity to tertiary education as well as the opportunities and choice that are provided by vocational education.
My community is in dire need of skills based workers—not just a quick fix but a permanent solution. We need a strategic solution. We need a considered solution. We need a well-researched solution. Canberra needs a government that is committed to trades and vocational education and will give it the investment it needs. This is the government that is constantly preaching 'jobs and growth', but it has failed miserably in investing in the skills to ensure the jobs and growth, particularly in the skills for trades. As I said, we've had a 49 per cent drop in trades and apprentices in Canberra since 2013.
Effective vocational education and skills formation is essential to national economic and social prosperity. It's essential for the jobs that haven't even been created yet. I'm talking here about cybersecurity. We need 19,000 cybersecurity experts in this country right now. We're not going to be able to get that through a tertiary degree. We need them right now. I don't even want to think what it's going to look like in two or three years in terms of our skills shortage. It is vital that we amp up the vocational sector and that we amp up the opportunities that are provided by cert IIIs and cert IVs to build that skill base, and build it quickly. What is this government doing on that front?
As I said, my sisters and I are living proof of the powers of education, as are hundreds of thousands of Australians. We need to provide opportunities for all Australians. We need to address the significant skill shortage that this nation is facing—not just our national capital, but the whole nation. If we are going to grow, if we are going to prosper, if we are going to be able to compete in the future and if we are going to keep our nation secure and safe, and cybersecure and cybersafe, we have got to make the investment in vocational education and we have to make it now.
I thank those members who have spoken on the Education and Other Legislation Amendment (VET Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018 and the Student Loans (Overseas Debtors Repayment Levy) Amendment Bill 2018. The bills amend the VET Student Loans Act 2016, the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and other legislation to establish VET student loans as a separate income-contingent loan. The bills move the legislative basis for VET student loan debts from the Higher Education Support Act into the VET Student Loans Act. In effect, this provides greater transparency of repayment rates for VET student loans and more timely and accurate reporting on the fiscal sustainability of the VET Student Loans program.
The repayment thresholds, repayment rates and indexation with respect to VET student loan debts will be the same as the repayment thresholds, repayment rates and indexation for HELP loans. Persons residing overseas who have a VET student loan debt will be required to make repayments in respect of those debts as per current arrangements. The bills also enable better continuity and more flexibility in delivering approved courses. This is achieved by enabling the courses and loan caps determination to reference the national register of courses, the authoritative information source on nationally recognised VET courses, training packages and their status.
The Senate Scrutiny of Bills Committee, in its Scrutiny Digest No. 5 of 2018, requested more information on provisions in the VET student loan debt separation bill that apply an offence of absolute liability. In addition, there is a typographical error in the explanatory memorandum. To address the Scrutiny of Bills Committee's request and amend the typographical error, I table a correction and addendum to the explanatory memorandum.
I also wish to respond to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee's report on its inquiry into the bills. The committee recommends that the Senate pass the bills. I commend the committee's recommendation that supports better information for government and individuals through more timely, transparent and accurate reporting on the fiscal sustainability of the VET Student Loans program. I note that both the Labor senators' and the Greens senators' additional comments support the intent of the separation. However, Labor's comments also raise concerns with the VET sector more broadly and seek a large-scale review of the tertiary sector. I note that this is out of the scope of the bills. The Greens' comments indicate that the bills change repayment characteristics of VET student loan debts and question the repayment process. The bills, rather than make policy changes, ensure VET student loan repayment parameters align and are consistent with other HELP subprogram debtors, as is currently the case. I thank the various providers and peak bodies that made submissions to the inquiry and thank the committee for its endorsement of the bills. I also thank members for their contributions to this important debate about accurately reporting on the fiscal sustainability of the VET Student Loans program.
Finally, I intend to move parliamentary amendments to the Education and Other Legislation Amendment (VET Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill in the committee stage. The amendments delay the commencement of some items and provide for a renewable HELP balance, which also includes consequential amendments to the Higher Education Support Act and the VET Student Loans Act. These amendments are consistent with parliamentary amendments that were made to the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (Student Loan Sustainability) Bill 2018 prior to its passage on 14 August 2018. The parliamentary amendments to the Education and Other Legislation Amendment (VET Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018 also include minor technical amendments to ensure consistency between how VET student loan debts are calculated under the VET Student Loans Act, following the separation from HELP debts, and how HELP debts are calculated under the Higher Education Support Act. These additional amendments are minor in nature and relate to the rounding down of cents.
I commend the bills to the House.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.